Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism

Why do we need animal tourism alternatives in the first place? The tourism industry has been known for its abuse of animals. Most zoos and other popular forms of interacting with wild animals around the world are not sustainable. Read along to find some sustainable alternatives to animal tourism. These alternatives are way better than mainstream ways that the animal tourism industry tends to operate. 

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Instead of Riding Elephants choose an Elephant Sanctuary

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
Photo from an elephant sanctuary I visited in Thailand

Travelers are starting to talk about this a lot more. By now you have probably already heard or read about why riding elephants is not sustainable. If you haven’t, all you need to know is that elephants cannot support the weight of a human well. What’s worse is that the majority of places where tourists can ride elephants often beat the elephants into submission. Plus they have such a high volume of tourists that the elephants never get breaks from walking up and down mountains all day.

I went to an Elephant Sanctuary while visiting Thailand in 2015. The staff at elephant sanctuaries rescue the elephants from the tourism industry, give them ample space to graze and do not beat the elephants. They treat the elephants with warmth and love. To raise money for these elephants, travelers can walk with, feed and sometimes bathe the elephants but no riding is involved. However, I made the mistake of not doing significant research about the sanctuary I visited because I realized part-way through the tour that the sanctuary still allowed the elephants to be ridden, and while they were visibly still given lots of room and time to graze and relax, I would have preferred a sanctuary like Elephant Nature Park where no riding occurs.

Instead of Swimming with Dolphins or Whale Sharks, Visit a Marine Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre or Go Diving at a Certified Global Ocean Refuge Site

Sunset on the ocean in Canada
Appreciating the ocean in BC, Canada.

When I was in my early teenage years my family did a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The biggest thing I wanted to do when we got there was to swim with a dolphin. I had friends who had done it and because I loved animals I wanted to experience them up close. My sister and I ended up swimming with dolphins and at the time the dolphins seemed healthy and happy. However I later realized that it must have been really hard for a wild animal to have to spend it’s days in a small pool without it’s family just entertaining humans all day in order to earn food. Not only that but the conditions of the pools that most dolphins are kept in are extremely harmful to their wellbeing. Back then I had no idea how much harm this part of the animal tourism industry was inflicting.

Some people will argue that swimming with whale sharks is better because most are kept in the wild and sometimes you have to take a boat to get to them. And, while there may be good programs set up to swim with marine animals in the wild, they are far and few between. Most programs that let you swim with whale sharks are also very harmful.

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism: Marine Wildlife Centers and Global Ocean Refuge Sites

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
Sea lions in Victoria BC that have become dependent on tourists throwing them food for survival

So what should you do instead? Luckily there are many Marine Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers around the world. One that I would love to mention here is The Pacific Marine Mammal Centre in Laguna Beach, California. The Pacific Marine Mammal Centre is mainly a rehabilitation centre for hurt, starving and sick seals and sea lions. The Centre was established because so many seals and sea lions were washing ashore and were either starving or severely ill.

The facility helps bring these mammals back to full health and also conducts research as to why the animals are suffering so much. Surprise! It’s because of pollution. There’s so much garbage, plastic and oil in the ocean because of us humans that it’s really hurting marine life. And for those of you who eat meat and fish, it’s probably going to start making you sick too. That is, if it hasn’t already. Due to this, the facility also has many educational programs that teach kids and adults alike about the negative affects of pollution and how to better keep the oceans clean. The facility is open from 10am to 4pm daily and is free to visit although donations are appreciated. They also have a variety of educational and volunteer programs to take part in.

Starfish on rocks | Animal Tourism
Starfish on Thetis Island, BC.

Make sure that if you decide to go diving (or do anything in the sun for that matter) that you use a natural sunscreen as most sunscreens have a harmful affect on coral and other marine life.

Instead of Petting Tigers and Lions, Visit a Wildlife Rehab Centre or Go on an Eco-Friendly Safari

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
Lions spotted on safari in South Africa, 2011

The most popular place to pet a wild cat is at Tiger Temple in Thailand. However, there are also other places around the world where petting tigers, lions and even bears is a common activity. One of these examples is Lujan Zoo located just outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

You may have read quite a few articles about why the Tiger Temple is not a good place to visit. If you haven’t it’s because you can take photos with and pet the tigers. Let’s take a minute here and think about that. How in the world can we tame a wild predatory animal like a tiger to not kill a human but instead pose for a selfie? We can’t. Staff at Tiger Temple and Lujan beat the tigers, bears, and lions into obedience. They also administer drugs to the animals to make them docile. They don’t get breaks and their cages are way too small.

