Say no to tiger cub selfies and elephant rides.

It’s hard to find anything cuter than the sight of a wild monkey swinging lightning-fast from jungle vines – and even more difficult to find someone who disagrees.

But what happens if that same monkey is held in captivity? Whether in a zoo, animal refuge center, or another form of containment. What then?

Wildlife tourism condemns over half a million wild animals to unseen suffering, according to World Animal Protection. Over 110 million people worldwide visit cruel wildlife tourist attractions annually, and yet most are unaware of the animal abuses involved.

These unignorable trends reveal the dark side of wildlife tourism. Many of the well-intentioned interactions we have with animals abroad are feeding the growth of an abusive industry.

From donating to an unethical animal sanctuary to taking a selfie with a “tame” tiger, we’ve outlined the most common ways wildlife cruelty continues to profit all around the world. We’ve also presented actions you can take to be a part of the solution.

Think twice before engaging in the following activities:

Posing for a selfie or photo opp

While your selfie with a tiger cub or a monkey on your shoulder may rake in likes on social media, it’s also inadvertently supporting animal exploitation.

According to a 2016 study by World Animal Protection, tigers are specifically bred for photos with tourists, especially in Thailand. Tigers are separated from their mothers early on and immediately subjugated to daily handling and stressful interactions with visitors.

The Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno tiger “sanctuary” in Thailand, as an example, was recently raided and closed down because of this exact reason, along with allegations of the illegal sale of tiger parts.

Ever wondered how tigers remain passive for photos? Aggressive training and fear-based techniques are used to break in the animal, and change their natural behavior. Sometimes, strong sedatives are also used.

This is an global issue and doesn’t only happen with tigers, or just in Thailand. Holding sea turtles and touching other marine life, as an example, can be extremely harmful. Dancing monkeys (if you’ve ever seen one) are also often kept in the same conditions.

Riding an elephant

Similar to tigers, elephants are taken away from their mothers at birth and put through an intensive training process – called “crushing” – to make them submissive enough for tourist rides.

Even though they may look at peace, the forceful and aggressive training techniques are used to change the natural behavior of the elephants. The bull hook, as an example, painfully strikes the elephant if/when they act out.  

Just like many other animals exploited for wildlife tourism, the elephants are isolated from one another and chained up when they’re not being used for tourist purposes. Since elephants are social creatures who aren’t used to confined spaces, these conditions damage their physical and psychological well-being.

What can I do?
Want to join the thousands of others who have pledged against taking wildlife selfies?  Do so here. You can also urge the UN to back a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare by adding your voice to this campaign.

Supporting wildlife sanctuaries

Be wary when choosing which wildlife rescue center to visit, volunteer, or donate your money. There are a handful of global wildlife sanctuaries which are genuinely doing wonderful work – rehabilitating and rescuing animals which would otherwise be unable to survive.

However, most are not.

Many wildlife rescue centers operate as businesses, and prioritize profit over the well-being of their wildlife.

Remember, not many (if any) wildlife sanctuaries are “perfect.” Even centers doing great work should be challenged to grow, improve, and better support the rights of animals.

As tourists, we need to be aware of bad practice, and hold all wildlife rescue centers accountable to the long-term well-being of animals.

So, what are some warning signs to watch out for?

  1. Direct contact
    No center should allow you to touch, pat, or hold the wildlife. Direct interaction with animals, such as elephants and monkeys, is a huge draw for visitors. Meaning? It’s profitable for wildlife sanctuaries.

    However, if an animal is to be eventually released into the wild, its contact with humans should be very minimal. Reputable organizations have a no-contact policy with their wildlife. They don’t even allow you to see the animals, and openly object to operating as a zoo as this is considered too much human interaction.
  2. Undesirable living conditions
    The closures at animal refuge centers should replicate, as closely as possible, the real-life habitat of an animal. For highly energetic wildlife, as an example, the captivity area should be large, giving the animals sufficient room to roam.

    Unfortunately, many wildlife sanctuaries claim they lack the funding and resources to design real-to-life closures

    What can I do?
    Don’t stay quiet! Keep sanctuaries accountable to finding the best possible solutions for their animals, even if that means relocating the wildlife to a nearby center that can better accommodate their needs.  

    If this isn’t an option, find out what steps the sanctuary has and will take to improve the living conditions of their wildlife.

    From there, you can determine how invested the sanctuary is in its animals and their well-being.
  3. Refusal to release exotic animals
    Wildlife sanctuaries are notorious for coming up with reasons that explain why an animal can not be released into the wild, particularly exotic species.

    Exotic species are tourist money-makers, and many wildlife sanctuaries are worried about the financial loss of releasing a spectacular animal, like an anaconda or gorilla.

    If you ask a wildlife center why they’re not releasing an animal, you’ll most likely be told that the animal isn’t ready, its too domesticated, or wouldn’t survive.

    Unfortunately, there’s no definitive study that directly addresses how long it takes to release an animal, or if some animals really are too domesticated to ever re-enter into the wild. Research on this issue has been done on a case-by-case basis, and results differ.

    However, that does not mean that, as tourists, we should readily accept the claims of sanctuaries. There are many real world examples of organizations that have successfully reintroduced animals into the wild. Well-designed training programs grounded in extensive planning and research from qualified professionals have been proven to release even the most domesticated of animals.

    What can I do?
    To find out if an animal refuge center is truly doing everything possible to release its animals back into the wild, here are some challenging questions you can ask:
  • How long ago did you last release an animal?
  • How many animals have you released since opening?
  • What’s the average time it takes to release an animal?
  • Can you tell us more about your release training programs? Who designs them? What credentials does that person (or people) have? Can you walk me through one of them?

    Conservation Travel Africa also put together a list of other great questions.

Moving forward

Even though we’ve painted a dire picture, it’s worth celebrating that 25% of all wildlife attractions have a positive impact on the welfare of animals involved, according to the World Animal Protection’s report.  And some of these attractions include animal sanctuaries.

As we continue the fight for animal rights, we encourage you to be loud about these issues.

  • Actively boycott activities that exploit wildlife, like animal selfies and elephant rides

  • Stop visiting zoos and aquariums

  • Start meaningful conversations on social media (you can borrow this hashtag: #wildlifedependsonit)

  • Be wary about which animal refuge centers you choose to invest your time and money

Moving forward, let’s advocate for putting wildlife back where it belongs – in the wild.

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