The promise of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ encounters with exotic animals is a major driver of cruel animal attractions in tourism industries throughout the world. Both a fascination with wildlife and an obsession with taking the perfect travel selfies is why many people who otherwise would claim to love animals unwittingly contribute to severe acts of animal cruelty.
We need to do better! I’ve compiled research on 7 cruel animal attractions to avoid when you travel. At the end of this post, there’s also a few suggestions on cruelty-free animal attractions to do instead. We all have a responsibility to avoid these cruel animal attractions. It’s our responsibility as travellers with hearts and minds.
A quick note: this isn’t intended to shame people who have participated in these things in the past. I can clearly recall times where I did some of these things! Sometimes we just don’t know any better! This is simply meant as an educational tool so we can all become more responsible, ethical and considerate travellers.
Cruel Animal Attractions to Avoid
Elephant Riding & Performances
Common In: Thailand
Elephant riding has long been a popular animal attraction for visitors in southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. When I was a kid I rode elephants, because I was so fascinated by elephants and wanted to see them up close. Then, perched on their backs on a saddle, I remember becoming super upset as I watched the beautiful elephant being hit repeatedly by the trainer. Before then, I had no idea I was contributing to one of the most cruel animal attractions in the world! So, why is elephant riding so bad? Let’s dive in!
As big and strong as elephants are, their physiology means they are just not supposed to carry heavy loads on their backs. The combined weight of a saddle, chair and a couple of passengers puts a lot of strain on the elephants, causing them pain and injuries. And that’s just the beginning of the cruelty of elephant rides.
Training starts with the Phajaan or “breaking of the spirit”. Traditionally, this process was believed to drive the wild spirit out of an elephant, leaving it in control of its handlers. The traditional method involves separating a young elephant from its mother, putting the elephant in a cage, and then using corporal punishment (such as beating, stabbing and being starved). The point of this is to make the elephant so fearful of its human captors that it will follow instruction to avoid being abused again.
Of course, they are continually abused throughout their lives. During the ride itself, a bullhook is used to hit the elephant into obeying commands. Often used in sensitive areas, such as the thin skin behind the ears, this causes a great deal of pain. By maintaining this fear of being hit, the “guides” ensure that an elephant will do things it otherwise wouldn’t do.
Common In: India
Snake charming has actually been banned in India since the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972 because of the cruel and violent truth, yet snake charmers continue to disregard the law and “charm” their snakes into doing a “dance”.
So, how does snake charming work? Snakes are taken from the wild, and immediately subjected to violent acts. Venomous snakes have their fangs extracted and their venom glands burst, disabling the snake’s only way to defend itself. Snakes, regardless of whether they’re venomous or not, often have their mouths sewn shut, leaving a small gap to pour water down. The then snakes are kept in the dark, cramped cane baskets that they’re made to “perform” in.
This “dance” that they’re “charmed” into doing is actually a defensive sway to the snake charmer, as the snakes believe they are being attacked and are terrified. While they are deaf and can’t hear the music, the vibrations from the instrument and the motions of the snake charmer appear threatening.
Common In: Thailand
One of the other cruel animal attractions I myself have bought into in the past. My parents took me to the infamous Tiger Temple, because tigers have long been one of my favourite animals and, once again, we had no idea how cruel this practice was until we got to the park and saw how poor the conditions were.
Cubs are often separated from their mothers just a few weeks after birth – something traumatic for both tigress and cub. In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers for around 2 years. This is done so that the mother can be weaned and mated again to produce more cubs for the industry. At parks like the Tiger Temple and Sriracha Tiger Zoo, most tigers are housed in small, barren cages. Their captive habitats are often nothing more than concrete, and have limited access to fresh water.
Tigers are aggressive, predacious animals – not really the cute and cuddly kind that naturally enjoy being held by humans. The cubs can be easily mishandled by the hundreds of tourists that hold them every day, causing both stress and injury. Because of their naturally aggressive demeanour – not really conducive to snuggling with humans – tigers are punished using pain and fear to stop this “unwanted” behaviour.
When investigating the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, the World Animal Protection group found that “one in ten tigers observed showed behavioural problems, such as repetitive pacing or biting their tails.” Behaviours like this are common when tigers are in stressful environments and can’t cope.
Common In: Throughout Asia, particularly Thailand, India & China
Monkeys are used as street entertainment throughout Asia. Forced to play instruments, ride bicycles, handstand on bars, walk on stilts, play basketball and even catch knives. Wearing tight collars, the monkeys are usually chained up when they’re not being made to perform tricks.
The “training” they undergo is highly abusive. Often kept in tiny cages or concrete cells, distressed monkeys huddle together for comfort. Tied up with rope, suspended from walls, beaten with sticks and starved, the monkeys are treated incredibly poorly for human entertainment.
As well as being stuffed into costumes and made to use dangerous props like knives, their performances have other cruel elements. Made to carry heavy props and walk on two legs (monkeys aren’t bipedal!) – their performances are not ethical in any way.
Performing Dolphins & Whales
Common In: Worldwide, particularly in the USA
One of the most well-known acts of animal cruelty is performing dolphins & whales, thanks to 2013 documentary Blackfish. The emotional and physical stresses of being kept in captivity and made to perform lead to poor health and early deaths for captive whales and dolphins. And, as Blackfish showed, they are also prone to aggressive outbursts as a result of these same stresses. A growing record of incidents, illnesses, miscarriages and premature deaths have come to light in recent years.
Captive dolphins and whales have usually been separated from their families, as they have often been captured from the wild. Capturing and transport of these wild animals can be extremely cruel, and some animals die of shock or injury in the process. When in the wild, whales and dolphins have rich social lives that humans are only starting to understand. A relatively small tank without their family members is a poor substitute for their wild homes in the ocean.
