Activities involving animals are among some of the most sought after tourist attractions. As explained by Wildlife Tourism: Impacts, Management and Planning, the current definition of wildlife tourism “…includes activities historically classified as ‘non-consumptive’, such as viewing, photography and feeding, as well as those that involve killing or capturing animals, particularly hunting … and recreational fishing…”.

For the tourism industry, it’s nothing more than a profit-making scheme. There is a dark underbelly that exists beneath the surface, which sees the wellbeing and safety of animals severely compromised in the name of entertainment. It is vital as a progressive society that we begin to view animals as individuals, not mere tokens of amusement that we can use in any way we see fit. 

Snake pit at US event where snakes are decapitated & dismembered. Tourists can pay to take part. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

In most cases, the ways in which animals used as tourist attractions are cared for fail to meet their physical, psychological and behavioural needs. Often, animals are not provided with adequate food or water and are housed in deplorable conditions, which often deny them the ability to express natural behaviours. Animals used as tourist attractions are often subject to inhumane training and handling. Wild animals in captivity frequently develop not only physical, but psychological disorders. Many of the countries where animal tourist attractions are prevalent have minimal laws that protect animals from abuse or cruelty. Please note that this article only briefly touches on these issues, and only mentions several of the many animals exploited for wildlife tourism, but the principle of inherent cruelty being involved with the exploitation of animals for human entertainment is true for all industries that use animals for this purpose. 

Photography & social media

On the surface, posing for a photo with an exotic animal may seem like a harmless activity. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. Photos with exotic animals contribute to the illegal trade of wild animals (so that they can continue to be held in captivity for human entertainment), as well as a plethora of other welfare issues associated with their housing and care.

Sloth being held by a tourist for a selfie. Image: World Animal Protection

Often the animals used for ‘selfies’ have been taken from their mothers, who live either in the wild or captivity, so that they can be trained to obey humans through punishment-based methods. These methods aim to instil fear and pain in animals to eradicate any aggressive or unwanted behaviour. Animals are commonly housed in small, barren cages, and often fed inappropriate and inadequate diets. Additionally, these animals seldom receive appropriate veterinary care. 

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

Tigers

Tigers are a commonly-used “prop” for photos in tourism-heavy locations in Asia, heavily sedated to minimise the risk of aggression. They are commonly tethered with chains around their necks. Captivity has been shown to have no value for long-term conservation of tigers, and on top of this, it also encourages illegal activity, such as wildlife trade and poaching. Some tigers held in captivity have their sharpest teeth removed to protect tourists, and have greater dental issues compared to those living in the wild. They are also typically chained and confined in small areas, left to lay on hard surfaces when not interacting with tourists. 

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

Social media platforms create competition between users to get as many “likes” as possible. This leads to exploitation of the rarity of exotic animals for attention, which wildlife tourism perpetuates. Mojo the monkey is an example of humans exploiting animals for notoriety. 

A monkey forced to live unnaturally. Photo: @mymojothemonkey

Influencers are also paid to promote certain products and businesses, including travel, entertainment and products where animal cruelty has been or continues to be involved. 

Safari Tours & Wildlife Parks

Viewing, visiting and interacting with safari animals is largely publicised as a tourist attraction. Giraffes, hippopotamuses, zebras and wildebeest are some of many animals falling under this category. Although bigger than a typical zoo, the circumstances and lifestyles of the animals in these parks is very much the same – confining, lonely and cruel. 

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

Unfortunately, for this type of tourism to occur, the animals involved must be either taken from their natural habitat and held captive, or bred into captivity. Either way, captivity largely restricts their abilities to behave naturally. There have also been a number of reported incidents where veterinary care was not provided, and the conditions of living were severely sub-par. A large number of safari parks are also associated with hunting and trophy hunting, which is directly contributing to the extinction of wildlife. 

Lions

Lion cubs are often bred under the guise of conservation, taken from their mothers and used for tourists to pet, take photos with and bottle-feed. When cubs grow older they are often used for ‘lion walking’, and lastly once they become too large and dangerous for human interaction they are used for ‘canned’ hunting. Canned hunting is when wealthy tourists pay to slaughter wild animals in fenced off areas. After they are slaughtered, lion bones are often sold for medicinal use in Southeast Asia. 

Hunters posing next to a lion they killed. Photo: PETA

Bears

Known to be highly intelligent animals, bear species such as brown bears, sun bears and even polar bears are regularly used for human entertainment, typically in circuses. From a young age bears are forced to stand on their hind legs by chaining their necks to walls

Bear cubs chained high enough to force them to stand on their hind legs. Photo: Peta2

Holding their heavy bodies on their hind legs, as well as the inability to exercise, can lead to permanent joint issues. Circus training practices include the use of bullhooks, electric prodders, food deprivation, muzzles, tight restraints and whips. Naturally, bears are energetic and spend a lot of time exploring. The confinement and stress of circus bears leads to depression and other psychological issues.

