Animal encounters can often seem like a rite of vacation passage — as if each person on a trip simply has to climb on an elephant, pose with a tiger, or hold a monkey for their experience to be complete. But these popular attractions are, more often than not, inhumane and detrimental to animal welfare.
After volunteering at animal sanctuaries in Latvia, the United States, Thailand, Cyprus, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, and Kenya, I believe the issue is that people simply don’t know what is happening behind the scenes to make animal tourism possible.
It can be difficult to determine what you, an ordinary traveler, can do to ensure that animals are not harmed because of the experiences you are having. There are steps every traveler can take to make ethical decisions while on the road:
NO ANIMAL PHOTOGRAPHS
Under no circumstances should you pay to take pictures with animals. If you take a closer look, you will notice that most of these animals are very calm. Animals involved in tourism endeavors are routinely underfed and frequently malnourished, resulting in health problems and lethargy, symptoms that are beneficial to their owners since tourists won’t be harmed.
All feline animals undergo the declawing procedure, elephants are hit with bullhooks to be kept docile and submissive, birds have their wings broken to prevent them from flying away, and snakes have their venomous teeth surgically removed.
When you see a tourism attraction that includes animals like this, the best decision is to ignore it. The less popular that attraction becomes, the faster locals will find other ways to earn money and to leave animals alone.
ALWAYS READ REVIEWS
Before visiting any animal park, make sure to do your research. Google the park, search for it on Trip Advisor, and be prepared to find bad reviews. You should be looking for:
Reputable animal parks have set feeding times and would never allow animals to be fed outside of those hours to attract tourists.
Try to learn the story of the park and understand what its purpose is. Providing educational information about each species should be the main purpose of every park — it is better to visit rehabilitation centers and parks that exist to repopulate and protect species.
Pay attention to the type and number of animals in the park. If there are too many babies, but not enough parents, there is a likelihood that the park has no set breeding program and that adult animals can end up being sold.
Use the location tag on Instagram to find the most recent pictures of visitors. Remember that a trustworthy park would never allow riding, touching, or taking pictures with animals, so if you see photos like that, it is better to think twice about visiting.
Finally, research the park’s support. If there are organizations such as the Born Free Foundation, Peta, Four Paws, CAPS, Animal Aid, or others including words like conservation, environment, wildlife, or foundation in their title, then the place was approved by the world’s best environmental companies.
I still remember when my greatest dream in life was to see dolphins.
I looked for a tour that would allow me to see them in nature and, eventually, I traveled to Hawaii where, on one of the islands, dolphins rested in the bay after a night hunt. Everyone in my group was told to wait in the water for nearly an hour. I turned blue from the cold, my hopes of seeing a dorsal fin fading fast.
Suddenly, I heard clicking and splashing. Turning, I saw a dolphin approaching, then another, and suddenly, the whole school was in front of me, complete with cubs and adults. They were so close I could have touched them, but I didn’t want to — I was acutely aware they were still wild animals.
The moment was so powerful I cried into my mask. The unmistakable feeling of being part of their group was unforgettable. There were several other people with me, and no one even considered touching or disturbing the pod.
To me, that represents the future of animal tourism: humans respecting the wild animals we encounter.