Responsible Travel: An Easy Guide to Ethical Animal Tourism

Encounters with animals, particularly exotic animals, is considered bucket list adventure worthy for many travellers. Unfortunately, all too often, the need for a unique travel experience or that Instagram-worthy shot is put before animal welfare.

The sad reality is that, a lot of the time, tourism has a negative impact on animals and wildlife across the world. Whether it’s volunteering at fake conservation’ projects; having your picture taken with a tiger in Thailand, swimming with dolphins, or riding an elephant – tourism contributes to animal cruelty in many ways. One study by World Animal Protection found that 75% of wildlife tourist attractions are having a negative impact on wild animals.

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Many travellers who visit animal attractions or interact with wildlife have good intentions but don’t realize that they could be sustaining a cycle of poor animal welfare. The lack of awareness is alarming quite frankly. World Animal Protection states that 80% of travellers left positive reviews on TripAdvisor for venues that are having a negative impact on animal welfare. Unfortunately I see fellow Travel Advisors posting pictures of themselves engaged in unethical interactions with and promoting unethical animal attractions. Everyone can do better.

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In a nutshell: The goal of ethical animal tourism is to ensure the humane treatment of the animals above all else. The tourism aspect allows visitors to interact with or observe the animals, in order to increase awareness or funds for on-going conservation and protection. Unlike with zoos or circuses, the animals are not kept in small cages or made to do tricks. They are in as close to their natural habitat and community as possible. Visitors can observe or engage with them in safe ways that do not take away from the animal’s welfare.

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Here some tips to help you steer clear of activities and attractions that involve animal cruelty.

Here are a few things to look at:

1. Do your research

You can avoid being duped by false organisations that do more harm than good by doing your research. Responsible travellers know to be informed and make choices that help not harm wildlife.

  • Read reviews. What are your fellow travelers saying about their experience?
  • Look at photos, especially from guests. Does it look like the animals have enough space to roam? Do they have access to shade, food and water? Are cages, chains or other devices used to control and contain them?
  • What is the history of this organization? How long has it been around for? An organization with a long history has likely had to prove its ethical work.
  • How many animals do they care for? Places that are overcrowded aren’t giving the animals the space and care that they need.
  • What activities do they offer and what is the schedule like? Check to see if the activities seem unnatural (see below) or the schedule of activities seems too exhausting for the animals.

2. Don’t support hotels, bars or entertainment venues that display captive animals

Choose not to stay at a hotel or eat at a restaurant that displays captive animals or offers exotic animals on the menu. If you have already booked and then find out on arrival, let the management know your disapproval. If they get enough of these comments there is more chance of them stopping the practice.

3. Don’t support the use of animals as photographic props

Almost all of these animals have been taken as babies from the wild and those that grow too large to handle will ultimately be killed. Endangered animals like the Slow Loris suffer because of their cuteness. These small, wide eyed creatures are captured from the wild and are subjected to having their teeth cut off or pulled out so they cannot bite tourists. Unfortunately many die from infection following the procedure.

Taking these protected species from the wild is illegal in most countries. If you see them being used as photo props in the street please report it to the local police.

4. Humanised behaviour is a no go

As a rule, avoid any animal attraction where animals are trained to perform tasks that have humanised behaviours for example riding bikes, painting, playing soccer, etc. These unnatural behaviours involve substantially more training and can have serious animal welfare implications. Not sure if a behavior is natural or not? Just ask yourself, “Would this animal do this in the wild?”

5. Culture is not an excuse for cruelty

Even if an activity is considered part of a countries cultural heritage it doesn’t excuse animal cruelty. Avoid cockfighting, bullfighting, sharkfin soup, or any festivals or any occasions that involve animal cruelty.

6. Consider your own welfare

You’re in a foreign country where medical care may not be fantastic. Always keep in mind, especially if you want to be around large animals, the harm that they could potentially cause you. This is another big reason to do your research and only choose to visit well managed, ethical animal attractions where visitor safety is important.

7. Use a responsible and trusted tour operator

If you are using a tour operator for part or all of your trip then once again do your research! Ask questions about the kind of attractions they offer and see if they have signed up to any wildlife protection bodies. Responsible operators won’t offer activities that involve animal welfare issues like riding elephants.

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8. Make the most of responsible travel resources

There are a handful of great responsible travel resources that you can use to help identify ethical animal attractions and activities. Your Travel Advisor MAY be able to help. I say "may" because as I said above, I've seen agents promoting unethical animal attractions. Others like myself, ensure they would never promote or sell unethical animal encounters.

It's okay if you've made a mistake

You may be reading this and realizing that you’ve supported an unethical operation before or taken part in an unethical animal encounter. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about mistakes you’ve made on past trips. This is your opportunity to learn, educate others and make better choices on your next trip.

Doing it right

To engage in ethical animal tourism, your role should be observation of animals in their natural habitat with an experienced company that is working to further protect those animals. If you’re interacting with the wildlife directly, it should be in the most unobtrusive way possible that honors their natural behavior and life in the wild. Ultimately it comes down to respect.

The best ways to support ethical animal tourism are with your dollar and your voice. Patronize organizations that are ethical and cruelty-free and then spread the word. This is the best way to stop exploitative and unethical businesses from operating, and to support the amazing work that humane organizations are doing to protect animals.

Encountering wild animals can be the most memorable part of a vacation, and learning about their protection can be truly life changing. Just ensure you’re interacting and observing animals the right way.

If you are looking for other ways to make your travels more sustainable please download my free resource 10 WAYS TO TRAVEL SUSTAINABLY - GREEN TRAVEL TIPS