Travelling is an enriching experience. Not a day goes by on the road where you aren’t exposed to the idiosyncrasies of new cultures, new smells, flavours and wildlife. Every bend in the road is a possibility for a new photo op and new memories to treasure forever. However, the demand for selfies, photo ops and new experiences has taken an insidious turn into exploitation masquerading as wildlife tourism. For the innocent traveller who is perhaps unaware of the unspeakable cruelty behind the scenes, the possibility of a tiger experience sounds thrilling and why wouldn’t it? Getting up close and personal with a tiger and living to tell the tale sounds, in theory, positively exciting! But in reality, the process of creating a tourist attraction out of an animal is systematically cruel. You can be sure that exploiters are not concerning themselves with its welfare when its presence is commodified for the benefit of the tourist experience.
Many of these wildlife attractions masquerade as “sanctuaries”, and the singer Katy Perry recently found herself at the centre of controversy when she posted (now deleted) photos of herself cuddling lion and jaguar cubs on Instagram at the Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation in Mexico. Dubbed a “pseudo sanctuary” by World Animal Protection, the foundation has been criticised for its treatment of animals it apparently rescues. Katy Perry may not have been aware of the cruelty inflicted, but, where the welfare of the animals, babies or adults, is being sidelined for the purpose of cuddles and selfies it becomes exploitation. There’s not a moment’s thought about whether the poor creature may be frightened, hungry, exhausted or just plain fed up with being squeezed daily by strangers.
That being said, here are just some of what World Animal Protection have named the cruellest animal attractions in tourism. Knowing them is the first step towards putting an end to this cruelty.
#1 Big Cat experience
If you’re unaware of the abuse being carried out behind the scenes, the possibility of a photo op with a real-life big cat seems like a dream come true. Of course, the veneer of the awe-inspiring experience of cuddling a lion, jaguar or tiger cub is painted by those who capitalise from it and if every tourist knew the extent of the horrors these poor creatures are subjected to this business trend would crumble. These cubs are torn away from their mothers prematurely. They’re malnourished, chained up and drugged to make them compliant and docile enough to endure endless hours of being fondled and squeezed by excitable tourists. As adults, they suffer a similar fate except this time they’re caged, forced to breed more cuddly cubs, beaten with sticks as part of a ‘walk with big cats’ experience, or euthanised and sold for their pelts. Despite heavy criticism, these big cat experiences have sadly only grown in popularity worldwide.
#2 Elephant rides
I have to confess that growing up I did think riding elephants sounded like a fun thing to do. It seemed harmless until I found out the ugly secret behind such an attraction. In order to turn the elephant into a ride, the calf has to have its spirit broken. Elephants are extremely sentient and emotional creatures with strong familial bonds. To break its spirit the calf is subjected to unspeakable torture by being separated from its mother, chained up, whipped, shoved into tight corners and dehydrated. Desperate and alone, the calf learns to obey its handlers in fear of a painful retribution. They then spend the rest of their shortened lives in a monotonised stupor carrying tourists on their back. Worse still for these incredibly sociable animals, they are prevented from forming natural relationships with other elephants which causes further psychological damage.
#3 Holding sea turtles
As you can probably tell, there is a correlation between cruelty and holding animals as a tourist attraction. The first issue here is that turtles belong in the sea. It is completely unnatural for them to be held in any way shape or form (unless it’s critical to a rescue operation). Such an ordeal causes these timid creatures to panic and flap their flippers in distress. High stress levels weaken their immune system making them more susceptible to disease and illness. In addition, the frantic movements of these turtles have caused fractures and detached claws. Tourists have been known to drop these poor creatures if they struggle too much resulting in irreversibly damaged shells and fatalities. Considering only 1% of all wild turtle hatchlings make it to adulthood the last thing anyone should be doing is reinforcing that low percentage for no coherent reason whatsoever.
#4 Performing dolphins
In the wild, dolphins roam great expanses of the ocean. But, if they are captured and survive, they are forced to spend their lives in a fraction of what they’re naturally used to. The pools are chlorinated which causes skin and eye irritation. Unable to escape from the elements, they often get sunburn and like turtles, stress has a huge impact on the dolphin’s immune system. I can’t mention captive dolphins without discussing orcas. If you haven’t watched the documentary Blackfish, then I strongly recommend you do so as it reveals the plight of the orcas at SeaWorld Orlando. Like dolphins, orcas are kept in tiny pools. They have a huge emotional complexity and life in captivity, as with dolphins, causes these creatures to develop mental illnesses. Thankfully, after widespread campaigning, SeaWorld Orlando has put an end to orca breeding in captivity which means that the current generation will be the last to experience this cruelty.
#5 Crocodile farms
To put it bluntly, crocodile farms are slaughterhouses tourists can visit. It may seem like a dramatic statement but these farms breed crocodiles for their skins and meat. Tourists are invited to see them alive and then sit down for a meal and enjoy them dead on a plate afterwards. The gift shops are filled with crocodile paraphernalia from their bones to their scales. It sounds like something from a nightmare, and for the crocodiles, it is certainly a hellish ordeal. Their enclosures are often cramped and overcrowded causing injury and death from bites and septicaemia. Since food and water are scarce, many crocodiles end up fighting to the death or ripping each other’s tales and legs off. From start to finish, these animals are commodified without dignity and without respite even in death.
It seems impossible to weed out the genuinely good establishments from the bad when, as World Animal Protection puts, these “pseudo sanctuaries” exist. Such establishments feed off the language we associate with charity. It could never occur to us that a sanctuary could become something other than a safe place, and why would it? The alternative is paradoxical. Pseudo sanctuaries capitalise on the tourist’s gratification from what they believe to be a charitable cause. The result is a double betrayal to the animal and the tourist alike. However, not all wildlife tourism is inherently bad. There are sanctuaries that exist for the sole purpose of protecting the animal. But It requires a lot of careful research to find them. The key is to observe how they allow visitors to interact with the animal. If the animal can display its natural behaviours and the tourists are permitted to watch at a respectful distance, then you can be sure that the sanctuary is genuine.
Thanks for reading,
If you enjoyed reading this then you might like Why I want to be a responsible traveller.