While I was in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, eating kottu (a traditional spicy stir-fry of shredded roti bread with vegetables and chicken), I noticed a scene outside the restaurant that I’ve witnessed many times before: tourists riding an elephant. I sighed in despair. That animal they were so happily riding was mostly likely abused – and they had no idea.
I get why they were on it. We all love seeing and playing with animals when we travel.
It’s why we go on safaris, visit zoos and tiger temples, and sign up for elephant rides, gorilla visits, lion walks, and everything in between.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to be that close to so many beautiful creatures? Animals are cute and (mostly) furry.
But I have some bad news: most animal-based tourism in the world is abusive and detrimental to the animals.
Animals are typically kept in horrible conditions and trained and managed by inexperienced staff. These aren’t scientific research centers you are visiting. The places you visit exist for your entertainment, not out of concern for the animal’s welfare.
Now, I’m no saint. I’ve ridden elephants, been to the tiger temple, visited Seaworld, and swam with dolphins in the past. I’ve been guilty of patronizing the same places I am now telling you to avoid.
But the more I am involved in the travel industry and learn about animal tourism, the more I’ve come to realize just how messed up, flawed, and abusive the practice is. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have never done those activities.
Unless you are someone like this guy, you probably don’t want to abuse nor be a party to any animal abuse.
You just want to play with animals.
But by visiting these institutions we do become party to the system and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
We don’t do it because we are mean, of course. It’s ignorance of conditions that keeps us from changing the system.
I know we all want to believe that the place we’ve chosen to visit is harmless. We’ve done some research, read some good reviews, and the staff said how kind and helpful they are to the animals.
But who would admit to animal abuse?
No one is going to say, “Yeah, we starve the elephants. Now come on in!”
Elephants are expensive to keep, and when saddled with debt, many trainers simply push the elephants to their limits in order to make as much money as possible. And, while the trainers may have their hearts in the right place, in many developing countries these aren’t trained staff — they are poor, underskilled workers who are just trying to make money to feed their family.
Look at the elephant who killed someone in Ko Samui. He was working in unbearable heat and shouldn’t have been carrying riders, but the trainer was a poor Burmese who was trying to feed his family. If you look at the trainers interviewed in The Cove or Blackfish, you see the same thing: trainers with good intentions but also a boss or corporation focused on profits instead of animal welfare.
Another example: For years, animal rights and environmental groups railed against the Tiger Temple in Thailand. Journalists reported abuses. Yet tourists didn’t believe the news and still flocked to the temple. “They’re monks. How could they hurt the tigers?”
Yet then, after outside pressure grew too great, the government raided the temple and — shocker! — found a host of abused and dead tigers, and evidence of illegal breeding and animal smuggling. But even though this tiger temple proved to be involved in the illegal animal trade, visits to other tiger temples haven’t stopped.
The truth is, there is a lot of animal abuse in the travel industry.
Bottom line: Elephant rides, tiger temples, lion walks, monkey shows, orangutan fights (yes, that really exists), dolphinariums, Seaworld, circuses…..anything where the animal is there exclusively for your entertainment — avoid!
Consider the smell test for any animal exhibit: if it seems like this shouldn’t exist or you find it weird that such a large animal would be so docile, something is probably not right and you shouldn’t be supporting such practices with your money.
Yet we can still get that memorable moment with an animal while making sure we are doing good.
Take elephant riding in Thailand. It’s been popular for decades and is still a big draw for tourists, but places like Elephant Nature Park are changing the system by providing a sanctuary for abused elephants, promoting education for visitors, and allowing tourists to experience the elephants in an unharmful way.
And, seeing how much money Elephant Nature Park is making, other training parks are slowly beginning to change how they do things, working with Elephant Nature Park to adopt less harmful practices. There are now parks in Phuket, Cambodia, and Surin.
That’s not to say this change is widespread, but since it’s money that perpetuates the system, the more people vote with their dollars, the more animal parks will change their policies. Elephant Nature Park wouldn’t exist without tourists visiting, and other parks wouldn’t be taking notice if it weren’t for the popularity of their practices.
It is important we do our due diligence and vote with our dollars to support organizations that are doing right by animals. If we stand together and say “we want something else,” we can make it happen. The tiger temple was finally shut down, Seaworld has agreed to stop its captive breeding program, and places like Elephant Nature Park are proliferating. These changes have come about because of public outcry and changed consumer behavior that affects what business’ care most about: their bottom line.
It’s about education. If we as travelers learn about these conditions beforehand, if we talk about them more, we can make a change. Thankfully, there are a number of online resources and groups out there that can help you find ethical animal experiences:
- Conserving Wildlife Through Responsible Tourism: An Interview With Dr. Michael Hutchins
- Is walking with lions good conservation? Probably not.
- Save Elephant
I know you want to see or commune with some animals when you travel and there’s nothing wrong with that – let’s just do it in a responsible way. Let’s create positive animal experiences that reward conservation and education, not exploitation.
After all, don’t you want to come back one day and share with your friends or family the beautiful experience you had? The best way to pass the experience on is to ensure that the animals survive and thrive.
Matt’s Note: Good news! Tripadvisor announced they were removing animal attractions from their website! Amazing week for animals! You can read the story here!