To Zoo or Not to Zoo

Elephant Koh Samui, Thailand

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.

Elephant Koh Samui, ThailandI 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.

Elephant Koh Samui, Thailand

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

16 Responses

  1. Francesca

    Another well-written piece, and it is one that echos my sentiments. I am a traveler and an animal advocate and sometimes the two roles don’t mesh well. Some of the most difficult, most emotionally taxing experiences I’ve had while traveling involved animals. I, too, wish not to encourage operations that engage in animal abuse/neglect; and I, too, would like to do my part to help stop such practices. Let’s just keep spreading the word and educating one another and hopefully we can make it a better world for these suffering animals.

    Reply
  2. Melissa Stanford

    Beautiful post! It also makes me sad. Elephants are super smart and wildly free themselves. I would not doubt at all he was sad. Thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts on this subject. I hope a lot of people hear and feel your message to do better for the animals they come in contact with in the future.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks Melissa! It actually made me sad writing it last night, brought back a lot of memories and emotions. It can be frustrating sometimes that we can’t go in and close these places down or force everyone from visiting, but it’s all about small steps I suppose.

      Reply
  3. pam

    Here’s the thing that frustrated me about my recent zoo visit: I just didn’t know what the story was with the animals. It’s easy to project, and when you see something as, well, MAGNIFICENT as a polar bear in what’s really an oversized fish tank, it’s easy to project tragedy on that. But the bears we saw were rescue bears, so their fish tank lives are better than their previous circus lives, which are, of course, no where near as good as living as they were intended to. Rambling way of asking — were you able to find out where the elephants came from? It’s possible that this was a step up for them. Who knows?

    On the shark baiting, I’m confused about how it’s okay to drop frozen fish in the water to attract sharks near humans. Doesn’t it thaw? Are they taunting the sharks, then — here’s some food that you can’t have! Ha ha! I honestly don’t get it. Doesn’t it still associate food with humans?

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s a really good point and no, I never did learn their history. You’re right, I shouldn’t just assume isn’t better than what it might have been.

      And I agree with you on the baiting, but I got the information from http://www.sharksavers.org, who seem reputable, but who knows.

      Reply
  4. Andi

    I had a VERY similar experience in Pattaya, Thailand. It still haunts me. 🙁

    Reply
  5. Simon McManus

    Great post and good points @pam. In Thailand there are now “rescued” Elephant parks which take in abused elephants and allow tourists to see them up close, but instead of riding them, the visitors wash them, feed them etc. As well as funding education and advocacy for the wider community. Never been myself but hope you don’t mind the plug: http://www.elephantnaturefoundation.org/

    Much more special IMO.

    We can all do our bit on animal abuse caused by tourism, by doing a little research before we go, supporting responsible zoos, parks, even a little animal related voluntourism perhaps?

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Excellent point and animal voluntourism is something I’ve been trying to promote actually.

      Reply
  6. Ant Stone

    I never visit zoos. A carte blanche veto from me. I’m sure they do a lot of good in conservation sectors, but they’re exploiting animals for commercial gain. Elephants which would normally walk, dozens of kilometres a day are forced into small reserves.

    Reply
  7. Melissa Stanford

    What about zoos vs. rescue parks? I think parks that have rescue animals are a great alternative to zoos and would be a good solution in the future. In these parks you have animals that can’t live on their own, and live in habitats that are similar enough to their own to make them comfortable at least. Animal Parks are a sort of rest home for animals, so they provide a great opportunity for people to come view (and in some cases interact with) the animals and learn about them. Sure, there is some profit involved, but that is true of every job, attraction, sale, whatever in life. If there’s going to be profit involved, shouldn’t there be at least some good being done with it?

    Reply
  8. Amanda

    Hi, Thank you for writing this post. I too have a very similar travel regret, which involved the highly touristic experience of riding elephants up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur, India. I too, could have avoided this very sad experience if I had just researched my query. Instead I relied on my guide in India, who did have a very good heart and intentions when I told him I loved elephants and would love to ride one someday. I have come to terms with this; supporting local anti-zoo-elephants campaigns is a way to put some good into the world out of a bad experience. All experiences, even negative ones, can teach us a lesson about who we are and our role in the world.

    Reply
  9. The Travel Chica

    I am definitely anti-zoo, especially when traveling. Too sad. Plus I don’t want people that run those types of zoos making money off of it. You know they are not using that money to improve the situation for the animals or hire qualified caretakers.

    Reply
  10. Nistha Shrestha

    Came across your travel blog through twitter.

    This post is on a topic I have often oscillated over. You see, I grew up with captive elephants; I help my father run a hotel in the jungles of southern Nepal. We offer elephant rides as part of our package.

    Now, I definitely agree with you on the sadness of the elephant that you rode. I’ve seen the elephants at the zoos here and in other places working, and they remind me of office drones, doing the same mindless task over and over again, and frankly, it angers me as well.

    As beautiful as it would be to keep elephants from working altogether, the beauty of their intelligence is that they are capable of interacting and forming relationships with people in remarkable ways. Riding an elephant is an incredible experience — but the elephant has to be a willing participant.

    Our elephants spend only a maximum of four hours giving people rides each day — two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. The rest of the day they do what they do best, socialise and graze! I KNOW this makes a huge difference in the behavior of the elephant, to know that ‘work’ takes up only a fraction of their day.

    Sometimes they get bored by the ride, and deliberately slow their pace. Sometimes they get excited and thrum messages to each other. Each ride can go in any direction, and they seem to respond to that randomness as well.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on too much. I just wanted to let you know that there can be places where riding an elephant won’t rest so heavily on your conscience.

    Nistha

    Reply
  11. Millie

    Quite apart from sadness and boredom, have you thought about how the elephant was trained in the first place?
    In some places baby elephants are taken from their mothers when they are only a week old, penned into a tiny enclosure and starved, given no water, whipped, hit with wood with nails sticking out of it and have their eardrums burst until they collapse, all the while with their mother watching. This is why they obey. They are terrified of humans and can sometimes become aggressive.
    This doesn’t happen everywhere, but we saw footage of it happening in Thailand in class last week. At least in zoos animals are more likely to be left with their mothers and looked after properly, but wildlife reserves are the best place.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      You’re right, the entire process is horrible. I don’t know what the solution is without some sort of massive, international covenant.

      Reply
  12. Cristina Garcia

    thanks for a great post.
    A lot of people don’t think about it when they go on these ‘adventures’. It is not natural for an elephant to carry a person. I have been on one of the walk with elephants, and although we weren’t riding them I kept asking myself if they were ok and happy. The word ‘NO’ kept popping on my brain.
    Also, beware of shark dives everywhere. They also feed them in South Africa. It is so dangerous in the long run!
    Oh and those walk with cheetahs, walk with lions and pet a cub lion…oh dear, there is so much out there that it scares me…
    The worst of all is that people running those businesses lie to everyone (about how they get the cubs, why they are there…) and pretend they are into conservation just to get money.
    Beware! the places where they offer pet a lion cub, they have to get rid of them (as in the horrible way) when they get old and don’t look cuddly. So wrong,
    Thank you again for writing the post.
    Cristina

    Reply

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