I am a huge animal lover and consider myself to be well informed and even active when it comes to animal rights issues. I’m not an extremist by any stretch, I love steak too much for that, but I would certainly self-identify as a conservationist. It’s not surprising then that I seek out animal experiences whenever I travel; the opportunity to observe new animals is hard to resist. But on a few trips I have been confronted with some difficult situations that have made me think about when is it appropriate to visit a foreign zoo without encouraging animal rights abuses.
In the United States, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZAA) is a trade association that in large part exists in order to maintain standards for institutions throughout the country. If you are visiting an AZAA certified institution, you may rest assured that the zoo or aquarium is one that supports conservation and treats the animals in proper and ethical ways. The AZAA is a crucial watchdog group because the Federal agencies tasked with maintaining zoo and aquarium protocols have a horrible track record of preventing animal abuses. While finding a reputable institution in the United States may seem an easy matter, there are other animal related activities that fall out of the purview of the AZAA and of which travelers should be aware.
An example that Pam of Nerd’s Eye View recently brought to my attention is shark diving in Hawaii. This is an excursion that allows guests to dive in shark cages in areas with high shark populations. Pam brought it to my attention because apparently many of these adventure companies feed the sharks in order to attract them and create a more intense experience for the guest. This is a problem because frankly it leads to more aggressive sharks and many people have been attacked in these situations or as a result of a human-fed shark. Baiting, however, is done by lowering milk crates full of well-secured frozen fish into the water in order to attract the sharks. Operators utilizing this method never actually feed the sharks and experts recognize this as a safe way to attract sharks. This is but one example of the need to thoroughly research any animal related activity prior to your involvement. But this becomes much more complicated when traveling internationally.
I went through this quandary during a trip to Koh Samui, Thailand. We were spending a few days on the resort island after visiting Bangkok as a nice escape from the city. On the last day, I noticed that our hotel (a large, international brand) offered an elephant adventure on the island. It was a half day excursion and really piqued my curiosity. We were in Thailand after all – they revere the elephant and I wanted to ride one before I left. Prior to the excursion, I did have some reservations about the quality of the experience but both the reputation of my hotel and the fact that I didn’t think Thais would do anything to harm an elephant made me decide to go.
The songthaew picked me up from the hotel and we made the 30 minute drive to a part of the island covered in lush, tropical foliage. Within this exotic location, the excursion company had set up a variety of jungle adventures including the one in which I was to partake – the elephant ride.
At first everything seemed fine. They had a massive structure erected that allowed the guests to climb directly onto the back of the elephant before starting the 10 minute ride. It wasn’t until I was actually on the giant mammal that I began to get worried. My first impression of this beautiful creature was that he was sad. I know many will refute this and say that I am engaging in anthropomorphism and that the elephant was fine. But voluminous research has shown that without a doubt, elephants possess an incredible intelligence, as well as a complex social structure replete with equally complex emotions. That is why I feel confident in my assertion that the elephant was indeed sad.
The sweet creature then proceeded to slowly walk around a predetermined path which encircled the compound before finally returning me to the launch stand to pick up the next guest and repeat the sad walk again. At this point I was practically in tears, not only for the well being of the elephants, but for my contribution in promulgating this horrendous practice. I paid as quickly as I could and demanded to be returned to my hotel right away, where I let the front desk know my extreme displeasure.
I was upset because these poor creatures are confined to a life of walking around a circle all day, every day, forever. Elephants are far too intelligent for such a meaningless life and to fathom the enormity of their imprisonment broke my heart. To this day I wish I hadn’t gone and I also wish there was something I could do to stop this, and countless other similar experiences around the world.
As travelers, it is incumbent upon us to research and distinguish between organizations and companies that don’t just exploit animals but rather create experiences that are not harmful to the animals and at the same time educate the general public. It may not always be possible to thoroughly vet each and every outfit around the world, but a standard rule of thumb applies. If it looks shady and if it looks like they do not treat the animals well, then it probably is shady and the animals probably do suffer. Short of joining a militant animal rights organization, the next best thing we can do is to never, ever patronize these places and to educate as many people as possible about the harm in taking part in these seemingly harmless activities.
I hope that I have succeeded in at least part of this and may those poor elephants of Koh Samui forgive me.