Animal Friendly Tourism

by Caitlin
horse being led through an arch

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.

instagram protect wildlife pop up alert

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

camel in red halter with mouth open

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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Ash March 12, 2018 - 12:21 pm

I agree with you that we should not use animals for our sheer pleasure. Unfortunately, I have seen videos of cruelties inflicted to animals in many places especially tourist destinations for the sake of entertaining visitors. These are unacceptable way of making profits at the expense of those poor animals. As travellers, we should be aware and not patronise these form of “entertainments.”

Caitlin March 13, 2018 - 2:06 am

You are absolutely right Ash, it is heartbreaking to see. And it is sad to see what people, from all across the world, will do to an animal in the name of a dollar, or a selfie 🙁

Anda March 12, 2018 - 7:36 pm

I’ll have to disagree with you on some of these. I am a big animal lover and I am totally against animal cruelty of all kind. However, I don’t think that riding elephants, petting tigers and taking selfies with anteaters can be categorized under “animal abuse.” I would dare say these are the least harmful things that humans do to animals. I wish the abuse would stop at that, but unfortunately it doesn’t. I would worry more about the serious harm that is being done to animals in some parts of the world than about some of the things you mention here.

Caitlin March 13, 2018 - 2:04 am

Hey Anda, Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and thank you for taking the time to have a read! You are absolutely right, there are many, many examples of worse abuse than that which elephants or tigers suffer in the name of tourism. However, just as the fact that there are children being sold into sex slavery in some parts of the world doesn’t make it o.k. that a child in a different part of the world is merely being punched on occasion, the worser animal abuse does not negate the fact that the lesser is still abuse. Additionally, do you know that elephants used for tourist rides are often pulled from the wild at any extremely young age? They are then beaten and kept in chains until their spirit and body are so broken they submit. And did you know that a sloth sleeps up to 20 hours per day? And that being used in the tourist trade for the sake of a selfie very often leads to premature death due to the unnecessary stress inflicted on the animal? The sloths too are pulled from the wild. As an animal lover I’m sure you can recognize that these acts are nothing short of abuse.

Bob Bales March 12, 2018 - 8:56 pm

I don’t think it is ever right to be cruel to animals but I also have a problem with western tourists trying to tell people of other countries how they should treat their animals. In some case these animals have been used for work for centuries. In Hannibals time Elephants were used as war animals. n many Asian countries elephants are used by regular people as work animals and I think it is a little naive for people to jump on a cause and tell those people they are wrong. If you don’t want to ride elephants, swim with dolphins or sharks, pet a koala or anything else then don’t but not all these animals are abused.

Caitlin March 13, 2018 - 1:56 am

Hey Bob, Thanks so much for stopping by my page! Im curious to know if you actually read this post? It appears, based on your comment here, that you may not have gone post the title. This post (as with my blog in its entirety – I’m certainly not telling indigenous people from Asia what they ought to be doing in Quebec City) is in fact directed towards western tourists and is intended to inform them of how to differentiate between animals involved in the tourist trade who are treated poorly and those who are not. Unfortunately many people are not intimately familiar with animals and don’t know how to detect the signs. I never once (in the post or otherwise) suggested that a culture that utilizes animals for work should stop. However, you might also remember that Hannibal’s times were nearly 2,000 years ago and more recently than that ‘western’ cultures were using and abusing horses in the name of warfare. In fact, ‘western’ cultures still use and abuse many, many animal species in the name of entrainment. There is no right or wrong culture here and I am not informing directing other cultures how they ought to behave. I am however, helping tourists understand what suffering an animal has to go through in the name of their entertainment.

Bob Bales March 13, 2018 - 3:14 am

I actually did read the post. I am just constantly amazed by people who want to teach others about how people use animals. While some elephant rides abuse the animals some do not. They locals that offer rides very often have little other means of income and they treat their animals well to include the way they are trained since the injury, illness or loss of an animal hurts their business. I understand the outrage. But usually the outrage if from people that read a story, saw a shocking video and without any other information take it upon themselves to “educate”.

