Perhaps it’s because we’re tactile creatures at heart, but there’s something about basic human nature that makes us want to physically connect with animals. Not satisfied by simply admiring from afar, we’re increasingly compelled to pet, touch or be as close as possible to wild, exotic and often endangered species.
Such demand has given rise to a number of interactive wildlife experiences, but unfortunately, not all of them have the animals’ best interests at heart. Not all human interaction is good for animals, and a lot of us have no idea about the cruelty that exists behind these ‘attractions’.
To help consumers make the right choices, travel association ABTA has updated its animal welfare guidelines, which are used to inform tour operators about the products they should – and shouldn’t – be selling.
Along with upgrading their advice about activities with elephants in captive environments, they now class tourist contact or feeding of great apes, bears, crocodiles or alligators, orcas, sloths and wildcats as unacceptable. All of this is based on consultation with NGOs such as World Animal Protection, Humane Society International, Born Free Foundation, World Cetacean Alliance and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
If you’re hoping to tick off some bucket-list animal encounters, make sure you pick the right activities by following the guidance below.
Don’t … pose for photos with sloths
A study carried out by the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research has shown that sloths experience blood pressure spikes when in the presence of a human. Their placid nature and naturally happy facial expression can make people think they are comfortable, but nine times out of 10 being handled, or even being close to humans, is very stressful for them. A new trend of posing next to sloths in a yoga-type pose is also spreading, but when sloths raise their arms like this they are signalling stress by trying to make themselves seem bigger and more threatening to scare you off.
Do … seek them in the wild
Two species of sloth can be found almost all over Costa Rica, making this one of the best places to see them. Often seen hanging from tree branches, they come down to defecate – so, if you’re lucky, you may find them at ground level. All reputable organisations will ensure all visitors stay a minimum of two metres away from the sloth.
Don’t … go for a stroll with lions
The thought of taming a jungle king can be tempting. Who hasn’t wanted to cuddle up to a Simba without being clawed? Multiple petting parks offer the opportunity to walk with lions, although, sadly, many end their lives in game farms dedicated to canned hunting. Take the Tiger Temple in Thailand, for example, a tourist hotspot run by Buddhist monks that allowed visitors to enter the tiger cages and walk among them. Then a police raid in 2016 made a grisly discovery: 40 tiger cub corpses stashed in a freezer, 20 more suspended in jars of formaldehyde, and a cache of disembodied parts.
Do … join a walking safari
It is possible to encounter big cats on foot if done so in the company of an experienced, armed ranger. Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is regarded as the birthplace of walking safaris, which provides far more authentic – and thrilling – encounters.
Don’t … swim with dolphins
I think, as time goes on, more and more people are beginning to understand the dark underbelly of sea parks and viewing marine animals in captivity.
Dolphins are highly intelligent, active creatures that swim up to 60 kilometres each day in the wild, playing and communicating with their close family group. Being confined to a concrete pool with chemically treated water and no stimulation, apart from pulling people along by their fins over and over, can cause a lot of stress to these gentle animals. The complete change in environment and lifestyle can cause aggressive behaviour, often resulting in the parks having to ‘get rid of them’ to avoid injury to customers and employees.
The majority of the time, these dolphins aren’t ‘rescued’ but captured and sold to parks to live in enclosures just 1 per cent of the size of their natural habitat. Dolphins in captivity often need to be supplemented with nutrients and vitamins that can’t be obtained from the frozen fish they are fed. Overall, it’s probably best to avoid visiting these places, so hopefully one day marine animals can stay where they belong.
Do … hop on a boat
Dolphins are very curious creatures; they love checking out boats and frolicking in the wake they leave. But if you are desperate to get in the water with these beautiful beings, the ocean is the best place to do so. While there’s no guarantee that you will get to see dolphins or swim with them, the experience is that much better because any interaction that does happen is on the dolphin’s terms.
Whether they choose to swim away or to seek you out, Australia is a great country to try. Port Stephens is regarded as Australia’s dolphin capital and there are tours available where you can be harnessed and pulled along in the water, essentially swimming alongside these beautiful creatures. Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne is home to around 80 bottlenose dolphins. Adelaide’s favourite beachside town, Glenelg, is home to many common and bottlenose dolphins, so check out some ethical ocean tours on your next visit.
Don’t … bathe or ride with elephants
In a 2017 report, World Animal Protection found that 80 per cent of the 3000 elephants used at tourist venues across Asia were living in severely inadequate conditions. On that basis, certain forms of elephant entertainment should be avoided.
Do … support animals and communities by visiting a sanctuary
Located in Chiang Mai, ChangChill was set up as an alternative to many of the invasive elephant activities sold in Thailand, providing a new form of employment for mahouts. Rather than interact with animals, visitors are encouraged to marvel at them in the wild.
Don’t … drink civet or luwak coffee
We all like to try new things on holiday, and it can be fun to recall the experiences of eating or drinking weird and wonderful things. ‘Kopi luwak’ may be considered an exotic delicacy but the creation of it often involves abject cruelty. This coffee is one of the most expensive in the world, which may be surprising considering it’s made from partially digested coffee cherries found in the droppings of Asian palm civets. A civet or luwak is a beautiful cat-like creature native to South and Southeast Asia.
Footage from kopi luwak farms show civets suffering from painful skin infections and some displaying signs of zoochosis, a condition where captive animals become distressed and engage in unnatural behaviours such as pacing, spinning or head bobbing. This often indicates the animal has been ‘driven mad’ due to being confined and unstimulated.
Do … try getting your caffeine fix from animal-free sources with no suffering.
Vietnam’s most famous coffee house and coffee producer, Trung Nguyen, has invented a gourmet coffee that an average Joe wouldn’t be able to tell hasn’t already passed through the digestive tract of another animal.
‘Legendee’ is artificially treated with enzymes to reproduce the flavour of kopi luwak without the cruelty.
Were any of these on your bucket list? What are you going to replace them with?
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