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Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Animal Tourism?

AFAR logo AFAR 5/25/2022 Lenora Todaro

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I’ll never forget the first time I saw a bull hook. In the late ’90s, I visited the Big Apple Circus in New York City. Performers and crew members preparing for the night’s show raced around in an atmosphere that smelled of caramelizing cotton candy, hot peanuts, and animal manure. I was standing near a staging area when I saw a young girl wearing a sparkly costume and walking with an elephant. She held a stout pole with a metal hook at its end and I asked her what it was for. She raised her arm, made a fierce face, and said, “To hit them when they don’t obey.” My face flushed with shame—I considered myself an animal lover. Yet I hadn’t known the elephants suffered for my entertainment. I felt foolish and sad. And I vowed to learn more.

The image haunted me for years afterward, and with good reason. We now know much more about animal sentience thanks to scientists like primatologist Jane Goodall, who demonstrated that chimpanzees have complex social lives with families, friends, and enemies, as well as the capacity to use tools. Today, we know this about many more animals as well, from elephants to dolphins to ravens. As Goodall sat quietly in the chimpanzees’ forest habitat in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park and observed them, she understood she was making a connection with them. She also understood that when humans form a meaningful connection with an animal—whether with a chimpanzee or a pet dog—we often come to the conclusion that we’re not the only ones on the planet with unique personalities and complex emotions. 

The tension between our desire to connect with wildlife and their right to, well, just be animals, has always been a source of discomfort, and sadly, makes the creatures we so desperately want to interact with suffer. Is it possible to have it both ways—to honor our yearning and the animals’ welfare too? That’s where ethical tourism comes in.

Infinitely cute, baby sloths are often snatched from their mothers in the wild and are subject to claw and mouth mutilation by poachers, rendering them unable to fight back. © Photo by Sue Sharp Infinitely cute, baby sloths are often snatched from their mothers in the wild and are subject to claw and mouth mutilation by poachers, rendering them unable to fight back.

The nature of the beast

When we buy a ticket at an animal attraction, we indulge the fantasy that, say, a dolphin is happy to swim with us or that a baby sloth needs our hugs. But there are many things happening behind the scenes that we don’t see. For example, dolphins are actually incapable of smiling and their seemingly sunny expressions are simply a quirk of their anatomy. And, unfortunately, those baby sloths at the tourist trap have likely been snatched from their mothers by poachers and have a high likelihood of dying after just a few weeks in captivity without ever having a real shot at returning to the wild.

World Animal Protection, a London-based nonprofit animal rights organization, believes that at least 550,000 wild animals are suffering in unethical tourist attractions globally and around 110 million people visit them per year. So, how do we figure out if a wildlife-focused venue we want to visit is treating animals ethically? One way is to ask a few questions based upon the Five Domains of Animal Welfare—guidelines established by animal welfare scientists that assess the diet, living situation, health, and behavior of captive animals. However, a general rule of thumb to keep in mind is that if a venue lets visitors touch, ride, feed, or watch a wild animal perform tricks, it’s probably unethical.

But what exactly does “wild” mean? In the 200,000 years we’ve been on Earth, humans have cut, paved, built, shorn, burned, and farmed much of the natural world. Recent research indicates only 23 percent of the planet’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) and 13 percent of the ocean can now be classified as wilderness. Even seeing animals “in the wild,” such as on safari or in a national park, involves visiting environments that have been carefully groomed to meet human needs—but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ideally, the most ethical parks will allow animals the autonomy to forage and flourish and keep crowds to a minimum.

As Goodall pointed out in a 2020 interview with G Adventures, responsible wildlife travel can actually help animal conservation in three important ways: “One, it takes foreign exchange in, so the central government is happy. Two, it helps to pay the staff and the rangers who can actually protect the animals. Three, the people who go on these tours come back with a passion for helping conservation.”

Without a doubt, demand for wildlife attractions has spiked—the U.N. World Tourism Organization estimates the business accounts for 7 percent of global tourism’s GDP, a number that is predicted to grow about 3 percent  annually. Some of this increased interest could be attributed to the fact that all things cute, cuddly, and exotic are extremely popular on social media. Remember Abby the dachshund and Bonedigger the lion, who were famously lovey dovey with one another? Yup, they were residents of G.W. Exotic Animal Park—Joe Exotic’s legally embattled, now defunct zoo


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So, what to do about animal attractions going viral? World Animal Protection has teamed up with a number of tech companies to help social-savvy travelers make more ethical choices. As of 2017, when a term like #tigerselfie is searched on Instagram, a pop-up message will appear stating that “animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed” on the platform—a direct result of WAP’s Wildlife Selfie Code. Then, after it was accused by WAP of profiting off of animal cruelty in 2016, TripAdvisor quickly stopped letting customers book tickets to unethical wildlife attractions. But if travelers are keen on integrating exotic critters directly into their travel plans, WAP and Airbnb created Airbnb Animal Experiences in 2019, which “offers a fresh new way to connect with animals” following the Five Domains—excursions include hanging out with alpacas in Colorado or viewing rehabilitated and released macaws

Nicole Barrantes, who is one of WAP’s wildlife campaign managers, believes the stances tech companies have adopted over the years are an effective first step. “When people go online, on Expedia for example, and search for ‘dolphin show tickets,’ they won’t pop up anymore—and that changes the narrative about what’s acceptable in animal experiences,” she says. 