Side-note: Some articles have reported that Thailand’s Tiger Temple has been shut down, however, there are other reports of new “tiger zoos” set to reopen soon. This section of the article is meant to encourage people to not visit these old or new sites for reasons of mistreatment.

While I was in South Africa in my last year of high school I went on a safari and after driving around to see the animals at a distance, we got to into an area where we could pet baby lions. It seemed fine since the facility gave the lions huge enclosures and we could only pet babies as they were less likely to bite us. Nobody drugged the lions at all and we entered totally at our own risk. Right after we finished a woman entered and teased one of the baby lions with a rope toy. It clawed at and bit her in the stomach and there was blood everywhere. The lesson here? If you’re going to pet big wild animals, you’re either ensuring that the animal is drugged up or you are risking the animal biting or attacking you.

White lioness roaring | Animal Tourism
White lioness seen on South African safari, 2011

Wildlife Rehab Centers and Safaris

Instead of doing something so harmful and dangerous, why not check out a wildlife rehabilitation centre? Thailand has a really cool wildlife rehab centre called the Wildlife Friends Foundation. This foundation is home to a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation centre. They have programs for elephants, forest conservation and even a gibbon rehab and release program. The Foundation is also home to sick and struggling macaque, lorises, bears, langur, birds, reptiles and more. You can go on full or half day visits to the foundation, volunteer and donate to the causes. If this doesn’t sound interesting check out this article on other activities you can do instead of the Tiger Temple while traveling through Thailand.

To find wildlife rehabilitation centers to visit in the United States click here.
To find wildlife rehabilitation centers to visit in South America click here.
For wildlife rehab centers in other parts of the world do some online research, there’s so many to choose from!

Another great option is to research and go on an eco-friendly safari. I went on a safari in South Africa and it was amazing. The animals had a ton of land to graze on. I’m pretty sure there weren’t even any fences, it was just kilometer after kilometer of open space for the animals to graze, play and hunt. The vehicle drove us around and we go to see the animals in the wild! Apparently more and more safaris in South Africa are becoming more sustainable. Furthermore, this article about tourists avoiding South Africa during the Ebola crisis states that the loss of of tourism also negatively impacted African animals on safaris.

Research the Cat Cafe Before You Go or Visit an Animal Shelter Instead

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
I visited this cute little guy at Lanta Animal Welfare, Koh Lanta, Thailand, 2015

Cat cafes have been popular in Taiwan, Japan and other parts of South East Asia for quite a few years. Recently these cafes have been popping up rapidly in other parts of the world such as Europe and Canada to name a few. While they seem fun, some veterinarians have been raising concerns over these cafes.

One concern is that mixing pets and food may raise some health issues. The other is that cats are not usually very social animals. While some cats get along with people and other cats well, many will become aggressive and hostile in social environments. This can cause problems for the other cats involved as well as for visiting humans.

The best thing to do is to research the cafe you go to beforehand. Have the staff ensured that the cats are vaccinated and well cared for? Not all cat cafes are bad. There are some amazing cat cafes out there. I visited a few in Thailand and each one had healthy, vaccinated kitties that got along well and were adoptable.

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism: Animal Shelters

If you don’t feel like doing research, are skeptical of cat cafes or don’t live near one then visit an animal shelter instead. There are so many animal shelters around the world and many of them have programs in which visitors can play with rescued cats and dogs. One shelter I visited was Lanta Animal Welfare in Koh Lanta, Thailand. We played with dogs and cats that used to be strays. They had been vaccinated, fed and taken care of at the shelter and were available for adoption. In fact many visitors often leave the shelter with a new pet to take home. If I remember correctly, visiting the shelter was free but donations were appreciated.

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism: Important Questions to Ask Yourself

Monkeys in Thailand
I met these two monkeys on a beach in Southern Thailand, 2015

If you’re heading on a trip but don’t see any options in this list then do some research. There are lots of ways to see and interact with animals sustainably, you just have to be willing to look for them. Just remember that when you do your research, you should ask the following questions.

Does the site let you ride the animals? If so, is it in the animal’s best interest for you to ride it?