Caitlin March 13, 2018 - 4:19 pm

You are absolutely right Bob, I do plan to continue working to educate people on how others use and abuse animals because, sadly, many people do not have the education or background to understand animals in the way that I have been lucky enough to.

I would love to find out about elephant rides, anywhere in the world, where the animals are trained violence free, do you have some insight into which organizations have developed this method?

It is very true that locals may not have other means to make money, but that does not mean that, as a tourist, you must choose to support the abuse of animals when there are plentiful other options of ways to make sure your money is going into the pockets of locals without the exploitation of animals. Also, the cultures where animals truly are vital to the peoples way of life very often do NOT abuse their animals.

Perhaps there are people out there who are outraged from a video, and hell they should be, but I can promise you I have plenty of first hadn’t knowledge about the topics which I speak on.

I do hope that there will come a day that the entirety of the human species will prioritize kind treatment of all sentient beings over a quick buck, and if I can be just one person to help others understand which is more important than I will be.

Marvi March 13, 2018 - 3:29 am

Very insightful post! Honestly, I’ve had that ‘indifference’ like Jon before I started travel blogging. I’ve also enjoyed zoos and photo ops with wild animals (though a few select only as I’m a coward and is scared of touching them. LOL) Looking back I realised it’s not OK at all and should be stopped. This is such a great post to share to people to let them know how to read the signs if the animals are being mistreated or if they are unhealthy. Sharing this to spread awareness.!

Caitlin March 13, 2018 - 4:12 pm

Thanks for your comment and for sharing and spreading awareness, Marvi! I do think there’s a difference between indifference and lack of knowledge. It sounds like you may not have known the issues in the past (I’ve also been guilty in my history of participating in these activities before really understanding what was going on) which is why I wrote this to try and help others from avoiding our mistake!

Ami Bhat March 14, 2018 - 2:58 am

Nicely captured. However there are certain Grey areas on what constitutes animal abuse. Petting certain animals may be one of them. Having said that there are some very valid points made by you on what to consider when using an animal. All in all, like you said, remember they are living creatures and if it hurts you, it will hurt them

Caitlin March 14, 2018 - 3:07 am

Thank you very much Ami, for your thoughtful comment. I absolutely agree there is a lot of grey area when it comes to this but I think it’s great for people who don’t know anything about animals to at least start by educating themselves on the basics, if nothing it’s a step in the right direction.

Sandy N Vyjay March 14, 2018 - 5:10 am

Animal tourism is indeed a scourge that plagues the world, some parts less and some more. As travelers and travel bloggers it is our duty not only to create awareness but also lead by example. It is really commendable of you to really stand by your beliefs. But there is indeed a thin line between what can be done and what cannot be. For example I always wonder if riding Elephants and camels is not ok, then what about horses. Don’t they feel the same pain as any other animal or for that matter humans? I understand that in the march of human evolution animals were domesticated, but when we have advanced technologically is there not a way where we leave the animals free.

Caitlin March 14, 2018 - 5:00 pm

Thank you for your comments, support, and engaging dialogue, Sandy! There is definitely a conversation to be had about horses and camels (they fall into the same group here) but there are few very important distinctions to be made. First of all, the bone structure of elephants is such that their spinal bones protrude upwards, they have been designed and evolved to hold the weight which is carried beneath their spines (that’s the weight of their actual bodies) rather than above it. Horses, camels, donkeys, and the like on the other hand do not have these protrusions and their anatomy makes them able to carry a load placed on their back without severe pain each and every time. In addition to this the nature of the different species makes the training process different. I have spent years training horses and there NEVER has to be violence whereas I have yet to hear of a method to train elephants which doesn’t involve violence and abuse in order to break their spirits and make them docile enough. Think of it similarly to the difference between cats and dogs, they simply have different brains and can be approached in different manners, domestication and evolution also has something to do with their complacency. There are of course issues you could bring up with horses and the others being used for the benefit of humans, however it is important to remember that they are not abused (generally speaking) in order for the riding to happen, and it does not (generally speaking) cause them daily pain.