Wild dolphins and animals live in a vast natural environment, and even the largest captive facilities are just a fraction of the size that they need. Even the smallest wild bottlenose dolphins have home ranges around 125km2. Orcas (killer whales) are able to dive as deep as 60 metres, and often travel up to 150 kilometres every day.
Bullfighting & Running of the Bulls
Common In: Spain and South America
The typical Spanish bullfight has 3 stages. First, the bull enters the arena and has picadors drive lances into it’s back and neck muscles. This impairs the bull’s ability to defend itself, especially when the lances are twisted to ensure larger blood loss. A picador is “successful” when the bull holds its head and horns lower during later stages of the fight. This makes the bull slightly less dangerous for the matador.
Secondly, three banderilleros enter the arena and taunt the bull. They each attempt to stab the bull with banderillas – brightly coloured sticks with harpoon points on the ends. These stabbings further weaken the neck and shoulder muscles due to even more blood loss. By this point of the bullfight, the bull is exhausted and has lost significant amounts of blood.
The final stage is called the tercio de muerte (“part of death“). Here, the matador takes over the taunting of the bull. The matador provokes the bull to charge with the bright red cape, typically provoking it to make three to five basic passes. On the final series of passes, the matador manoeuvres the bull into a position where he can stab it between the shoulder blades and through the heart. Although the final blow is usually fatal, it can take the bull some time to die. If the matador fails to give a “quick death”, he must cut the bull’s spinal cord.
Once the bull is dead (or paralysed and dying), it has its body dragged out by a team of mules. If the crowd is especially happy with the matador, the bull may also have its ears and tail cut off as “trophies”.
Running of the Bulls
The San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain has become most famous for its Running of the Bulls. In this part of the festival, the daring participants run through the city’s cobblestone streets in front of a small group of bulls. In addition to humans being injured and killed, its 48 bulls will be killed.
While for humans the day generally ends with flowing wine, for those 48 unwilling participants, the run ends in a bullring where they are killed. Each bull is speared, and may have their neck muscles stabbed to weaken them (in a similar fashion to bullfights). The bullring show ends with the bull having its spinal cord cut, and being dragged from the ring by its horns. Many tourists who come to Pamplona are totally unaware of this part of the festival, yet it is their money that helps the industry stay alive – recent polls have suggested some 76% of Spaniards are opposed to bullfights.
Walking with Lions
Common In: Africa
Walking with lions is part of the chain of predator breeding and hunting in Africa. This involves lions being intensively bred and subjected to an unnatural life. Lion cubs begin to be handled from shortly after their birth, and for the first few months of their lives are able to be “cuddled” by tourists. By the time they’re 5 months old, they can bite handlers. At this point, they’re moved to walking, where they’re less likely (but still able) to bite tourists. Lions are predators, after all!
Lion walking operations run under the guise of conservation. They sell their cub petting and lion walking to tourists, claiming that the money goes towards preserving the species. The truth is that these operations are part of the chain of exploitation, that often ends with animals being culled for the lion bone trade. Unlike genuine conservation programs, these parks do not boost wild populations as these captive lions, subjected to a life of human interaction, can never be safely released into the wild.
Cruelty-Free Animal Attractions to Do Instead!
Legitimate Nature Sanctuaries
Examples: Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Wildlife Friends Foundation in Phetchaburi
Many organisations that call themselves a “sanctuary” are actually just more cruel animal attractions trying to get away with their animal abuses. There are a few ways to determine whether or not a sanctuary is genuine:
- Visitors cannot ride animals
- Animals are not made to do performances or shows
- Visitors cannot get “up close and personal” for photos
- The sanctuary does not buy or sell wild animals (or their parts)
- The sanctuary only breeds wild animals for an official program where the animals are responsibly released back into the wild
If an organisation calling itself a sanctuary fits these criteria, it’s more than likely to be a genuine, cruelty-free animal sanctuary. Looking at reviews of the sanctuary can also give you an idea. Have previous visitors noticed happy animals or sad animals? Did the animals look well-fed? Were their habitats as close to natural as possible, or a barren concrete wasteland?
Genuine Nature Experiences
Examples: nature hikes, safaris and snorkelling/diving/kayaking trips (especially in National Parks)
You can find these kinds of trips almost everywhere! Anywhere you can see animals in their natural habitat is almost definitely a cruelty-free animal attraction. Here they are not controlled by humans as captive animals are, and are completely free to roam. While you might not be 100% guaranteed to see all the exotic animals you’ve dreamed of, you have the peace of mind that the animals that are there are happy, healthy and free to put themselves in the spotlight if they’re feeling it!
But How Do I Know If It’s Cruelty-Free?
The best thing you can do to avoid cruel animal attractions is to do as much research as you can into any animal-based organisations you may be supporting with your money.
While it’s understandable to want to interact with animals on your travels, the best way to do this is to experience wild animals in the wild. Seeing them in their natural habitat is the most ethical way to go (and most enjoyable – for both you and them!). Make the responsible decision the next time you’re travelling. Avoid cruel animal attractions like the ones listed above.
Thank you to the lovely ladies in the Vegan Women Who Travel Facebook group for helping me with this post! I’ve linked the Facebook post, so if you’d like to join (you don’t *have* to be vegan) you can request it on the page – all the rules are in the group’s description.
I’ll likely be making a Part 2 of this post – there’s a looooot of cruelty in the world – so if you know other cruel animal attractions to look into you’re welcome to suggest them. Either comment below or email me.