"Don't feed the animals" is advice that still holds true. Jessica Wynne Lockhart finds ways to ensure your next animal encounter is ethical
As a nature enthusiast, I can rattle off the long list of animal attractions I've visited over the years. As a kid, I swam with dolphins in Mexico. As a backpacker, I attended a chicken fight in Nicaragua. And as an adult, I've hand-fed wallabies in petting zoos.
But then, about 10 years ago, I took a trip to the Galapagos and my perspective on wildlife tourism shifted. There was just something about being able to see endemic animals in their natural habitats that were, for the most part, unencumbered by human intervention.
But you don't have to travel to Ecuador or be a card-carrying member of Peta to recognise that animal attractions have the capacity for cruelty. In some places in Thailand, elephants are beaten into submission with sharp bull hooks so that tourists can ride them. Until last year when laws changed, lion cubs were bred as photo props in South Africa, only to end up as hunting targets. And in many countries, dolphins — which can swim up to 80km a day in the wild — are forced to perform daily shows in small concrete pools.
"People often think of the most visible signs of cruelty such as beating, visible wounds or obvious restraints — but there's also suffering that's inherent in wild animals not being in their wild habitat and able to do wild behaviours," says Suzanne Milthorpe, head of campaigns for World Animal Protection, an organisation that advocates for responsible animal tourism.
One study by World Animal Protection found that 75 per cent of wildlife tourist attractions had a negative impact on the animals. But it's not just about the animals kept within facilities — when animals are sourced from the wild, it can put vulnerable species and biodiversity at risk, which has a flow-on effect to the health and livelihoods of local people.
"Travellers really have the power to end the suffering that's inherent in captive wildlife experiences, just by voting with their feet," says Milthorpe.
Yet, tourists continue to frequent animal entertainment attractions. For example, more than 20 million people visit SeaWorld in its locations across the US annually, with the company raking in US$256.5 million ($455.5m) in profits in 2021. And therein lies the oxymoron: We want to see and interact with animals because we love them — but in doing so, we're harming the very thing that we love.
Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to determine whether a nature-based attraction is doing genuine good or harm, as nearly all use will use this get-out-jail-free-card: "We're promoting conservation through education." So, what can you look for?
First, avoid attractions that source animals from the wild, or that promote the holding or touching of wild animals. It's also important to remember that the questionable treatment of animals isn't limited to far-off destinations. In Queensland, for example, koala cuddling - although highly regulated - is still permitted at some wildlife attractions. Critics say it puts undue stress on the marsupials.
Second, know that being a responsible wildlife tourist isn't limited to animals in captivity. Feeding wild animals or interacting with them when they're foraging can increase potential for human-wildlife conflict and affect the ability of animals to survive in the wild.
We've seen that here in New Zealand, where the population of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands plummeted from 270 in 1999 to around 26 in 2020. Research demonstrated that instead of feeding, resting, or nursing their young, they were interacting with tourists. So, three years ago swimming with dolphins in the Bay was banned.
Owner of Carino Wildlife Cruises, Vanessa McKay opted to give up the swimming portion of her tours well before the new DoC restrictions came into effect.
"We could see there was a big change in dolphin behaviour and we wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem," says McKay. "We did take a hit but it's not all about the money."
To find other tour operators that put animals first, she recommends seeking out guides who subscribe to a "look, but don't touch" policy. That means not baiting animals or any other actions that might impede their natural behaviour.
Finally, although it's up to you to determine where your personal boundaries lie (some may go as far as to avoid riding horses), know that boycotting may not be the solution either. Many captive animals cannot safely be returned to the wild and facilities still need funding for their care, much of which comes from tourism dollars. Instead, seek out operators and sanctuaries who have at heart the best interests of the animals, rather than tourists. When done right, wildlife tourism has massive potential for good, generating money for research, and yes, even promoting conservation through education.