Most people do not know that hands-on wildlife experiences are doing animals a major disservice, and so aren’t malicious in their intent when paying to be near wild beasts; they just jump at these rare chances to connect with nature.
Here’s the thing: the most humane wildlife experiences you can have will always be the ones in which animals are free to perform their natural behaviors in the wild. That doesn’t mean connecting with wild creatures isn’t possible, it just means that it needs to be done in an educated manner, which is why we’ve listed 8 of the most notable and egregious violations of wildlife tourism, and their ethical alternatives.
The problem: Centuries of exploitation have twisted our impression of elephants into entertainment, despite the fact that they are deeply emotional, intelligent creatures. These giant animals are tortured into carrying humans, performing tricks, and even posing for photos. Tourists are attracted to the exotic creatures, who are brutalized into performing these seemingly delightful tricks, ultimately leading miserable lives.
The alternative: There’s no doubt that getting up close and personal with such a majestic animal is a treasure, but it’s possible to form that connection without torturing elephants. Matador Network researched 3 reputable elephant sanctuaries that can even enable tourists to bathe the big creatures. Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is the most highly vetted facility and can ensure that no elephants suffer for the sake of a photo.
Selfies with tigers, walking with lions.
The problem: Tigers are vicious predators. They’re the world’s largest cat species and there’s a good reason they dominate the top of the food chain. Yet tourist attractions from Southeast Asia to Cabo San Lucas offer opportunities to pose and walk with the fierce creatures, and the only way they can get these otherwise ferocious animals to pose with tourists is to heavily drug them. Not to mention many of these animals are stolen from the wild, where their numbers remain very low.
The alternative: Look for big cats in the wild. Safaris in Africa and wildlife tours in India enable tourists to witness big cats in their native habitats, roaming free without the influence of humans looking to make a buck off of unaware tourists. Travel4Wildlife has tips on the best safari etiquette. Point is, touching a sedated, imprisoned predator doesn’t make you look like a badass; it makes you look like you got conned into paying to abuse an animal.
Swimming with pigs
The problem: Those adorable feral pigs that tourists can swim with in the Bahamas are destroying local ecosystems and displacing local wildlife. Yes, the pictures are cute. Yet pigs look like they’re smiling. But the more tourists are willing to pay to get pictures with piggies, the more incentivized locals are to encourage the growth of the feral pig population, further damaging the livelihood of other animals. And when the pig population gets too large, they’re killed. It’s like posing with the steer that is about to become your hamburger.
The alternative: Head to an animal-friendly farm sanctuary where tourists are free to interact with happy animals that don’t affect the surrounding ecosystem and do not ultimately end up as lunch.
The problem: Killer whales are huge, intelligent, and curious. Confining them to small pools to perform tricks for the masses is without a doubt, inhumane. In many cases some of the 55 currently captive orcas are mistreated, often dying years before they would naturally in the wild.
The alternative: Like many of the alternatives in this list, orcas are best experienced in their natural element. They live all over the world, from the sounds of British Colombia to the coral shores of Belize and beyond. There is a lot of information about where to spot them in the wild, and we encourage lovers of these great creatures to pursue travel opportunities that allow them to see orcas where they belong.
Releasing baby sea turtles
The problem: They really do make you think you’re doing a good thing by releasing baby sea turtles into the sea. But these poor babies are sick from being handled by germy human hands, hatchlings suffer from sun damage since they normally hatch at night, and the effort to accommodate tourists leads to overcrowding of turtle hatchlings. Another aspect of this is grabbing an adult turtle in the sea and holding onto it for a photo — this is extremely stressful for the animal.
The alternative: According to Cristina Brindley of Travel4Wildlife.com, “the most ethical sea turtle tourist attraction would be the one that either takes tourists to see natural laying and hatchlings, one where tourists can go and see recovering sea turtles like at the Sea Turtle Hospital in Florida, or the one where you can go on a sea turtle conservation vacation and your money is invested in the community.” Ultimately, as with all wild animals, a hands-off approach is the best approach.
Swimming with dolphins
The problem: Like orcas (which are actually the largest of the dolphins), bottlenose dolphins are held captive and made to perform activities with paying tourists. The dolphins kiss, laugh, and do tricks on command for delighted audiences, who continue on with their lives, leaving the imprisoned dolphins to suffer in tanks, only to be disturbed the following day by continual intrusions in their environment. Not worth the photo.
The alternative: Swim with belugas on their terms. In Churchill, famed for polar bear sightings, there exists a tourist attraction wherein guests can swim with belugas in the wild. The difference here is that people hang from the back of boats in the chilly Hudson Bay, and the belugas will come to them (or not). This gives the animals the ability to consent to human interaction, making the experience a fun one for all, instead of just for the humans.
Civet cat coffee
The problem: Civet Cats in Indonesia eat coffee cherries and then poop coffee beans, creating the very popular and very expensive kopi luwak coffee. The phenomenon has become a tourist attraction and an exceedingly cruel one at that. The civets are housed in battery cages, cramped and injured while forced to poop out expensive coffee. Not to mention the coffee itself is of questionable quality, healthwise.
The solution: First of all, stop buying kopi luwak. Second, don’t tour so-called civet cat coffee plantations. Civets are meant to roam in the wild, so the best way to enjoy them is to spot them there, happily eating food beyond the coffee cherries forced down their throats at coffee farms.
The problem: Overpopulated, cramped crocodile farms provide tours for people to look at the dinosaur-like creatures. What happens when tourists leave? The perfect predator is slaughtered for its meat and its skin, typically while fully alive and conscious.
The solution: There are many ways to see crocodilians humanely and in the wild that the idea of a crocodile farm even being profitable is unbelievable. Crocodile Encounter in Texas is a zoo-like facility that gets tourists close to the action, or anyone can venture into the Everglades in Florida to see alligators lounging about. Of course, there are plenty of tours there as well. Point is, if you want to see a big, toothy reptile, it’s extremely simple to find one that won’t later be slaughtered.
The list goes on and on. From dancing monkeys to kissing cobras and charming snakes, to people baiting polar bears with their own dogs so tourists can get a good photo, we as responsible travelers need to do a better job of ensuring that when we interact with wildlife we aren’t contributing to animal abuse. The best way to do this is to take a step back when faced with a wildlife attraction and consider the circumstances in which those animals live. Asks questions. Do research. And finally, ask yourself if what attracts you most about being able to get close to that animal is the picture that comes with it.