When I swiped right on Jon, 29, with the picture of him, decked out in a blue ‘Chang’ sleeveless top, grinning in front of an elephant, I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he was all for animal friendly tourism and hadn’t actually gotten on the animal.
‘Did you ride that elephant, Jon?’ I inquired, hoping the answer was no, and dreamy Jon had been volunteering at a rescued elephant sanctuary and there was still some hope for our future together despite his lack of fashion sense.
‘I did.’ Was his response. And just like that our future together disappeared.
‘Riding elephants is really bad.’ I responded, taking it upon myself to both educate and rescue all in one fell Tinder swoop.
‘Yes…yes it probably is’
And that, that is where the biggest problem lies. The indifference. Jon was indifferent to the cruelty his activity inflicted on the majestic beings he was shooting selfies with.
The undeniable draw to animal tourism is something every traveler inevitably encounters on their journey. So, knowing when it is o.k. to engage in animal tourism and when it’s an absolute no-go is vital to protecting both yourself and the animals who share this planet.
I recently wrote an article on the unfortunate situation of a group of donkeys who live in the small Spanish village of Mijas and are used as tourist ‘taxis’ – an example of not very animal friendly tourism. National Geographic recently published an extremely informative and disturbing article about ‘selfie tourism’ in the Amazon. Instagram has put in place a popup warning which will appear when users search for certain hashtags which may contain images which put animals in danger.
It’s an important time for wildlife and the ways that humans interact with them is ever evolving. Sometimes it’s easy to know when the animal is in distress and the activity needs to stop, sometimes that distinction between ethical animal tourism and not isn’t entirely clear.
Here are some things to look out for when considering taking part in different forms of animal tourism.
The first thing to think about when considering engaging in animal tourism is whether or not the animal involved is wild or domesticated.
The list of domesticated animals is not long and includes animals you’d expect: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and ferrets, most of the animals you might keep in your home. Along with typical farm animals: horses, sheep, cows, pigs, etc. and then some outliers; camels, llamas, alpacas, etc.
The list of wild animals is an extensive and exhaustive list which would perhaps take the rest of the day to get through, but use common sense and you can easily categorize animals into one of these two categories.
If you’ve determined that the animal involved is wild then the next step is to determine if the interaction you are going to have with it is natural.
For example, does it seem natural that a human might pet a lion cub? I’ll answer that one for you: NO. Any interaction with wild animals should be one of unobtrusive observation. Binoculars could be quite necessary.
If you have not studied some form of animal science and animal behavior you are not qualified to interact in close proximity with wild animals.Some examples of inappropriate animal interactions:
- Petting tigers
- Hugging sloths
- Taking selfies with anteaters
- Petting koalas
- Feeding lion cubs
- Riding elephants
When it comes to domesticated animals it’s quite a different situation, the most common interaction with a domesticated animal is either with a horse, a camel, or a donkey. As a tourist you will most likely be either in the saddle or in a carriage. Generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking part in these activities. In fact, I strongly encourage it, I think it can be a great way to experience an area, to connect with an animal, and I write about all the horseback riding I do around the world. But, the best intentions can sometimes lead to unwanted negative effects. So, be on the lookout for these signs of whether or not the animal you are about to use is in fact being abused:
- How does the animal look overall?
- Does he look tired?
- Does he look sick?
- Does he look healthy?
- Does he look too skinny?
- Is his hair fluffy and shiny?
- How is his current situation?
- Is he standing under the blazing hot sun?
- Is he standing in the pouring rain with no option of shelter?
- Does he have access to water?
- Does he have access to food?
- Look for tell-tale signs of neglect or even abuse.
- Are there a lot of scars, cuts or marks on the animal’s body?
- Is the harness or saddle rubbing enough to cause the animal to lose hair or have red, raw skin?
Does the animal generally look happy and well cared for or are red flags popping up? Don’t ignore the red flags.
A lot of the things to consider about an animal’s wellbeing are common sense. If you wouldn’t want to be in his situation than he doesn’t want to be there either. But in order to let yourself consider that, you must first remember that these animals are living, breathing souls. They are not taxis, they are not photo props, and they should not be treated as such.
As travelers it is our responsibility to respect that which we see, visit, and experience. We must not interfere with cultures, we must not destroy architecture, we must not be destructive to nature, and we must not exploit animals for sheer pleasure.
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