As a travel writer, my job is to traipse the globe for awe-inspiring activities in far away places. Sometimes this includes finding a hidden waterfall in Fiji, or perhaps a Guayusa tea ceremony at dawn in Ecuador.And then you have the exotic elephant rides along the craggy terrain of Thailand, or camel rides in Fez Morocco. Those seems harmless, right? What animal lover wouldn’t want to swim with dolphins while traveling to Disney or on their cruise stopover?For anyone who was appalled by the viral story of the Texas cheerleader who champions trophy hunting in Africa, you need to know that even if you’d never even think about shooting an animal, seemingly innocent tourism can be just as devestating to wildlife as hunting.Animal-lover to animal-lover, it’s important to be informed. This story is not about making you feel guilty for what you’ve done in the past (I’ve been there!); it’s about learning responsible and equally gratifying travel experiences that are rewarding for you and caring to the animals. And I promise, as someone who seeks gratifying adventure, the alternative experience will be equally rich.Here, an overview on what businesses are hurting these sweet creatures, and a vacation idea for what you can do instead. And remember, tourist traps like the following will only exist as long as people pay for them, so for the love of animals, use your money for a good cause, instead.
Swimming With Marine AnimalsWhy It’s Harmful:Dolphins are basically the coolest kids in the ocean: a subject of many back tattoos, decorating many colorful Lisa Frank posters, and adorning your locker and sticker book throughout the 80s and 90s. It’s no surprise that swimming with these amazing mammals would be on your bucket list.According to Cecibel Guerrero, a Level III Naturalist Guide at the Galápagos National Park, holding mammals in captivity results in being stressed, as they are placed in areas nowhere near the size of their natural habitat. “A good example of this are the orcas at Sea World,” she says of one of the most controversial topics in the news right now, ever since the documentary “Black Fish” came out. “These animals are deprived from carrying on with their lives as they would in the wild. They have no social activities with their own species and do not reproduce.” Guerrero says that swimming with marine mammals could be a true delight when they share their natural habitat with you, and on the contrary, it would not give you the same satisfaction if this were done with animals found in captivity and in tight enclosures, like you’ll find at the popular “swim with dolphin” attraction sites.Do This Instead:A small cruise though the Galapagos Islands, family-owned Ecoventura offers sustainable and ecological cruises for 20 passengers or less to the Galapagos Islands where the rules of the National Park are strictly enforced—this means that the animals are not to be touched. According to Guerrero, because of this, animals have not been disturbed and their behavior toward humans remains the same: fearless. She says that when guests snorkel and share the ocean with the fish, sea lions, and marine turtles—the same rules apply. “Marine life acts at naïve as life on land. It is here where sea lions play with you, instead of you with them.”
Taking Photos With Big Cats: Lions, Tigers, Leopards, and JaguarsWhy It’s Harmful:You know those adorable tiger cubs that look like a cross between a teddy bear and an oversized kitten? Sadly, most of those are bred simply to make a buck. Cubs 12 to 13 weeks old are used primarily for tourism dollars. It’s big business in Thailand, and in Mexico and the Caribbean after disembarking a cruise ship, and the most common ploy is for someone to tell you that the mother left the poor cub, and they were left to bottle feed it. That’s a lie. The poor cats are sold specifically for this purpose and it’s abuse, plain and simple. You’ll sometimes even see cub petting exhibits in malls or at fairs right here in the U.S.You can have your photo snapped with one of these adorable animals in a cage or even feed one yourself. In Florida, there’s a swimming pool where kids can swim with one of these animals, and fear has the cub grabbing on for a hug (or dear life). When the cub’s too old for moneymaking schemes, they’re extremely dangerous and no longer of use. Then they end up caged in a backyard somewhere or in a sad roadside “sanctuary” for the rest of their lives.And the newest (most pathetic) use? Guys posing with big cats to attract potential mates on online dating sites such as Tinder, Hinge, and OkCupid, as reported in The Wall Street Journal in May of 2014. (Please don’t date these dudes.)*Editor’s update: In August 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York signed a law prohibiting direct contact between members of the public and big cats at traveling animal shows and fairs. Animal exhibitors would face fines for each violation. Progress!Do This Instead:Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida is part of the GFAS-accredited sanctuary federation, and offers guided tours of their property. Tigers, lions, cougars, and many more species of cats come to live here when they’re rescued from deplorable conditions. For instance, the lion Nikita who was found chained to a wall in a crack house during a drug bust in Tennessee. Seriously.Rather than a five-second-photo opp, you’ll have an hour and a half to frolic (but not touch) with these gorgeous animals. The entire family will love perusing the 70 acres of up-close-and-personal cat-covered land where each animal has their very own pool for splashing and playing.
Riding Elephants, Camels, Horses or DonkeysWhy It’s Harmful:According to Liam Cronin of PETA, the main reason that this is harmful to animals is because the industry is built around human entertainment—for profit—resulting in mistreated animals. In this case, camels, donkeys, horses, and elephants are often hauled around in trucks and crates, while violence is used for training.The viral story of the elephant Raju’s dramatic rescue, where he cried as rescuers freed him from 50 years of captivity in barbed shackles touched millions of hearts. Used as a tourist attraction, which is common in India and other parts of Asia, Raju was starving and severely abused, and isolated from other elephants.Do This, Instead:Find an accredited GFAS-sanctuary—the most highly regarded site for finding a reputable sanctuary for animals. What this means is a better experience for the animals, and a much more rich experience for your vacation. I can assure you that you’ll never miss the “I pet a Tiger” photo or the $300 horseback-riding excursion after visiting one of these. When in Thailand, bypass painted elephant attractions and visit the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center to see these glorious animals living a happy life.
Feeding or Touching Apes and PrimatesWhy It’s Harmful:Chimps, orangutans, and monkeys—like big cats—are big money makers for the tourism industry when they’re young and adorable. When these creatures are babies, they’re pulled from their mothers, and pimped-out to be fed, photographed, and cuddled by innocent tourists. Who wouldn’t want to hold these super-cute creatures and have a new Facebook profile pic to prove it? Once they reach certain poundage, they become unsafe and tossed for the next fresh face like a true-life Hollywood story.Do This, Instead:The Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, has a mission to provide a permanent sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees who’ve been rescued or retired from the entertainment industry, from research, or who are no longer wanted as pets. Patti Ragan, the Founding Director for Great Apes says that members ($50) are entitled to twice-yearly tours where they’ll be able to stroll the 100-plus acres of lush tropical grounds and spend time among these playful creatures.You can also sponsor an ape. Regan says, “This was once called ‘adoption’ but too many people thought they’d be allowed to take the apes home, so the name was changed.” For $175, you’ll get photos, bios, and updates on your animal. Regan suggests that for a completely free, and harm-free chance to see these types of creatures in the wild, try visiting their native countries. In South America and Africa, there are chances to witness apes and primates in their own environments, without touching, and simply enjoy the nature around you.