Animal Experiences. Ethical or Not?
Attitudes to animal experiences, by which I don't mean game drives or encountering wildlife in natural areas such as national parks (I'll be covering this at a later date), have been moving in the right direction in the last decade. Pressure from responsible travel companies and animal welfare groups to ensure activities that include animals are carried out in an ethical manner has led to many well know travel brands removing activities such as elephant riding and visiting dubious places, such as the Tiger Temple in Thailand, from sale.
However, animal experiences have been under the spotlight again
recently showing there is still a long way to go until travellers can stop considering the ethics of these experiences. The charity World Animal Protection has highlighted the relationship between an increase in the number of animal selfies being posted on social media and an increase (+292%) in the number of animal species being poached from the wild to meet this demand. Sloths got most of the attention in the media but less obvious species such as crocodiles are also affected.
If you've ever been on a beach in parts of Asia or Africa there's a reasonable chance
that you've been approached by someone offering you the chance to have your picture taken with a clearly unhealthy and unhappy monkey. All but the most cold hearted can see that taking these people up on their offer is irresponsible, but on other occasions it's less obvious; so how can you assess how ethical an animal experience is?
Whatever it is you are considering, or being offered, there are certain criteria that you can apply to help make your decision as to whether you should take part or not:
can you physically touch the animal as part of the experience? Experiences which allow the touching of non-domesticated animals should always be viewed with extreme scepticism. Wild animals do not naturally seek out the company of humans so for them to be comfortable with contact means that something has taken place to make it possible. This doesn't necessarily mean the animal has been mistreated but it does have life limiting consequences for the animal involved.
does the encounter take place at a recognised animal facility with suitable professionals supervising? If the primary function of the organisation isn't the conservation, protection or research of the animals involved then the encounter is simply a money making exercise. Those who take part are creating a demand which can lead to animals being taken from the wild and subsequently mistreated to make them docile. You have to do your research on this as it's all too easy to use the words "sanctuary" or "rescue centre" to give false legitimacy.
is the organisation which runs the experience non-profit? Charities and NGOs don't have to worry about profitability in the same way businesses do and are under far more pressure to operate within best practice guidelines. The reputations of charities and NGOs are also essential to their fund raising activities and they know that unethical practices will ultimately harm their most important source of funding, donations.
if animals are in an enclosure, does it provide areas of privacy? While it's frustrating
to know that the animal you're dying to see is just behind the thicket, it's extremely important for animals' mental health to be able to hide away. There's a reason that humans don't spend their time sitting in the front window of their house, certain areas of Amsterdam aside, and animals are no different in that respect.
is the animal in a position to make a choice if they want to interact or not? Even animals that have been raised in captivity and are habituated to humans can feel stressed if they are not able to leave. The best animal encounters will operate on the basis of the animal coming to the visitor if they're interested and leaving when they've had enough.
are there set feeding times? A responsible operator will have a set time at which they feed the animals in their care. If this time is dictated, changed or supplemented to suit visitors, the welfare of the animals is not their primary concern.
how regularly do the animal experiences take place? If visitors can arrive at random times and take part in the experience then, as with feeding times, the concerns of the guests are being placed above those of the animal.
how old is the animal concerned, particularly if it is the young of a predator
species? Assuming they are otherwise in good health, young animals can be rehabilitated and released into the wild but not if they have been habituated to humans. By handling or petting a healthy juvenile you are ensuring its long-term captivity.
The criteria above are very general because but if you stick to these principles then you can be fairly confident that your experiences with animals are, at worst, having a neutral impact rather than a damaging one; but if in doubt don't take part!
Have you taken part in an animal experience which you thought was particularly ethical or unethical? Perhaps you have some of your own rules that you apply before taking part in an animal experience? Get in touch to let us know your thoughts on this contentious subject.