This is a guest post by Emily Buchanan about a topic very close to my heart.
On Trip Advisor, Phuket Zoo has received 199 “terrible” reviews. Visitors have branded it a “horrible experience” “dirty and neglectful” “miserable” and “cruel.” Many have called for it to be closed down whilst others have simply despaired at the disgraceful conditions the animals are subjected to. There are reports of chained monkeys, drugged tigers and humiliating dances by subordinate elephants. It sounds like an 18th century circus and yet this zoo is still running in the 21st century and people are still paying to visit it.
- Photo via Flickr creative commons.
Every year, thousands of tourists visit zoos, animal parks and attractions that exhibit less than acceptable standards of care. From the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona (Spain) to elephant riding in Southeast Asia, there are many forms of animal tourism that are considered a rite of passage on the backpacker trail and, thanks in part to its wealth of exotic inhabitants, wildlife tourism is a major money-spinner in Thailand. As such, tourists often compare flight tickets and save-up for months, keen to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most endangered animals. But at what cost to the animal itself?
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is more than aware of the cost of wildlife tourism. “Animal cruelty can be a by-product of tourism,” they report. “Animal circuses, bullfights… and poor welfare zoos are all examples of animal exploitation in the name of entertainment.” Indeed, the Phuket Zoo reviews speak extensively of this exploitation as do the pictures of a sad, practically bald orangutan wearing sunglasses. The same can be said for the trike-riding baboons and the abnormally placid tigers chained to slabs of concrete. These images do not represent an establishment that is keen to recreate an animal’s natural habitat.
Increasingly, neglect isn’t just an issue in eastern countries. Travelling zoos, aquariums and petting zoos have also come under fire in the west, particularly in the USA. Even seemingly well-organised attractions, like dolphin shows, have a seriously negative impact on their involuntary performers. “Captivity cannot meet the welfare needs of marine mammals such as dolphins and whales,” says the WSPA. “Facilities displaying captive marine mammals and activities like swimming with dolphins should be avoided – they may appear fun and educational but are unnatural and stressful for the animals involved.” Indeed, many dolphins do not survive the trauma of capture. Of those that do, 53% die within three months of confinement, suffering intestinal disease, stress-related illness and chlorine poisoning.
Whilst the problem is evidently worldwide, Thailand gets a particularly bad rep for its animal welfare standards (alongside other Southeast Asian destinations). From 2005 to 2008, Care for the Wild carried out extensive undercover investigations into Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple. Their consequent report stated that “far from being allowed to roam free, tigers were actually confined for 20 hours a day in small cages, measuring 31.5m2 to 37.3m2. This falls short of the published minimum of 500m2 for a pair or a mother and her cubs.” Additionally, Care for the Wild raised concerns over visitor safety, observing that staff “were unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with potential emergencies.” Therefore, if a tiger became aggressive (as is their nature) there’s little that could be done. Suddenly, pictures of children hugging these sedate creatures make for some pretty uncomfortable viewing.
Conservation over cruelty
Compassionate travel is about recognising the difference between conservation and cruelty. Whilst some decidedly well-meaning establishments will suffer from the constraints of poverty, others inflict unnecessarily harsh conditions on their key attractions. It’s important to distinguish which is which and to make a compassionate decision.
Fundamentally, it’s about ethics. You have to question the motivations of an organisation that forces their animals to dance or to partake in other unnatural behaviours through avoidable means. Many of the positive effects of animal tourism (economics, localised sustenance and the like) can be achieved ethically. Of course, we should be able to visit these animals and to actively benefit their lives, but this mustn’t be at their detriment– that simply doesn’t make sense. The relationship between man and animal can and should be harmonious; we simply need to reach that balance.
A quick guide to compassionate travel
Emily Buchanan is a writer and editor living in Norwich, England. She’s always trying to find the humanity in digitalisation and travel, believing compassion to be the single most important quality one can wish to possess. When she’s not being dead serious she likes to dye her hair a multitude of colours (currently blue and purple).