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…..
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!
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.
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!
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.
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;
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