By now you’ve seen the tourist and selfie-shaming video heard round the world of a baby dolphin dying because people wanted to take pictures with it. People are the worst, right? Well, yeah. BUT. Instead of just shaming the participants of this event and sharing the story with captions like “humans are disgusting” and “love for ALL creatures [crying emoji],” let’s talk about what we can do about it, which isn’t just shame people and push back on all wildlife tourism.
To be clear, those things are true. We can be pretty disgusting AND we have to find better ways to show love for all creatures. But it isn’t so simple. The why should be compelling enough on its own. Animals are of course a huge part of a massively intertwined ecosystem. So outside of the fact that they are living and adorable beings, there is the whole if-we-wipe-out-umbrella-species-the-whole-thing-comes-undone-and-predators-start-looking-for-different-prey-and-that’s-not-good-for-anyone thing. That’s a chat for another day. Even for many who know and feel the why, the how isn’t so cut and dry.
Little Flipper got our attention because we humans love us some dolphins. If this had happened with an animal that has been portrayed as a cartoon villain all of our lives, I doubt the reaction would be so strong. But it’s a good start to the conversation. So now we all know that we shouldn’t pass around in the AIR a creature that lives in the WATER, because that’s going to turn out unfavorably. That’s an easy one though. Animal selfies are dangerous. What about everything else?
I reached out to some of my favorite travel and animal lovers to ask them to share their tips for how we dig a little deeper and make sure we’re doing the right thing.
Care Enough to Ask the Questions
Do these negative experiences mean that we shouldn’t interact with the wild at all? Of course not. I have personally gone swimming with whales in Tonga, one of the few places it is legal to do so. But we do have to do the work to make sure we’re making the right decisions.
Remember, tourism dollars are demand dollars. What we spend them on is important and drives supply. We can’t get mad at the tiger “sanctuaries” for existing without understanding that they only do because people go to them. So the first step is to care enough to do the research. Yes, it sucks because sometimes it’s hard to do more work. And the answers aren’t always clear.
We can’t “treat them like a photo opportunity” says photographer and traveler Natalia Anja. The idea of getting the great shot with an adorable animal is an Instagrammer’s dream, but she urges you to ask yourself why that opportunity is there, because they were likely tortured or beaten to be “trained.”
I was researching swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob because something about it just didn’t settle with me. It isn’t like the sanctuaries where they’re overtly mistreated, but also, why was that opportunity there? I went to the internets and didn’t get any clearer so I asked a friend who works with marine life what she thought and she directed me to the article linked above and talked about humans feeding them and the potential further reaching impact.
Just because they aren’t being mistreated in front of you, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen before or that there is a greater impact to the species or ecosystem. Just because the word “sanctuary” is on the brochure, unfortunately, doesn’t mean it’s true.
If It’s Not Normal Animal Behavior, Walk Away
I met Karyn, the Lost Lemurian, in Thailand and was elated when she told me how passionate she is about the elephants there because I couldn’t wrap my head around how I felt about all the elephant “sanctuaries.” I knew the tiger ones were bad because tigers don’t, generally, like to lay around and hang out with people, but how could I tell who the good guys and bad guys were when it comes to elephants? She put it pretty simply – you want to look for a place that lets elephants just BE elephants.
“A lot of people are delighted by the sight of an elephant painting, or a dolphin performing tricks, or even a monkey in a costume posing for a selfie with tourists. But the truth is, whether an animal has been raised in captivity or taken from the wild, it is a long, usually cruel process to get them to adopt a behavior that isn’t natural for them.
If you see an animal doing anything they wouldn’t do of their own accord, that is a huge red flag. Vote with your money and only visit places that allow animals the same kind of behavior they would exhibit if they were in the wild.”
You can watch more about elephant tourism here or see more videos about animal welfare, environmentalism and other topics on the Lost Lemurian YouTube channel.
A beautiful alternative to the elephant businesses in Thailand is the amazing humpback whale experiences in Tonga. I went with Deep Blue Diving and could not have had a more awe-filled day. As the day started, I loved that Lahaina kicked it off telling us we might not see whales, we were going into their space and that everything about the day was about protecting the whales and their natural habits. Under no circumstances were we to touch a whale or we wouldn’t touch water again. We were going into their habitat and the most important thing was that the whales got to be whales. If they wanted to be whales who swam near us, great. If not, well, that’s their whale-prerogative. Lahaina felt the same majesty that we did as these whales swam with us, an hour into the first mother and calf swimming with us she smiled ear-to-ear, looked at the group and said, “she likes us.” And that was it. Mama whale was 100% in charge of the experience and she gave us a great one.
