The Responsibility to Travel Responsibly: Animal Edition

January 29, 2016
Kayla Bernardino
5 min read
Ethical Animal tourism

Read this beautiful piece on what people should know before fulfilling their exotic traveling desires. 

This is a commentary on animal treatment around the world.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while traveling abroad and the research done before visiting different countries, it’s to be wary of certain “truths.”

Make sure the place you visit treats their animals humanely. Source: Kayla Bernardino)
Make sure the place you visit treats their animals humanely. Source: Kayla Bernardino)

What do I mean by that? Well, despite good intentions, a large amount of people end up supporting agencies, institutions, and causes that may not necessarily be worthy of support.

Travel is important, but it’s even more important to travel responsibly. As an example, for many, the prospect of cage diving with great white sharks in South Africa can be a thrilling one. So too is the idea that one can snuggle up next to a tiger in a Thai temple or ride an elephant in India. We as human beings are often awestruck by such majestic animals, wanting to spend time with them up close.

Does that make these acts okay?

Absolutely not. We must always question the ethics of certain practices. Not everyone reads up on things beforehand, and that’s not necessarily their fault. This is why I feel that anyone who has done their research should share the knowledge whenever they are given the opportunity to do so. For me, as a college student whose friends are starting to travel more and go abroad to study, elephant riding comes up more than any of the other animal tourist attractions. When it does, I always feel like I have a responsibility to share what I know. No, I’m not an expert, but I’d like to say that I know enough to make others question their potential actions and find out more information on their own. Then, they can make a decision. Hopefully, it is the correct one.

Now, I’m not so sure about cage diving. I’m actually quite torn on the topic myself because the conversation is so split. On one side, scientists claim that chumming (the process by which sharks are lured in) is causing the increase in shark attacks on human beings. (Chum, by the way, is a mixture of water, fish oils, and mashed sardines.) The argument is that it is conditioning sharks to associate food with human beings.

Yet, some researchers argue that negative conditioning may actually occur if chumming is done properly. That is, if operators are able to pull the bait away, the shark does not get to eat and they could associate the presence of boats with zero reward.

These same researchers also argue that it does not affect the sharks’ natural instincts and can help people to better appreciate the greatness of these powerful fish. I do think that sharks get a bad rep, and learning to appreciate them is one step in the educational process. However, there are other ways to go about educating people.

Because the research is inconclusive, I’ll just err on the side of caution and remove cage diving from my life’s bucket list. In contrast, the evidence against elephant riding and tiger temples is pretty conclusive.

Better to not ride the elephants at all. Source: Kayla Bernardino
Better to not ride the elephants at all. Source: Kayla Bernardino

I encourage you to read up on the topics on your own time as well, but to start, elephants’ backs are surprisingly not very strong. In fact, the better area to ride them would be on their neck, which can withstand more weight. The best method would be to go bareback on an elephant’s neck than to use a saddle on its back, especially because saddles weigh upwards of 30 pounds. However, what’s even better is to avoid riding them at all. The only reason I mention the alternative is to provide the facts. As for myself, I refuse to ever ride an elephant.

The other terribly dark side of the industry relates to the fact that wild elephants must first be tamed before anyone can ride them. If you’ve seen Water for Elephants, then you know what it takes: conditioning reinforced by brutal punishment. This conditioning, called “the crush,” begins when the elephant is a baby and involves completely breaking its spirit. To accomplish this, elephant “trainers” will confine the babies in a small space, beat them into submission, and deprive them of food and sleep. If that’s not enough to deter you, then I don’t know what is. Riding an elephant is not worth the profile picture or Instagram post, so please don’t do it.

Instead, there are real elephant sanctuaries where riding is not allowed.

Support these organizations, and you can still feed and clean the beautiful creatures up close. Many of them have actually been rescued from other so-called sanctuaries. You might ask yourself, well, why can’t they release these elephants into the wild? The problem therein lies with the fact that once animals have lived in captivity for too long, it is often difficult for them to return to nature (there’s a huge risk that they will simply be killed by predators upon release). This is also why huge felines, owls, etc. are not released back into the wild if they are missing a limb/wing or if they have been blinded somehow. It leaves them open to be preyed upon, and legitimate sanctuaries can ensure that life-long, optimal care is provided for animals.

Leave the place you visit better than when you came. Source: Kayla Bernardino.
Leave the place you visit better than when you came. Source: Kayla Bernardino.

Regarding tiger temples in India and Thailand, investigations have revealed disturbing animal abuse and trafficking. They are mistreated, and contrary to popular belief, the money made does not go towards conservation efforts. Rather, these are business ventures. Just because “monks” run the temples doesn’t mean they are legitimate or holy. To read more on the terrible practices involved with tigers, here is an awesome, awesome article that sums up why you shouldn’t support these businesses with your money.

All in all, it is your choice as a traveler to decide where you want to spend your money. I can only hope that you consider the ethical alternatives and share the knowledge with your friends and family. Staying informed is important, and for the animals, ignorance is not bliss. If you would like to learn more, this post has a list of the worst treatments of animals for tourism. Get informed before you travel. Share this information with your friend on Facebook and Twitter!

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Kayla is a passionate young traveler who has made it a priority to live life fully and adventurously. She is a UC Berkeley student who runs marathons, travels often, and writes articles all at the same time.

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