Alli March 14, 2018 - 2:29 pm

Thanks for your efforts working to educate people on animal exploitation while traveling. When I was in Luang Prabang, I rode an elephant. While the elephant certainly looked healthy and well cared for, I can’t deny that questionable methods may have been used on that elephant up until that point. This was several years ago now, and that day with the elephants was so amazing for me, because I love elephants so, so much. My excitement to be around the elephants kind of put blinders on me – and I know that is irresponsible. But knowing what I know now after these past several years, I would never choose to ride an elephant again. I would 100% choose to do things at an elephant sanctuary that do not involve rides. I wish I knew then what I know now, but I am glad that I have learned from the experience, and will ensure the next time be so much more beneficial for the elephant.

Caitlin March 14, 2018 - 5:03 pm

Hi Alli, Thank you for your support and thoughtful comment! My example of Jon was to address this exact point. There are many, many people who don’t know the issues which are involved in riding elephants and that is not their fault. It is the people who know and still engage in the activity regardless of the harm it does that are the problem. I’m so glad to hear you have since learned the pain the elephants are in and would choose a sanctuary the next time, please don’t feel guilty for the ride you did take, instead know that the animals you love so much should be treated with respect and work to spread the knowledge of what that means! Thank you!

Alli Blair March 15, 2018 - 3:14 pm

My pleasure. The past couple years whenever I come across a post like this one reminding the world of what takes place and how to practice ethical animal tourism, I can’t help but feel that pang of guilt. I adore these creatures, and would never want to do anything to harm them. Maybe I should write a post about these thoughts??

Caitlin March 17, 2018 - 3:22 am

I think you should Alli! I believe it’s great for readers to see that we (as the perfectly glamorous bloggers…) have also made these mistakes and that they shouldn’t feel guilty but rather learn how they can be better in the future. Let me know if you do write it, I’d love to have a read!

Alli Blair August 15, 2018 - 3:50 pm

Hey Caitlin – I just published that post about the elephants! Here is the link. I would love to hear what you think 🙂

Caitlin August 21, 2018 - 2:55 pm

Read. Loved. Commented.

Archana Singh March 15, 2018 - 2:14 am

i have to say I loved your post. I am against animal abuse and I really love the fact when people like you spread the message. Thanks for sharing the Jon story. I would have done the same.

Caitlin March 17, 2018 - 3:18 am

Thank you so much Archana! Yes, if nothing I am a Tinder warrior 😀

Samantha Sparrow March 15, 2018 - 5:51 am

This is an interesting and thoughtful post. I have never taken part in any of the activities you’ve outlined, and as a traveler I always work hard to ensure I leave no mark on the planet and then includes with animal encounters. I think we have to educate both our peers, but also the next generation to be seriously conscious. Sure that selfie on the elephant might look cool for a minute, but you’ll feel like an idiot later on!

Caitlin March 17, 2018 - 3:20 am

Thank you very much Samantha, I appreciate your comment! It is so vital as travelers that we do not leave anything behind that could negatively affect the places we visit. You’re absolutely right, the next generation is the most important when it comes to education.

Jennifer Melroy March 16, 2018 - 11:57 pm

I am for ethical treatment of animals. I refused to have anything to do with horses in Egypt. They all looked malnourished and sickly. I always check the animals for their health. If they look sick I am not messing with them. I do think people need to not feed wildlife. Which is a huge problem around the world.

Caitlin March 17, 2018 - 3:23 am

It is heartbreaking to see them in that condition isn’t it? You’re absolutely right about the wildlife, that is a massive problem for so many species in so many places. Perhaps another post to be written!


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