Ethical Mistakes I made Travelling – Wildlife Tourism

education on wildlife tourism
Leave our wildlife where it should be – Pixabay image

From as young as I can remember, I have had a thing for animals. Not just a thing, an obsession. My parents would say that from the time I could talk I was always asking for a pet of some description. I had countless scrap books full of pictures of animals I had cut from magazines, carefully creating a collage of my furry friends. This love of animals has continued right to the present day. However, I am going to share with you some ethical mistakes I made travelling, because of this blind love of animals. I was a little naive, so I am sharing in the hope that it helps you not to fall into the same traps.

So, as a child my obsession had no limits. I loved everything. While my friends screamed at the rats and mice in the hay barns where we stabled our horses, I delighted in my little furry friend’s tiny ears and little pink noses. When I was off school, I would walk all the local dogs if their owners allowed me, and don’t get me started on the amount of “stray” dogs I brought home. Mostly, these “stray” dogs were just off lead on the park opposite my house, being walked by their owners. Seven year old me would be convinced they were in some kind of peril and scoop them up to take home, or take them to the phone box and call 999 to report the emergency to the police. Oh, and if you have been a long time reader here, you would already know about the time I went out for coffee and came home with two shetland ponies…..

ethical mistakes i made travelling
my beautiful princess Lulu

It was this love of all things we share out planet with, that has blinded me into making mistakes a couple of times over the years, that I deeply regret. We are all aware of the “wildlife selfie’, and I would never partake in that. However, I have made mistakes. I wanted to share them with you in the hope that it helps you to fall into the same traps. I also wanted to share as I think education is key in stopping animal tourism. The more we talk about it and get awareness out there, the more the demand for this sort of thing will stop.

Ethical mistakes I made travelling

Swimming with Dolphins – Mexico

This experience still haunts me. We were in Mexico around 2008. Our boys were 8 and 10 and we were excited to visit a place called Xel-Ha. This beautiful place is full of naural beauty, and is a snorkellers dream. We loved the idea of drifting down the lagoon on a raft, exploring caves and relaxing in the hammocks surrounding it. I was also beside myself when I saw you could also visit a “dolphin conservation sanctuary” (run by Delphinus World) on the same day. Dolphins were one of the species high on my obsession list, so of course I was excited. The advertising stated that you could see these wonderful creatures in the sea, even getting in the water with them!

ethical mistakes I made travelling
Dolphins in the sea, where they should be

Well Xel-Ha was indeed a beautiful place. The “dolphin sanctuary” was not. In fact, it brought me to tears. We were led into a room where we were handed wetsuits to put on. I assumed this was because the sea would be cold, so excitedly changed into it. Exiting the door from the changing rooms we found ourself at the top end of what can only be described as ponds! There were dolphins, captive and in these pools. They were not large ponds, and what was upsetting me even more was that they were next to the sea. The dolphins could see the expanse of open sea and freedom. One of them was visibly upset and “not performing”. The “trainer” told me it was because he could smell the females that were in season! I was so upset.

In addition to the awful, totally un-natural set up, we were being told to get in the ponds with the dolphins. We were told we would enjoy the “fun nose lift” and the dolphins would lift us out of the water with their noses! These poor dolphins were being made to lift tourists all day. It broke my heart. I was in the water with the dolphins, but I refused to do any lifting or grabbing of their fins to “swim” with them. However, I know the fact I had paid my money to go to “the sanctuary” meant I had facilitated this practise. I was distraught and angry at myself for not looking into it better. I urge you, if you visit Riviera Maya in Mexico and wish to visit Xel-Ha, do so, it is beautiful, but do not get duped into the “swimming with dolphins”. Although it is separate from Xel-Ha, you will often see it advertised as a package to do both. It is NOT conservation or for the dolphins benefit!

Cuddles with a Koala in Australia

Koala’s. These cuddly looking mini marsupials, with the cutest face are the most recognised symbol of Australia. When I was travelling in Oz in the late 90’s, I was obsessed with them. I longed to see one up close and personal, and was forever looking up trees, hoping to spot one. We ended up visiting one of the zoo’s in Sydney, (something I would never do now) and they had a “cuddle a koala” encounter. I am ashamed to admit that I paid my money, and had my cuddle with the furry beauty.

ethical mistakes made while travelling
I was obsessed with Koala’s

Since education has improved, and being way more aware of wildlife tourism, I now know this was not good. Firstly, koala’s sleep around 18 hours a day, yet this little fella was being passed from person to person for hours. Secondly, they are a wild animal and should not be subjected to that much human handling! Also of course, you have to question the fact that a normal wild animal would not just be sitting patiently on a pillow waiting to be passed to the next person would he? While I cannot say for sure that the koala was sedated as I do not know that as fact, I think something had to be keeping him calm and amiable for all that time! Another mistake I am wise to now and would never repeat.