Humans should avoid riding most animals. Do some research and read some reviews to see if the site you will be visiting lets visitors ride the animals (ie. elephants). If so, try to avoid the facility.

Does the site have a conservation program AND is it legitimate?

A lot of animal tourism companies will say that they have a conservation program in order to seem sustainable. However not all of them actually do have conservation programs. Plus, some that do don’t do a whole lot to promote the well-being of the animals in question. Read reviews and do some fact checking.

Do the animals perform tricks?

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
This giraffe was eating leaves near my hotel in Zambia, 2011

In order for an animal to perform a trick or pose for a photo, a human often will mistreat it. Mistreatment may not always seem obvious. Even rewarding a wild animal with food when they have done a trick makes that animal dependent on humans. If that animal goes back to the wild it won’t be able to survive. The animal will have become used to performing for food, not hunting for it.

Have you researched photos of the facility and animals? Do facility staff treat the animals well?

This is pretty simple. A picture speaks a thousand words. If you do an internet search of Tiger Temple you will not only see selfies with tigers. Some photos show staff blatantly abusing the tigers. If photos show that animals are performing tricks, chained up, in small cages or hurt then don’t visit that facility.

Does the site have good reviews?

I’ve mentioned this a few times already but read reviews of the facility. Don’t just read the reviews on the facility’s website though. Read external reviews. See what their rating is like on Trip Advisor. See if there are other articles online about the facility. Do as much research as possible so you can support truly sustainable companies and initiatives.

Seeing My Favorite Animal in the Wild

Penguins in Magdalena Island
Visiting my favorite animals on Magdalena Island, Chile

My all time favorite animals are penguins and when I visited Chile I got to see them in the wild. If you haven’t read about it yet, I went on a boat tour to Magdalena Island. On this island I got to see a government protected penguin colony. Tourists can walk on only one small pathway around the island. The government keeps the island mainly human-free for the penguins. One walked right up to me though and I was able to get a good photo near it. To read more about my trip to see the penguins click here.

The Best Way To Interact with Your Favorite Animal

Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism
These three wild zebras were hanging out near a public pool in South Africa, 2011

I’m not perfect and I don’t pretend to be. I have gone swimming with dolphins and I pet a baby lion (although it was not drugged) but these things happened before I realized what I was doing. Maybe you have done some of these things already but didn’t know how harmful they were. The point of this article is not to make anyone feel guilty but to help raise awareness and encourage people to stop harming animals abroad.

Maybe you have had some really positive and ethical animal encounters in the past. You probably know that animals and humans can get along really well. You probably love animals a lot. Let’s be honest. The best way to see your favorite wild animal is not at a zoo or a place where humans are mistreating that animal. The best and most memorable way to see your favorite animal is at a sanctuary, rehabilitation centre, shelter or where it belongs… In the wild!

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17 thoughts on “Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Tourism”

  • Thank you for raising awareness and showing some awesome alternatives! I’m sure many people don’t realise they are making bad choices. I did a few myself years ago before understanding the issues better and now I always research details when animals are involved. And raising awareness is the key to make things change. Great post!

  • Thanks you so much for sharing this! It’s so important to be really educated about what goes on behind the scenes or what is done to make these interactions possible. I will definitely be coming back to this post again for reference!

  • Great post! It’s so important to consider about ethic issues when traveling. Thank you for sharing such an amazing article.

  • Thank you so much for sharing these alternatives! I am an absolute animal fanatic and love wildlife tourism that ultimately helps them in the long run. I’ve been on a few safaris and would never go to a traditional zoo again- they make my heart break!

  • I love that you shared this! And really looking forward to going to an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand next year <3

  • This topic has been on my mind lately and I’m so glad you wrote about it. With articles talking about how tourists seem to want to take selfies with wildlife, I wish we could just observe them from a distance and not invade their territory and space. Thank you for bringing awareness to this topic.

  • Now that we travel with our young kids I think it’s more important than ever to make them aware of this issue and to make better choices as a family in terms of wildlife parks and experiences. It does take more research but it’s also much more rewarding to know that the animals we see are not considered just an attraction but that they’re wellbeing is put before anything else. Thanks for raising awareness!

    • Thanks Sarah! Yes it’s so important and so nice to see you are teaching these things to your kids at a young age. So awesome!

  • United Memorial Medical Center says:

    Awesome article! Lions and other big cats are my great love, and my heart breaks when I l see animals in zoo and in the same places

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