Performing bear who urinated on himself due to stress. Photo: PETA 

It’s quite common to find brown bears kept in small enclosures in zoos, for humans to view at their leisure. 

Riding and transport 

Some of the largest wildlife tourism attractions involve the use of animals as transport – whether they be camels, horses, donkeys or elephants. 

Group of tourists exploiting donkeys. Photo: PETA 

Elephants

Elephants are the largest land mammals on planet earth, and have a gestation period of 22 months. They also form complex social structures. Elephants are killed for the ivory in their tusks, used as circus performers, entertainers, modes of transport, and for the overrated tourist attraction – elephant riding. Advertisements and social media promote elephant riding, yet the abuse and severe animal welfare issues that go on behind the scenes are conveniently left out. 

Elephants used in riding are either bred in captivity, or taken from their natural habitat and family. For humans to ensure dominance of the young elephants, they are tied up and beaten, starved and kept without water, until humans have successfully brought them to a psychological breaking point. This process is known as the “crush”. Due to their ability to maintain long memories, the abuse during the crush forces elephants to obey their “trainers”, as their instilled terror will last a lifetime. 

Young elephant tied & chained to posts. Photo: World Animal Protection

Elephants are typically held by chains restricting their movement, left standing on hard, concrete floors for hours every day. This can lead to issues with their feet and arthritis. It is also common for captive elephants to be deprived of basic nutrition and hydration. World Animal Protection’s study, during 2014 to 2016, on nearly 3,000 elephants over 220 venues, found that 77% were living in “severely cruel” conditions. Elephants held in captivity typically die before they reach 40 years old, but naturally live up to 70.

Elephants can be forced to work long days, hauling many tourists or other heavy materials, which can also lead to spinal injuries. Many are forced to work in extreme heat. Due to their size and low ability to sweat, thermoregulation issues can arise, leading to potentially fatal overheating.

“This baby elephant is too tired to serve humans without rest and adequate food, he has to lean on the cliff and take a nap,”. Photo: Nguyen Ngoc Quynh Anh’s Facebook.

Naturally, elephants are very social, empathetic and intelligent individuals. They are not domesticated animals. Unlike dogs and cats, who have been genetically manipulated to become domesticated, elephants are still wild animals. It is through breaking them and using painful tactics, such as stabbing bullhooks into their sensitive skin, that they appear domesticated.

Wounds from the use of bullhooks. Photo: faizal je (@faizalghazaly)

Out of the sea

The commodification of tourism involving wild animals has led to the displacement of large numbers of marine animals from their vast and diverse oceanic environments into confinement, where they are forced to live out their days in small tanks with minimal stimulation. Aquariums and parks such as SeaWorld & AquaLife are directly responsible for this cruelty. The unsustainable rate at which marine life is being removed from the ocean has devastating effects on marine ecosystems. As recently as 2010, Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) refused to approve proposals for restriction on trade in relation to a number of highly exploited and “valuable” marine species, even though said proposals were heavily backed by alarming scientific evidence.

Handling animals is advertised as an attraction at many parks. However, they fail to elaborate on the risks for the non-human and human animal. Spreading of disease (both ways), as well as injury, shock and emotional trauma to the non-human animal are real risks associated with this “entertainment”.

Turtles

A turtle being handled. Photo: World Animal Protection

Sea turtle farms attract tourists wishing to hold and interact with these shy & endangered animals. Kept in small tanks or concrete areas with many others, turtles would naturally swim large distances and dive hundreds of metres. Due to the state of captive environments and the forced handling by humans, they endure changes in behaviour leading to stress and weakened immune systems, leaving them susceptible to disease. Sunscreen & insect repellent worn by tourists handling turtles can also be toxic.

Large varieties of fish are confined to tanks in aquariums and parks. In some Asian countries, fish pedicures are advertised as tourist attractions, where humans sit with their feet in a tank, and small fish eat the dead skin. Typically, the fish used are starved and eat the skin solely for survival. This attraction poses not only health dangers for fish, but humans also face hygiene risks. 

Fish pedicure. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

Dolphins are used as props for performances, swimming and tourist photo opportunities. Due to the stress involved in being captured by boats, death during transport to captivity is common. Not only are they removed from their natural habitat, but captivity poses great risks for their health, both mentally and physically. Through behavioural studies, scientists have been able to recognise self-awareness in dolphins. At Minnesota Zoo in 2006, Harley, a bottlenose dolphin, deprived of his natural, mentally stimulating environment, jumped out of his tank and hit his head on the concrete. He died shortly after due to a fractured skull. 

Dolphin at Switzerland aquarium. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

In places such as Taiji Cove, Japan, dolphins are captured, sometimes to be sold to entertainment facilities, or massacred for their flesh. A documentary titled “The Cove” delves into this secretive and deadly practice, and can be viewed here

Similarly to dolphins, either taken from natural environments or bred in captivity, orcas and other whale species are confined to small tanks to live out their days as entertainment for humans. The physical and mental impacts of confining and moving sea animals in small nets or crates via land or air transport are concerning. 