Snake Show in Thailand

We unwittingly took part in this activity, when we booked a trip to go to the floating markets. On the way back we stopped at a sugar plantation. This in itself was interesting, so they did not need the side show that they had! There was a large blanket, with a couple of very large snakes on. The “snake charmer” was going to make the snakes “dance”. With that, he started to torment and aggravate the snake so that it coiled up. The snake was swaying at his tormentor, in its defensive position, therefore “dancing”. Every time the snake took back to the ground, the snake man would tap its head to annoy it again. This “show went on for about 20 minutes and was not pleasant to watch. A living creature again being tormented for humans entertainment. It is so wrong!

ethical mistakes made while travelling
poor Snakes being tormented

So what can we do to prevent these ethical mistakes while travelling?

I regret participating in these activities a million percent. I do feel however, that is important to keep talking about these things and my post where I Interviewed Wildlife Tourism Educator Sam gives you more information . Knowledge is getting so much better with people boycotting things like Seaworld, riding elephants, having photos with sedated big cats etc, but only through education and knowledge. So many of us get caught out by the way these people market this wildlife tourism. They chuck in the words like sanctuary and conservation, and many people, myself included, think they must be a good, ethical place. We are slowly learning that sadly, so many places are not what they pretend to be!

Some great starting points to help

Do your homework – Check out the website of the place you are going. See if they are linked to any of the international or national recognised conservation charities etc. If a place truly is ethical and for the benefit of the animal, they will clearly state their aims and animal welfare standards.

ethical mistakes i made travelling
do your homework

Avoid – Anywhere that offers photo opportunities with the animals. This is incredibly stressful for wildlife. Avoid anywhere that does not house animals in an environment similar to their natural habitat. A truly ethical sanctuary will not breed the animals either. Animal rescue is stretched enough so reputable places will not add to the numbers.

Report – If you come across something that does not feel right, then report it. Ideally, gathering photo/video evidence etc would be amazing! There are many websites that you can make these reports through. Born Free have a fabulous site, Raise the Red Flag, where you can report anything that seems detremental to the animals.

Educate – Read up on this awful industry, and educate yourself to not fall into the traps that we can do. I am an animal lover, rescue advocate and consider myself pretty savvy, yet I still managed to be duped. There are some fabulous charities and organisations doing amazing work on highlighting these problems, and I will list some here for you;

Born Free



Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries

WASP International

I hope you have found this post useful. There is so much information available now, as people become more aware of wildlife tourism.The word is slowly getting out. I would love to know your thoughts and feeling on this. Have you ever unwittingly supported one of these types of places? Do you think education is getting better? Are you concerned yourself about how ethical places are? Was wildlife tourism something you have ever even thought about? I would love to hear what you think. Let me know x

wildlife tourism
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  1. September 12, 2019 / 3:36 pm

    I am very glad that you have shared this post Kerry as it will serve as education for others who may have been considering these experiences under misconception. I am annoyed that many places trade under the pretense of the word ‘sanctuary’ it makes me so cross. You know how I feel about wildlife tourism and I feel we all need to start being responsible. We can’t let them be exploited for the gratification of humans.Thanks Kerry x

    • kerrylifeandloves
      September 12, 2019 / 4:37 pm

      Thank you so much Bejal. I do feel embarrassment that I was duped, although many years ago. We have to share our experiences to help spread the word don’t we. I also wanted to show that it isn’t just those that don’t care that go to these things. i care deeply. I would never knowingly partake in these sorts of activities, but I made mistakes in not researching properly. I love how those of us passionate about travel are all working hard at spreading the word and sharing experiences.

