Not every wildlife attraction is a good deal for the animals themselves, despite what slick marketing campaigns would have you believe.
Earlier this week, Australia’s International Traveller website did everyone a public service — travellers and animals alike — with a list of10 so-called animal attractions to avoid at all costs.
It sounds obvious, especially for the seasoned traveller and animal lover who wouldn’t be travelling to a wildlife destination in the first place if they hadn’t done some vetting first.
It may sound obvious, but in a lot of cases it isn’t. Many of the most visited attractions are cleverly — some might say cynically — promoted as environmentally friendly, pro-conservation eco projects, when in reality they’re anything but.
I’m not talking about anything as obvious as a big cat locked in a cage as part of a roadside attraction in southern Africa — take a selfie with the leopard! — but rather big operations with fancy advertising, slick promotional videos and, strangely, solid visitor testimonials on TripAdvisor and other sites.
Wherever there’s money to be made and animals to be exploited, it’s a safe bet that someone, somewhere has figured out an idea to part travellers from their money, and sell a fake conservation message while doing it.
“Swimming with dolphins,” for example, sounds fine and benevolent. One of the most expensive high-end hotel chains on the planet offers a dolphin-swimming excursion on its property, in a hotel pool, in Hawaii — one of the last places one needs to cavort with a captive dolphin, as there are so many free-roaming dolphins within yards of the beach, virtually anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands that’s away from a big city.
Swimming with dolphins is just one example of a cynical, money-making ploy based on keeping wild animals in captivity. One expects it from a cheap huckster’s idea of a low-end carnival, but not from one of the most prestigious hotel chains on the planet.
Another attraction to make the International Traveller must-avoid list is “Walking with Lions,” a popular tourist pastime in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where visitors are encouraged to walk with lion cubs and young lions as part of a program “to help conserve lions in the wild.”
In fact, no such thing is happening. Lions, like any apex predator, are unreleasable once they’ve become habituated to human contact. The argument that captive lions help bolster the gene pool of other captive lions is bogus, too: Many lion cubs raised for “walking with lions” programs end up being gunned down in so-called canned hunts, where wealthy “hunters” from overseas fly in to bag themselves a lion, claim a trophy and then brag to their friends back home about their “African adventure.”
The Walking with Lions sales pitch is slick and seductive; I know, because I was briefly tempted myself, during a tourist visit to Victoria Falls several years ago. It wasn’t until I did my due diligence — three cheers for the internet — until I realized what was really happening. The U.S. news program 60 Minutes did an exposé a couple of years ago, but not everyone watches 60 Minutes — or reads The Guardian, let alone the legitimate conservation periodicals. The Walking with Lions tourist office in Victoria Falls makes it seem as if walking with lions is no more unethical or detrimental to the environment than taking a helicopter ride over the falls or bungee jumping over the Zambezi Gorge.
Other wildlife attractions to make the International Traveller list of “don’t”s include:
• Riding elephants. Elephants are a social animal — obviously — but the hard truth is that elephants used for riding attractions are often taken from their mothers as babies and forced to endure a strict, often cruel training regiment.
• Visiting bear parks. Bears, unlike elephants, are not social animals. They tend to be solitary in the wild. In bear parks, found predominantly in Eastern Europe but also in China and throughout Asia, the bears are often kept in overcrowded concrete pits and are forced to perform circus tricks, often in silly costumes.
• Tiger selfies. The whole idea took a battering with the shutting down last year of Thailand’s “Tiger Temple,” which ostensibly operated for 20 years o raise funds for tiger conservation, but was in fact encouraging and supporting the illegal wildlife traffic trade. One recent year, the Tiger Temple was a challenge and pit stop on the long-running, award-winning U.S. outdoor-reality TV series The Amazing Race, such was the temple’s reputation. And then they found the dead tiger cubs, stuffed intorefrigerators. The issue is not dead yet — Al Jazeera news reported several weeks ago that the Tiger Temple may open again in the near future, “under new management,” as they say.
• Handling sea turtles. According to International Traveller, the world’s last sea turtle farm is in the Cayman Islands. It’s a bad idea, though, because being manhandled by people causes young turtles undue stress, and tourists have been known to drop them on the ground, all for the sake of taking a selfie.
• Snake charmers. No one is exactly hitting the streets to protest the treatment of venomous snakes in captivity, but the truth is the snakes are often defanged, their venom ducts pierced with needles and their mouth Al Jazeera's sewn shut in some cases. The practice is so cruel, International Traveller reports, that India banned it in 1972. I did not know that.
• Dancing monkeys. The hard truth is that monkeys are often kept in small cages when they’re not performing, or else kept on short chains that cause skin rashes and even infection. It seems silly to have to say it, but monkeys were never meant to dance.
Climb trees, yes. Dance, not so much.
• Crocodile farming. Again, protesters aren’t exactly filling the streets, banging on about the need for crocodiles’ rights, but the truth is that most if not allcrocodile farms that pitch themselves as tourist attractions are breeding crocs for meat and leather. Crocs may not play on our emotions the way monkeys, dolphins and lion cubs do but, even so, they are sentient, living beings too.