SeaWorld San Diego: Size of “Orca Encounter”, where whales are housed, vs the carpark.

Technically marine animals, polar bears are also held in captivity at zoos. For an individual who can swim for days on end, captivity in small enclosures greatly inhibits the enactment of any natural behaviours.

Image by Sheng-Wen Lo, National Geographic 

As pictured, the uncomfortable, fake enclosure humans have created for this polar bear in China, in an attempt to show a more natural environment, actually proves the dark, lonely and isolated reality for this naturally highly mobile marine animal.

To learn more about marine life in captivity, visit here.

This very brief overview of just some of what occurs in the wildlife tourism industry leads us to the question: is the extreme suffering and cruelty wildlife stuck in the tourism industry endure really worth the supposed human benefits?

Environmental impact

Carbon footprint

Advertising wildlife tourist attractions globally creates the perceived need for humans to travel large distances. This means that whether it be by car, boat, or plane, wildlife tourism takes a large toll on the environment.

Intelligent marine wildlife such as bottlenose dolphins, orcas, beluga whales and sea lions make up a majority of the marine trade. Hunting for these animals has been reported in countries such as Japan, with transport ending up as far away as Turkey, Mexico and Dubai. The environmental costs of carbon emissions with large transport distances, around 8,500KM in some instances, are detrimental.

Keiko being removed from his pool, about to be placed onto a transport truck. Photo: AFP/Daily Mail
Land clearing, removing a large amount of natural habitat. Photo: WWF 

Land clearing

Wildlife tourism requires land for the housing of animals, which can be obtained through land clearing.

The irony of this situation is that the clearing wipes out natural wildlife habitat. Wildlife living freely in these areas are displaced or even killed so that businesses with wild animals that have been taken from their homes can be put on display.

Human impact

Danger to workers

When humans work with animals whose natural behaviours differ greatly from how they are forced to behave in captivity, it is clear that risks are involved. “Taming” animals doesn’t determine their future behaviour pattern. There have been numerous attacks reported globally, where wildlife in captivity have severely injured or killed wildlife park workers and trainers. Orcas held in captivity have been known to show aggression towards humans, yet an incident such as this has never been reported in the wild. In October 2020, a group of bears mauled a trainer in front of tourists at Shanghai Wild Animal Park. In 2007, a crocodile ripped off the arm of his veterinarian. 

Crocodile with trainer’s arm in their mouth. Photo: China Daily 

Danger to the public

Wildlife tourism and the interactions with animals it encourages have an element of risk for tourists. A woman had her toes amputated after contracting osteomyelitis from a Thai fish spa. 

There is also potential psychological trauma from seeing attacks, like the ones mentioned above.

Alternatives

We’ve touched on a number of different issues within wildlife tourism, and while these different types of animal cruelty still go on, one may ask what we can do to make a difference on a person level. Luckily, attractions involving wildlife really only make up a small percentage of the activities tourists can visit and take part in.

Social Media

Social media influencers can use their platforms to educate others on the issues associated with wildlife tourism. They can share the reasons why it’s exploitative, and help to share alternatives for tourists.

Photography

Photography of animals from a distance, in their natural habitat, is cruelty-free. It’s important to maintain distance and leave the individuals space to avoid interaction, to avoid causing stress and encroaching on their lives. As there’s so much more to see and do than visit animal cruelty hotspots, photo opportunities arise regularly while hiking, walking and exploring the outdoors. There’s no need to force captive animals to be a part of your photo album.

Janko Ferlic: Young brown bear in nature 

Sanctuaries

There are a number of organisations and sanctuaries who dedicate their time and resources to rehabilitating elephants, where tourists are able to volunteer or donate money to. However, before supporting any, it’s important to determine whether they are operating ethically. Websites such as World Animal Protection provide information regarding which sanctuaries are ethical. To name a few stand out features, ethical sanctuaries will have minimal to no human contact (ie. no feeding, touching, riding), and they will allow elephants to live naturally and act out normal behaviours. ChangChill, Elephant Valley Projectand Mahouts Elephant Foundation are some examples of ethical elephant sanctuaries.

Sea Life

Swimming at the beach or going on a boat, yacht or ship are a few ways to spend time around marine animals. While ensuring there is consideration of space and distance between humans and animals, snorkeling or coasting around reefs, deep/shallow water and shipwrecks allows human animals to view these impressive non-human animals, free of confinement or practices restricting their normal behaviours. 

Other slightly more adventure-seeking activities include hot-air ballooning, sky-diving and mountain biking, which cover lots of ground to view wildlife. 

Hot air balloon overlooking wildlife in their natural habitat.
Photo: Antony Trivet

Wildlife Rescue

In the way of interacting with wildlife, there are opportunities to learn how to become wildlife handlers and volunteer with organisations making a positive difference to the lives of wildlife who may be in trouble. This gives a “hands-on” experience in a way that is beneficial. Other than this, it is best to avoid touching wildlife as it can cause stress or lead to illness.

Lisa Palma releasing a rehabilitated ringtail possum. Photo: Andy Meddick