SeaWorld came under heavy fire after the release of "Blackfish." © Photo by Irina Silvestrova SeaWorld came under heavy fire after the release of "Blackfish."

A kettle of fish

Few incidents concerning animal welfare have gotten as much attention in recent years as the fallout that followed the 2013 release of Blackfish. The documentary follows the life of orca Tillikum, who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 and was bullied by his tank mates once he arrived at SeaWorld, in Florida. Once the film made its debut at the Sundance Film festival, it sparked almost immediate outrage across the world. SeaWorld soon promised to stop breeding orcas by 2016 and phase out its orca shows by 2019, forfeiting  nearly $15.9 million in revenue in the process. The company was also forced to pay $65 million to settle a lawsuit that accused it of misleading investors about the financial impact the film had on the attraction’s finances.

But beyond exposing one company’s transgression, Blackfish sparked a national conversation about the rights of animals (especially marine species) held in captivity for our entertainment. Should we be caging dolphins when they have the ability to develop languages and have one of the largest brain-to-body ratios on the planet? 

Multiple studies have found that even in the wild, dolphins are negatively impacted by the presence of tourists. Whale and Dolphin Conservation, an international organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins, argues that dive and swim tour vessels interrupt their natural behaviors. “It can have a major effect, because the energy the dolphins have to spend avoiding you affects their calorie intake, which affects their ability to raise and feed their young,” says Melissa Walker, WDC’s deputy director of North America.

The best way to see dolphins? World Animal Protection advises observing them from the deck of a dolphin watch operation that follows a responsible code of conduct or, better yet, from shore. Try to look for companies that are certified with the NOAA Dolphin SMART program, which gives a seal of approval to marine wildlife tourism businesses that follow strict guidelines and use noninvasive observation techniques. “We urge everyone to avoid venues with captive dolphins or businesses that promise to let people interact with wild dolphins,” says WAP wildlife campaign manager Liz Cabrera Holtz. 

Since they're highly regulated, gorilla treks are one of the most ethical animal experiences out there. © Photo by Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock Since they're highly regulated, gorilla treks are one of the most ethical animal experiences out there.

The 800-pound gorilla

As Goodall noted, something inexplicable happens during a positive animal encounter. Perhaps nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than during a gorilla trek. Gorillas share 98 percent of their DNA with us. They have a human-like social structure, take time to both work and rest, and have opposable thumbs and fingers just like us. For those who are interested in seeing our evolutionary cousins, the mountain gorilla encounter also happens to be one of the most ethical animal activities out there, because it’s one of the most highly regulated and controlled animal experiences out there. Though rules vary between Uganda and Rwanda, only small groups are allowed at a time to see a single group of mountain gorillas a day, and visitors are briefed on rules they must follow during their encounter—no touching is allowed. It is also now standard protocol for caretakers and visitors to wear surgical masks when they interact with gorillas to prevent reverse zoonotic disease—COVID-19, in particular. 

The worldwide mountain gorilla population has been slowly increasing thanks to intensive conservation efforts, and there are currently more than 1,000 collectively found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Gorilla permits—which allow small groups of visitors to spend one hour watching a family from a distance of at least 23 feet—can set visitors back anywhere from $450 to $1,500, but the cost helps bolster conservation efforts and pays staff who care for gorillas’ health and protect them from poachers, as well as bolster the economy of local communities living close to the park. 

In a nutshell

The aim of ethical wildlife tourism is to protect animals and preserve their species and habitats. Do your research and ask questions based upon the Five Domains to choose reputable safari lodges, camps, sanctuaries, dive operators, and tour experiences that are committed to animal welfare and habitat preservation. Be sure to pack a good set of binoculars to observe critters from a safe, proper distance. If you dive or snorkel, let the sea turtles, dolphins, and fish come to you if they so choose—many will be as curious about you as you are about them—but don’t chase after them. Observe them with humility and change the story, as Jane Goodall did, and remember that we, too, are animals.

Lenora Todaro is the author of Sea Lions in the Parking Lot: Animals on the Move in a Time of Pandemic.

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