The world is cautiously opening back up: as vaccination programmes are rolled out worldwide, travel looks like it might soon be on the cards again. But as we prepare to take off towards new destinations, all giddy with post-lockdown excitement, let’s take with us the knowledge that, hopefully, the pandemic has imparted upon us. The devastating impact of this crisis has highlighted how out of balance our relationship with the natural world and other animals is, and how exploitation of other species can damage not only the most essential parts of our ecosystems, but also seriously harm our own health and well-being.
And this goes beyond what’s on our plates. According to World Animal Protection, before the pandemic approximately 110 million people every year visited wildlife tourist attractions such as circuses, animal rides, and selfies with wild animals. These practices might seem harmless – but an overwhelming majority of the time, animal tourism is harmful and exploitative, and fuels an industry that further establishes the idea that animals are here for us to use. And look where that notion got us.
As we pack our suitcases and prepare to queue up at the airport once again, here are a few attractions that conscious travellers should steer clear of.
Riding elephants, camels, donkeys or other animals on holiday should be off the itinerary. That photo of you atop a mighty elephant may look cool on Instagram – but it’s likely to be causing damage to the animal and many more like them. “Contrary to public perception, elephants are one of the most dangerous animals to handle,” says World Animal Protection’s report . “Consequently, handlers use bull hooks to maintain control of them. These can cause serious injuries including infected sores and cuts.” Elephants are frequently ‘broken in’ to make it easier to handle them, meaning that their wild spirits are torn to shreds using the threat of violence, which often leads to extreme post-traumatic stress in the animals.
A romantic sunset ride? Sure, but make it a scooter, a boat, or any other form of transport that didn’t involve putting animals at risk of traffic accidents, making them stand on hard surfaces that aren’t suitable to their hooves, or exhaust them by forcing them to pull heavy carriages in what is often extreme heat. Travel destinations are rushing to ban this cruel practice, with Rome being the latest to put it to pasture. In 2020, Mayor Virginia Raggi wrote on Facebook: “Carriages will no longer be able to circulate in the streets, in the traffic, but only inside the historic parks,” she wrote on Facebook. “You will never again see tired horses on the streets of the city during the hottest hours of the summer months, because we have expressly forbidden it.”
Swimming with dolphins
This one is tricky, because it’s seemingly harmless: no violence takes place, and the animals aren’t even forced to do anything but swim. So no damage done, right? Wrong. Like any wild animals, dolphins fare badly in captivity. Dolphins travel long distances each day, only spend a small fraction of their time at the surface, and never come to shore. “Most facilities capture their dolphins directly from the wild,” says the Humane Society. “Capture is highly traumatic for wild dolphins and may cause an often fatal condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy. In addition, the status of the populations from which dolphins are captured is often unknown and the removal of even a few individuals may have negative impacts on the pod members left behind.”
Years ago, you’d only have to spend a few minutes on Tinder to see them: the grinning, sunburnt faces next to a majestic wild animal. Tiger selfies – or photos with other wild animals – proliferated on dating sites before Tinder banned them in 2017. The practice of tiger petting or pictures has been slow to disappear, though: as lockdown cult Tiger King showed, people who believe to “love” animals still queue up to take photos with them, oblivious to the fact that many of the animals have been taken from their homes, are kept in highly unnatural conditions that cause them extreme stress, and commonly have to be sedated in order to pose with tourists.
A PETA report from the Greek island of Santorini – a coveted tourist hotspot – reveals the abuse of the donkeys and mules used to transport tourists more than 500 steps to the old town of Firá. The animals are forced to carry loads much too heavy for their bodies, are given no respite from the scorching heat, and are sometimes even denied water. Cable cars operate nearby, making the use of animals archaic and obsolete. Celebs such as Tommy Lee have spoken out against the practice of “donkey taxis” – but another, more recent report from PETA shows that the practice goes on.
Animal attractions will continue to exist for as long as they are profitable, which is why consumption, in this case, is power: when travellers spend their money on holiday entertainment that abuse or exploit animals, those industries thrive. So the best thing tourists can do for animals when exploring a new destination is to avoid attractions that use them – and let others know why they are staying away.
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Cover image by Annie Spratt.