Recycle and Watch Your Consumerism
This one isn’t as obvious. Wait, what does recycling have to do with traveling and animals? How we treat the planet and all of the decisions that we make have real and reaching impacts. I remember being haunted years ago after watching MIDWAY, a short film by Chris Jordan who documented the impact that consumerism is having on so far-reaching an ecology as the Midway Atoll in the middle of the ocean.
[warning: the video is pretty graphic and features the insides of decomposing animals]
What does this have to do with travel you may ask? Great question. The decisions we make that impact the environment and animals aren’t just in the places we visit, but how we visit. I know I took for granted the delicious, clean and safe tap water of Denver until I started traveling. Aside from not wanting to buy water everywhere I go, I hated the idea of buying, and subsequently discarding, so many plastic bottles. So I picked up a water purifier by SteriPEN that lets me zap water wherever I am and use just one water bottle (well, maybe 4 because I am particularly good at leaving those places).
Sure, airport security probably thinks I have a vibrator in my carry on, but I also have access to safe drinking water everywhere without tethering myself to bottled water.
A stunning image of the aftermath of a Full Moon Party in Thailand taken by Nate Clark went viral when shared by OCEAN DEFENDER and the photographer’s words in the updated post are moving – long, but incredibly worth the read. [note: OCEAN DEFENDER stole his work and edited it without his permission, so I have linked you to his site, rather than the viral post; his words are moving and I urge you to see his Facebook page for more incredible shots] What is most incredible about this is the amount of people who reacted, blaming the tourists or blaming the Thai. Rather than talking about solutions and next steps (just like with the dolphin), so many have jumped to pointing fingers at someone else, rather than internalizing asking, what can I do about this situation or what can I do differently because of what I know now?
If You See Something, Say Something
This tip isn’t just for the subways of New York. If you see something going on that isn’t right, say something about it. Or, if it’s appropriate, do something about it. One of my favorite animal lovers is Caitlin Amelia, who runs The Travelling Cheetah. She advises on the importance of doing something.
“How many people do you think were standing on the Argentinian beach watching in horror as the poor baby dolphin was passed around and didn’t do a thing? Plenty, I am sure. How many took action? Not one. As with any form of animal abuse, the approach depends of the situation (and possibly the cultural/social norms of the country you are in.) In any situation you think an animal is suffering, it is YOUR responsibility to take action – call the police or a local animal aid agency, report the situation to PETA, talk to and respectfully discuss the situation with the people holding the animal captive, use social media to create action, or even intervene if you consider it safe to do so. Would that baby dolphin still be alive if someone had used their turn at taking a selfie to rush the poor thing back to the water so it could swim free? We’ll never know.”
This also goes for seeing stories shared on social media and deciding to like and follow accounts that post pictures or stories that go against this responsibility. Lashing out against a picture of someone hanging out at the tiger sanctuary probably isn’t the most helpful, but starting an educated dialogue can be. If you’re worried about emotions, be sure to not discuss it in public.
Take it Upon Yourself, Don’t Blame Yourself
Caitlin also talks about reacting when you’re there and using experiences for education beyond just the individual situation. Sometimes it’s something you see on the streets or sometimes you’ve gone to an animal experience that wasn’t what you thought.
“We all, at some point in our travelling careers, have stumbled into an undesirable animal welfare situation. Take pictures, learn, discuss. Use your pictures, your words, knowledge and emotions to conjure up respect for these animals. Talk to the captor, the other tourists and explain your objections and reservations. Education is the best means to end animal cruelty, so instead of simply witnessing the abuse while dealing with personal fits of agony and hopelessness blaming yourself for being there, use your mistakes to make amends. Tell everyone you meet on the road not to visit such a place, and use your experiences to bring justice to these animals we must fight so hard for!”
Resources for responsible animal tourism
Where do you go when you have questions? My first stop is usually Google, then to one of the awesome folks in this article.
The Lost Lemurian and the Travelling Cheetah don’t just share stories we want to and need to see, but have been great sounding boards for me when I have had questions I just couldn’t sort out. If in your search you’re having trouble getting a straight answer, find a travel blogger who focuses on the issue at hand and contact them. Do searches on Facebook and TripAdvisor to see what other people have to say (I find the reviews on TripAdvisor from people who attended something that maybe they shouldn’t have the most compelling).
Karyn also recommends Right Tourism as a great resource for making ethical travel choices when it comes to animals. If you’re looking for something more academic, you can review UNESCO’s material on sustainable tourism.
Or…maybe we all need to just go re-watch Captain Planet.
Captain Planet has been teaching us these lessons for years, yet it still really hasn’t sunk in. I remember a Planeteer Alert that taught us to cut the plastic that holds 6-packs together to prevent ducks from getting stuck in them (I also just watched a whole lot of Captain Planet to try to find that clip).