Animals and the Travel Experience – How to Reconcile Individual and Cultural Morality

Petra Donkey

If you’ve read anything by me, or followed me on Twitter for more than five minutes, then you probably know that I am an ardent animal lover. While I’m not an extremist and I’m not a PETA membership card carrying activist, animal welfare is very important to me. Personally we have three rescued dogs and have contributed a lot of money over the years to a variety of animal welfare organizations. That’s why certain travel experiences can be challenging for someone who feels as strongly about animal rights as I do.

I touched on this issue in To Zoo or Not to Zoo, when I wrote about my personal experiences in participating in activities that, upon reflection, seemed questionable. Those were great learning experiences, and have shaped what I do when I travel. But what happens when your ability to affect change is limited or non-existent?

How animals are viewed and treated varies around the world and is a reflection of that particular culture. From an American point of view, we as a nation are experts at anthropomorphism and, thanks in large part to Disney, we endow human-like qualities upon a variety of creatures and objects. When I was younger I remember being tearfully upset after watching the Brave Little Toaster. Since then I have an extremely hard time throwing away appliances. Crazy, right? But that’s who we are as a country.

Not all countries have the luxury of seeing animals as members of their family and it would never occur to them to do so. In most regions around the world, animals are important but usually for their role in work and drudgery. Donkeys, dogs, camels, oxen and so on, are taken care of in these nations not because they’re the youngest child, but because without them work and chores could not be done.

So what happens when someone from a culture that dresses its animals in pirate outfits visits a nation that uses them to heard cattle and carry heavy loads? There is some conflict.

I’ve been in many places where I have been upset at the treatment of animals. In Thailand I thought the elephants at a tourist site were mistreated, in Santorini I learned the dogs were horribly beaten and killed and in many areas of the world I have been angry at how donkeys are treated. In some of these cases there are clear examples of abuse that should be stopped, but in others the line is less clear, such as in Petra.

Petra is huge, much more than the famous Treasury building, it’s a large ancient city. When I was there it was hot and we walked about 12 kilometers in just a few hours. It was hard, and many times I found myself wishing for a golf cart or people mover. The administrators of the Petra site know how challenging the walk can be, and have created several options for less mobile travelers: horses, camels and donkeys. Of these the horses and camels seemed to be well taken care of and, dare I say it, happy. The situation of the donkeys though was not the same.

Donkeys were everywhere at Petra, not just for use by tourists, but used by the local Bedouin as well. Throughout the day I never saw one receive food, water or even treated in a decent way. I was appalled. At the beginning of the Petra walk into the siq, there’s a sign saying that the horses are well taken care of at the site, but donkeys do not receive this same treatment.

I loved visiting Petra, it is one of my favorite travel experiences of all time, but during the course of the day I got more and more upset about the donkeys. I asked my guide about it and he just shook his head and agreed, telling me he refuses to allow his groups to use them as transportation.

I witnessed the same thing in Santorini, Greece, where donkeys were used to shuttle the tourists up and down the steep hill from the cruise port to the main city. Luckily, many guide books now advise their readers to shy away from these questionable modes of transportation.

I’m sure many will say that I’m just being a bleeding heart yank, but I can’t help it and I’m not alone. Millions of tourists feel the same as I do, and seeing donkeys mistreated in Santorini, Petra or wherever, is heartbreaking.

I’m sure they won’t do it, but these tourist areas need to stop using and mistreating animals in this manner. Unfortunately, the only way they’ll stop is if those of us who visit stop using the services. I’d like to think that most would walk instead of ride, but I fear that’s not the case.

What do you think? Is it best to just keep our head down and mind our business when we travel, or should we try to affect change that fits with our own set of morals?

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.

14 thoughts on “Animals and the Travel Experience – How to Reconcile Individual and Cultural Morality”

  1. I agree. I was upset in Santorini when we took our girls a few years ago. There are so many donkeys and they don’t seem to be treated very well. We chose to walk down the long, rocky path back to the boat instead of taking a donkey. Now, we had donkey’s going up and down the steep path next to us with tourists on their backs the entire way. At times it felt like someone could really get hurt. It was a tough walk with 2 kids, but I am glad we did it. Make the tourists walk… there is a tram or bus for the ones who can’t make the trek, too.

  2. This is a really difficult question, and I honestly don’t have a good answer. I am always torn between respecting that cultures do things differently and have different beliefs and wanting them to change some of their ways.

    I wonder what things we do in the US foreigners think are wrong or unjust.

  3. I’m a huge animal lover as well, been a veggie for over a decade. It always breaks my heart to see how animals are treated all over the world (including the US). This is a tough question though that you pose. It seems a bit silly to me to raise hell about the treatment of animals in a place you’re only passing through. Wasted energy, right? I think if you want to try and change conditions it’s best to start locally or a place you visit often?

  4. Maureen @ Vaco Vitae

    Wow! Enlightening–something I hadn’t thought of. I think our best bet is to inform other travelers of this mistreatment in the hope that knowledge equals power (i.e. the power to spend tourist dollars only on humane forms of animal transport). It would be in culturally poor taste to confront these mishandlers, but money talks and eventually they’d mend their animal-abusing ways if tourists stopped using their services.

    I’m going to link to this on my blog and FB pages and encourage others to do the same.

    1. Great replies so far, huge thanks to everyone for the comments. It’s not an easy question, but an important one for many of us.

  5. I have a very hard time with this as well. I still remember, with a hollow place in my heart, the young elephant someone tried to get me to feed for a few baht in downtown Bangkok. It hurt me to see the animal in the city, unprotected. (And if it makes you feel better, I used to feel bad for discarded Xmas trees, to the point of dragging several home in tears one snowy January day!)

