As a HUGE animal lover, encountering animals on my travels has always been at the top of my list. My husband has learned that on every vacation we take, at least one of our trip excursions always centers around animals in some way. Animals bring me so much joy, and a chance to bond with them is something I never want to pass up.
I've had some pretty awesome experiences over the years: swimming with dolphins, swimming in the ocean with stingrays (days before Steve Irwin was killed by one), holding sea turtles, and holding baby alligators. In the moment, I was overjoyed by these experiences, never imagining that one day I would be utterly ashamed of my actions.
The more I have immersed myself into animal advocacy, the more I have come to regret my past with animals. I had good intentions, never imagining my behavior was harmful; I just wanted to love on them. But the more I've researched, the more I realized I was putting my own wants above what was best for the animals. Maybe this is your story too. This isn't a post about shaming anyone for their past with animal tourism, but rather educating ourselves so we can do better in the future.
Put simply, animal tourism exists for one main purpose: money. Exploiters of animals have become very creative with their terminology, calling their ventures "sanctuaries" or "orphanages" to trick tourists into thinking they are reputable places. This is most often not the case, and your money is often going towards the abuse and exploitation of wild animals.
(Here I am swimming with dolphins at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. I had no idea what I was really buying into)
This fact made me sick to my stomach after I began to do research. I had unwittingly contributed to the harm of the very animals I claimed to love and respect. The animals seemed happy and healthy, but I had failed to do my research, to ask the right questions. I can't change my past, but I can do better in the future and empower and encourage others to do the same. We can't help things we do in ignorance, but once we know the truth, how can we, in good conscience keep doing these harmful things?
Fast forward to this past December when I went on a trip to Montana. Dog sledding had always been on my bucket list, but now, wary of animal tourism, I knew I had to do my research to make sure it would be ethical of me to participate in this activity. I found Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures, and I found them to be very ethical in the treatment of their dogs. Some things that confirmed this for me:
They had great reviews from past sledders - there were no concerning reviews or pictures about the mistreatment of the dogs.
They were very open about their dogs and what they did to take care of them - they had shelter, they prevent breeding and spay and neuter their dogs, they rescued dogs from other racing kennels, taking in the dogs that couldn't handle the longer distances but had a love for racing, they also rescued many dogs.
Dogs are domesticated animals, needing humans to survive, so these animals are not being taken from their natural environment to be held captive.
When we got there, I was still a little apprehensive, but my fears were laid to rest when I saw how much these dogs LOVE TO RUN! They were so happy and affectionate, they had great relationships with their handlers, and they took their job seriously. They were having a blast racing through the snow; I think they had more fun than I did! After our trip, I stayed behind to ask one of the mushers point blank some questions I had about the dogs and their well-being, and he was very open and transparent with me and welcomed my questions.
He told me they let the dog's behavior decide if they run or not for the day, they never force them. The cold to them isn't the same as it is to us, they are built for it. They even had an 11 year old girl leading a team, and while I was concerned at first, she was barking and rearing the most to go, and they allowed her to live her joy while not pushing her to. It was a truly magical experience made better by knowing how happy the dogs were.
Thankfully, there are ways to enjoy an animal experience ethically. Safaris, done right, can be a great way to see animals in their natural habitat. There are a few reputable orphanages, out there, such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for orphaned elephants. These places allow you to ethically interact with the animals who are there due to an unwanted tragedy, and allow people to not contribute to the torture of phajaan or "the crush" practiced in Thailand to crush the animal's spirit to allow tourists to ride them.
I went on a whale watching tour in Alaska where we were not guaranteed to see any, but if we did, there were rules in place of how close we could get to protect the animals. We ended up seeing many whales, and some grumpy sea lions!
Some tips to avoid unethical animal encounters:
DO RESEARCH! Read reviews, reach out to the organization to ask questions, who is gaining from the activity?
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: are the animals there to be truly helped (orphans from poaching vs. babies bred at the center to be used for selfies and handling), would the animal behave like this in their natural environment (tigers are predators, and if they allow you to pet them, they are most likely drugged or forced into submission)
TRUST YOUR GUT: wild animals are meant to be just that - wild. Unless you're at a real sanctuary (with the intent of rehabbing and releasing animals back the wild) you should be wary of places that allow you to hold, feed, touch, swim with, ride, or bait animals- (even if they are in the wild, animals can become too used to humans if baited to come to the same area). If in doubt, sit it out.
DOMESTICATED ANIMALS - even domesticated animals are at risk for unethical tourism. Consider horse-drawn carriages where horses are at risk of being hit by a car, or collapsing from heat strokes in hot climates.
I hope this post has helped you to recognize the pitfalls of animal tourism, and what it can truly mean for animals. There are ways to enjoy God's creatures and help with their conservation, without causing them harm, we just have to educate ourselves and others. We are the ones who control the industry with our money. If we refuse to pay into organizations that don't treat their animals well, it will put a stop to animal exploitation. We can all speak up for those who can't speak for themselves.
Here are some more articles on ethical animal tourism if you'd like to educate yourself more or see lists of where to find some fun, ethical encounters:
Expedition Wildlife Article
Two Dusty Travelers Article
My Adventures Across the World Article
The Blonde Abroad Article
Do you have any suggestions for a fun, ethical animal encounter experience? Drop it in the comment section below!