Animal cruelty in tourism – are you part of the problem?

Before you add an animal excursion to your holiday itinerary, we want to help uncover the hidden suffering behind alluring ticket sales.

13th February 2023

The lure of being able to observe a wild animal up close is undoubtedly real, and a holiday abroad can often provide such an opportunity.  Whilst some attractions can provide authentic, unobtrusive moments to experience such exhilaration from afar, of wild animals displaying natural behaviours in their own environments, other venues can hide a magnitude of sins beneath their dazzling and ‘creative’ marketing ploys.

Research conducted by World Animal Protection found that three out of four wildlife tourist attractions involve some form of abuse or conservation concerns, with thousands of tourists simply unaware of what was happening behind the scenes, inadvertently contributing to the cruelty.

a tiger cub being held for a photograph

As animal lovers, how do we become informed and educated on the reality of animal cruelty within the tourist industry? Before adding such an excursion to the holiday itinerary, do your research, as there is often hidden suffering behind the alluring ticket sales.

Research the attraction and its activities

It’s important to research any activities you might be looking to take part in before booking. A study conducted by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that every year up to four million tourists financially support attractions that are detrimental to animal welfare or conservation.

The vast majority of survey participants however were blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing at such venues. That ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ excursion may be the very reason for a lifetime of misery for many animals. If an animal is doing something it wouldn’t do in the wild, how can you be sure it hasn’t been trained to subdue its natural behaviours through cruel measures?

Read any reviews

You can usually find wildlife venues on review sites, enabling you to read the opinions of other visitors and their experiences. Some visitors however remain oblivious to the cruelty, especially if it’s hidden well, so start at the lowest review ratings and dig a little deeper to unearth any potential welfare issues.

Don’t fall for the lies

When you arrive at your holiday destination, you might meet local operators trying to advertise their attractions with compelling and captivating stories of wonder. It can be hard not to get carried away in a beautiful destination, but tourists are often told they are supporting elephant conservation or tiger breeding by visiting a certain attraction, but in reality, would be unknowingly supporting animal abuse and the breeding of wildlife in captivity.  Unfortunately, tourists are often exploited for money whilst on their holidays, and the sales tactics used are renowned.  It would pay to think twice before committing.

a bear in captivity

Avoid animal souvenirs

Be mindful of what you’re buying as gifts or memorabilia of your time away. Some souvenirs are made with ivory or animal fur which inevitably involved the death of an animal. Think before you buy and if you’re unsure whether an animal has suffered for the product, put it back and walk away. This is especially important with accessories such as bags and clothes which could have been made using the fur or skin of local wildlife.

Know what wildlife activities to avoid

There are many different types of captive animal facilities, some better at hiding the abuse than others, but here’s a list of what you should avoid.

  1. Swimming with whales and dolphins – These exquisite marine mammals are often kept in tiny, featureless spaces, completely different to their natural habitat; vast open waters where they would naturally be swimming miles per day within family groups.  Instead, as a result of swimming in endless circles, dorsal fin collapse happens to 100% of captive male adult orcas, compared to just 1% in the wild.An infographic about whales in captivity
  2. Elephant trekking, riding, performing, or painting - This is against the elephants’ natural instincts and usually training them involves beating them with prods or canes. This has led to incidents where handlers or even tourists have ended up being hurt. Wild elephants have long life spans and typically live up to 70 years of age but endure a significantly lower life expectancy in captivity.
  3. Circuses that involve animals - It is not natural for animals to perform these tricks. In many cases, they are kept in poor conditions and punished for not complying with the show's demands.
  4. Rodeos, stampedes, and bullfighting - Not only do some of these activities lead to the needless death of the animal but they are kept in poor conditions. Ultimately, these activities are dangerous for the humans involved too.
  5. Canned hunting - These animals are often bred for the sole-purpose of being hunted in a small enclosure. You can help by asking your MP to make it illegal to bring these trophies back to the UK.
  6. Wildlife selfies - A selfie may seem like a harmless snap, but the animals involved are often drugged to keep them calm and compliant. Can it ever be considered cruelty-free if a wild animal is being held, touched, or restrained for the sake of a holiday photograph?
  7. Walking with lions, tigers, or other big cats - Taken from their mother as young cubs and trained to walk alongside humans, these animals are ‘retired’ once they are considered too big and unruly to be walked. Often sold on as targets for trophy hunters, this holiday activity is deemed a direct contribution to the canned lion-hunting industry.An infographic about tigers in captivity
  8. Holding sea turtles - In recent years, six of the seven sea turtle species have been listed as threatened or endangered because of us humans. Touching turtles can cause physical harm and mental stress to the animal, whilst disrupting a female as she nests or carrying a hatchling back to the ocean can reduce their chances of survival. This activity is illegal in some places but not all so it’s important to be mindful of these facts.
  9. Snake charming - These fearsome creatures need to have their fangs removed and venom blocked through painful procedures that can sometimes lead to death by starvation.

I’m only one visitor, how will I make a difference by not going?

One person can make a difference. You don't have to be a big shot. You don't have to have a lot of influence. You just have to have faith in your power to change things.” Norman Vincent Peale

We can all help make a difference to the animals suffering; take the time to research ethical establishments and seek out natural animal conservation projects. 

What attractions should I visit instead?

There are plenty of reputable wildlife sanctuaries, rescues and rehabilitation centres doing superb work around the world, many rescuing the very animals that have been retired from unethical tourist attractions. In many cases, the animals at these sanctuaries can’t be released back into the wild but are offered a chance to live their lives in comfort and without exploitation.

These centres would not offer rides or performances or encourage the handling and cuddling of the animals.

See the animals in the wild

There’s no better feeling than seeing animals in their natural habitat, enjoying the freedoms they so rightly deserve. Undertake the activity ethically where animals are protected, and loved, from afar so they can continue to be enjoyed by generations still to come.

Report any cruelty you witness

If you’ve witnessed any suffering, abuse, or exploitation on your travels, you can submit a report about your concerns via Born Free’s Raise the Red Flag Platform. The more information you can provide the better, with photos and video footage being particularly useful in helping the charity in its investigations. The platform also helps highlight animal welfare problems around the world, shares information with other travellers through an interactive map, and provides advice on how to flag your concerns.

A dolhpin in captivity

By saying no to cruel animal attractions and excursions on your next holiday, you can help reduce the demand for animals in entertainment. When there’s no demand for the animals in captivity, the cruelty must end. Educate other travellers on animal welfare and conservation practices; inspire, create change and be part of the solution, not the problem.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” - Nelson Mandela

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