  2. Jean
    September 12, 2019 / 4:42 pm

    Glad you’ve shared this information Kerry, it’s an eye opener, I bet thousands of tourists are duped, I for one would believe the companies using the word sanctuary in their description. Like you say, it pays to do your homework

    • kerrylifeandloves
      September 12, 2019 / 8:41 pm

      I think the problem Jean is that there are no laws about what they can call themselves! The only way is to fully research where you are thinking of going. I truly believe eventually wildlife tourism will be a thing of the past! We can only hope x

  3. September 13, 2019 / 12:11 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Kerry! Your previous post(s?) about about this was an eye opener for me. This post reminds me of another unethical tourist trap I’ve been involved in – the snake show at Gran Canaria (and probably other places around Spain and Canary islands). It’s an evening show when a guy shows a large snake and basically calls up some random person, from the audience, on stage. I can’t remember now exactly what goes on there, more than that the person is blindfolded and then the snake they just showed off is (seemingly) put on his/her shoulder. In reality the snake used is a stuffed toy snake, and the whole thing is made up to play with people’s fear of snakes. After the show, people can have their photos taken with the real snake. This is HORRIBLE. I had my photo taken, and I hang my head in shame. I wasn’t aware of the unethical issue with it back then, as I am now.
    However, the main problem with this isn’t the thing with taking the snakes out of their natural habitat, as I see it. It is this thing – playing with people’s fear of snakes.

    If you’re someone who loves to handle snakes – why not use that interest to pronote snakes and reptiles, to show people what beautiful and interesting creatures they are, and educate people about how they live, where, and why? Instead of taking them out of their habitat, and increase people’s frar of them.
    An example – as you may remember I love spiders. I used to fear them, a lot. Then I discovered photography, and I discovered macro photography. I bought a macro lens, and I photographed a giant house spider. And I discovered the beauty of it. Have you ever realised a giant house spider looks like it’s wearing a tweed jacket?
    I joined a Facebook group about spiders, learned more about different species, snd I now love them. I’m sad there are so few spiders around my new house (I’ll try to change that by adding more plants in my garden that will attract insects. You know, more insects=more spiders).
    But media likes to play with people’s fear of spiders. It exaggerates everything around spiders, stories about spider bites and similar, and it likes to spread whatever headlines that will encourage clicks (because of people’s ideas of spiders being horrible), no matter if it’s true or not. While in reality, spiders are extremely peaceful animals if you leave them alone, most won’t harm you. They are interesting and beautiful if you learn about them, and it’s the same with snakes. It makes me so angry to see how they play with people’s fears and makes a business out of it.
    Yes, there are snakes and spiders you should stay away from because they are dangerous. But doesn’t that apply to all wildlife? All are not dangerous, but still – don’t feed animals in the zoo, don’t touch snakes, don’t handle spiders unless you know what you’re doing, don’t make wild animals used to humans, because that’s not normal to them and it will disturb their normal way of living. And so on..

    Kerry, of course I want to promote your hidden love for spiders 🤣🤣 (still planning for the “treating-Kerry’s-fear-of-spiders-posts”!!) but mostly, thanks for bringing this up. They’re important topics and we need to spread awareness.

    • kerrylifeandloves
      September 15, 2019 / 12:39 pm

      Ahhhh Susanne I am absolutely over the moon that posts on this topic have taught you things. This is why I feel so passionately about sharing this sort of thing, and keep talking about it. I was worried that I could face judgement for the activities that I took part in, but I know that education only increases by talking about it.
      You did make me laugh about the spiders. I am honoured that you remember my fear of them. I would never intentionally hurt one, NEVER, but I am just terrified of them. Having said that, when I lived in Australia I saw a red back spider. These spiders are one of the dangerous ones, but it was incredibly beautiful The scarlet stripe down its tiny back is just stunning, and I was entranced by it.
      You are so right about how we exploit other living things for entertainment purposes. This is what needs to stop.
      Thank you as always for your input and reply. I am so appreciative xxx

  4. September 18, 2019 / 7:16 pm

    What an important topic and I am in exactly the same boat as you, I’ve done things when I was younger that I just wouldn’t dream of doing now. Thank you for your addition of what action we can take, I’ve read a few articles that have missed this important bit out! xxx

    • kerrylifeandloves
      September 18, 2019 / 8:46 pm

      Thank you so much for reading. I think so many of us have unwittingly got sucked in by this sort of thing. This is why I am so happy that we are talking about it and awareness is growing. It is so important isnt it. We live and learn xxxx

  5. thenomadicvegan
    June 15, 2020 / 1:23 pm

    Thanks for raising awareness about this important issue, Kerry! I too have participated in unethical wildlife tourism in the past without realizing at the time what I was doing. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

    • June 25, 2020 / 11:27 am

      Ahhh Maya Angelou, my absolute hero! Thank you so much for reading. It can leave us with all kinds of guilt when we realise how we have contributed to this issue, but as you say, we move forward doing better. I appreciate your comment xx

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