    I think the points about tourist dollars are very valid, but we also try to give to groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and sometimes PETA. Though the latter can be controversial for perfectly understandable reasons, both work in developing countries to help animals that are mistreated while helping the people who need animals or transport for business find ways to work with animals safely, or allow their animals to retire.

    I don’t know that it’s ‘respecting culture’ to allow other living beings – ainmal or human – to be harmed. I’m sure there’s things that all cultures find objectionable about others, but I’d like to believe that we can begin with – or build on – a basic respect for life.

  6. I, too, am an ardent animal lover so I share your pain. I can only answer for myself: I could not take any pleasure in an activity that I KNEW depended on or encouraged the mistreatment of humans and I feel the same way about animals. Nicole said it very well–it’s about respect for life, not about disrespecting another culture. I don’t see any difference between humans and animals with regard to a right for that respect.

    How we define the case-by-case details of what respect is or isn’t, is going to be individualized but I think starting at that point can be nothing but helpful. For me, it doesn’t require vegetarianism but it does require that the meat I eat comes from animals that were kept humanely and killed humanely. I don’t like to see animals treated like humans (dressing them up in costumes and putting them at the table to eat, for instance) because to me, it is a human-centric way of continuing to admire and value the ‘humanneess’ in other species instead of valuing the individual characteristics of the species….but thats my interpretation. I love my dog for his innate dogginess and the strenghs he has that I do not share.

    It is particularly challenging in travel, and thaks for opening this topic for discussion.

  7. Thank you for addressing this issue! It has bothered me so much at times that there are some places I will not go because the treatment or disregard for the welfare of animals is ignored. I do not want to put myself in a position where I cannot stomach the situation. It is a question that I hope people will take the time to think about and do what they can in their own sphere of influence.

  8. It made me sad to watch the number of homeless cats in Jerusalem last year. My wife & I also rescued all of our dogs. She doesn’t travel with me, so I always have to come home with cute pictures of animals, and I have to make sure I don’t tell her any stories that involve impoverished animals.

  9. I used to be much more bleeding-heart, but I now think these problems are more nuanced. I was in Morocco recently, and everywhere, we saw local people with monkeys – the eastern equivalent of the organ grinder, I suppose. Except, these monkeys were chained, and occasionally, seemed to try to break free. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have monkeys on chains, forced to perform for tourists. But the reality is, the people at the other end of the chain require a livelihood. There’s no practical point to discussing this until education and alternative means of livelihood can be found for them. Everywhere, for almost every problem, education is the key.

  10. I’ve lived in Uganda for almost 3 years, in fact came here as a volunteer for a conservation org, protecting elephants in partic. I’ve taken in a rescue dog and rescued 3 puppies; the everyday treatment of animals is appalling. There are Ugandans who care but amongst uneducated people who struggle to feed themselves, the only animal that’s cared for is the one that’s going to feed you or bring in money (many tribes glorify cattle, for instance, because of their value and thence your status in the community).
    It’s a question of the most basic economics (although that doesn’t excuse the beatings or the terrible transportation conditions for live animals). In answer to your dilemma, I’d just say that “trying to affect change that fits with our own set of morals” only works if you have the opportunity to ‘lead by example’ i.e. show people how you choose to do things within the local context and the local limitations.
    As for donkeys, they are incredibly hardy animals. I’d be surprised if their owners even think of drinking a glass of water all day, so you need to understand the culture before you judge it. That’s not possible on a day trip.
    Am I saying there aren’t ‘absolutes’ in animal welfare? No, I’m not. I believe passionately in protecting the life of every living creature; I do think there are varying degrees of acceptability tho, bearing in mind limitations that we only ever glimpse.
    Interesting post Matt, thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, you raise some great points. You’re right, we all travel with our own personal set of morals and life experiences, which necessarily colors our experiences. Something to keep in mind.

  11. You certainly raise a good question here for all of us. Would I do something if I was witness to an animal mistreated in a foreign country? Honestly, I don’t know because I would have to take cultural belief into consideration. Even if I don’t agree with the way locals treat animals in their country, who am I to judge them? I know, it sounds totally hypocrit but really, and believe me I’m a big animal-lover – even had a hobby farm – and I travel with my dog! – we, north american, often don’t like when foreigners judge the way we live so…
    My husband went to China a few months ago and his friend there was sooo happy to offer him dinner in this fancy restaurant where they serve, you guessed it, dog. He went, he ate, he was sad as a rock, but he did it anyway because he could not judge the way his friend lived…
    Or course it hurts our values when we see someone intentionnally hurting an animal, it hurts mine anyway, but will I risk causing a scene in a foreign country just because my moral is put to the test?
    In my mind, that’s part of traveling too, seeing and learning that values and moral are different from ours.

  12. I know I’m chiming in on an old entry but I stumbled across this because I have a trip to Jordan coming up next week. I had come across the mistreatment of donkeys in some travel forums while researching the trip. To be honest, it is actually keeping me up at night. What I will do if I witness firsthand mistreatment? Am I going to be heartbroken for these animals during the entire time at Petra? I personally have never felt comfortable with the idea of riding on an animal, especially for a trek that I couldn’t handle on my own two feet. I understand that some animals are working animals but I would rather walk. So at least I know I will not contribute to the problem. But I feel like I have had to reconcile these kinds of issues in the past traveling abroad to places where people simply have a different attitude toward animals. In Cusco the dogs roaming around made me sad but it seemed like people just don’t keep dogs as pets there and they are treated more like squirrels or something. I’m sure there are exceptions but I saw them treated with indifference at the worst, and that I can accept as a cultural difference. But there and many other places with a similar situation I still was sad to see dirty, sometimes sick homeless dogs. But I think it’s easier for me to accept when it does not involve deliberate cruelty.

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