A Field Guide to Responsible Animal Tourism

By Courtney Thorn, April 18, 2016

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As an animal lover, I’m aware of two things: I want to pet/cuddle/talk to every animal I encounter and more often than not, doing so can be harmful to the animals.

On my recent trip to Costa Rica, I was obsessed with watching the monkeys cross the monkey bridges high above the roads. In Hawaii, one of the best days of my life was snorkeling with the turtles off the coast of Oahu. But the reality for most of us, is that we only get the chance to see these majestic creatures while we’re on vacation. The monkey’s in Costa Rica and the turtles in Hawaii were free to be as they pleased. But the sad reality is, most of the animals that are being used as part of tourist attractions are neither happy nor safe.

My need for these animals to be safe and happy always prevails over my desire to see them in close proximity, especially when they’re held in captivity under people who put profit ahead of their welfare.

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The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits reputable sanctuaries with their seal of approval.  To get accredited, a sanctuary must go through a rigorous application process that reviews their humane care standards and level of sustainability.  Check out this link to see the list of accredited sanctuaries.  

If a sanctuary has their approval, you know you’ve found a responsible and trustworthy place to visit during your vacation. If you’re interested in a specific sanctuary that doesn’t have GFAS accreditation, do some digging around.  

Here are some questions to ask yourself while researching sanctuaries:

  1. What is their background and mission? Most sanctuaries  understand that education is key to saving and protecting these animals and work to inform the public about conservation efforts.  
  2. Have they been rescued from abusive and neglectful situations or were they bred through a breeding program?  If the answer is the latter, this is a large warning sign that the animals are bred not for their protection but for a profit. If they’ve been rescued from abusive situations like circuses, zoos and the movie and television industry, then often the sanctuary truly is working to protect the animals in their care. 
  3. Are people allowed to interact with the animals?  If, during your research, you see pictures of guest interacting with animals (i.e. tigers who lay sedentary so people can take selfies with them) cross that place off your list immediately.  
  4. Is there adequate shelter?  Do they have room to roam in that shelter and outside on land?  If you’re not able to visually confirm, ask.  If the answers are evasive, know that this is a red flag.  Any reputable rescue or sanctuary will gladly tell you exactly the type of shelter and amount of space provided. For a few examples of excellent habitats, check out GFAS accredited Center for Great ApesChimps Inc. and The Elephant Sanctuary.

Once you’re on your trip, beware of the following warning signs:

  1. How are the animals acting? As animal lovers, we feel a special connection to our non-human animal friends. Does that elephant who has a limp, yet has still been forced to give rides to tourists by men with bullhooks look happy? No.

    Credible sanctuaries will provide animals with enough mental and physical stimulation that they will usually be visually content

  2. The chimp with the leash around its neck? Not happy or safe.
    Street performances with animals like tigers, bears or monkey’s?  Cruel, cruel, cruel.
    Swim with the dolphins?  Pass.
    Any person or company running these “entertainment” activities are profiting from exploitation.  For the sake of the animals, listen to your intuition. 

If you see an animal being abused or feel uncomfortable with something you see, know that there are action you can take. You can report what you saw to the embassy or to the office of tourism of the country you’re visiting. Additionally, you can fill out this report if you see any cruelty at a zoo or check out this directory to find animal welfare organizations worldwide.  

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Here’s the deal:
Humans have been fascinated with animals for thousands of years.  As we evolve, our compassion towards these creatures continues to increase. But if you truly want to do good, research before your trip and you will positively serve the animals that you claim to love so much.

Bonus points to anyone who reads this amazing guide published by ABTA, the UK’s largest travel association.  It’s filled with useful information to help you have an awesome holiday and to protect the animals who can’t protect themselves.

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