For animal lovers, the opportunity to see, feed and otherwise interact with exotic animals holds a very strong allure, but increasingly, the more traditional encounters such as riding an elephant or feeding a tiger cub are coming under scrutiny as not being in the best interests of the animal. That said, there are plenty of opportunities to engage with animals in a way that is in their best interests rather than for human gratification. Here are a few things to consider when looking for ethical animal encounters.
As a rule, encounters should not involve the opportunity to stroke, touch or hug the animal – if the animal needs to be restrained or otherwise subdued to allow the interaction to take place, it’s probably not going to comply with animal welfare guidelines.
Would an elephant in the wild allow you to ride upon its back? Would a wild dolphin live happily if its range was restricted to an area the size of a large swimming pool? The answer to these questions is clearly no, which is why such encounters are fast disappearing. Before you sign up for any animal experience, ask yourself these questions to determine whether you should take part.
Another useful question to ask yourself is this: “is the encounter designed as entertainment for the human participants, or for the welfare of the animal.” Feeding an orphaned elephant in a genuine sanctuary is very different to a mahout equipped with a sharp metal hook coaxing an elephant to take you for a ride. Heading out on a boat to await the possible arrival of curious dolphins is different to being towed around an oversized aquarium by the same animal. A helpful rule of thumb is that any interaction must be allowed to take place on the animal’s own terms.
It’s a good idea to spend some time researching the activity and the provider to ensure that you understand the conditions in which the animals exist and the nature of your intended interaction. Providers of ethical animal experiences often partner with non-governmental organisations such as World Animal Protection. Look for the ones that are open and upfront about their objectives, the care of their animals, and the conditions in which those animals are kept.
All over the world you will find fantastic organisations doing important work towards the protection of endangered species. Whether you visit an elephant orphanage in Kenya or an orangutan rehabilitation centre in Malaysia, your experience is likely to be more meaningful if it requires a non-financial contribution from you. Be prepared to get dirty in the process – bottle-feeding baby orangutans is appealing, but there are plenty of other, less endearing tasks that are just as meaningful.
The best way to enjoy wild animals is in the wild – on their turf and on their terms. It may require a lot more patience (plus acceptance that there are no guarantees), but with luck, you’ll reap the rewards. Do your homework and choose an experienced operator – ideally one that’s committed to giving something back to the area and its animals.
Whether you’re considering a safari holiday, a voluntourism holiday or day trip to an animal sanctuary, your personal travel manager can help you choose wisely and well.