Animals bring out the worst in people. Just spend an afternoon at the local zoo and watch how bored parents let their children — encourage them, even — to tease the animals, scream , jump up and down and even throw food at them. I’ve often thought, while visiting a zoo, that the worst thing about zoos is the people who visit them. (Don’t blame zoo staff. Zoo operators like money, and like most money-making operations, they’ve figured out that the secret to happiness is to hire as few people as possible and pay them as little as possible, with the result that what staff do remain are overworked and underpaid.)
Zoos themselves are not about to go away. As mass extinctions look more probable with each passing day, zoos will become even more important, if only as a last stand for critically endangered animals like Asiatic lions and Sumatran tigers. Most accredited zoos keep an official record of their specimens’ gene pools — “stud books” — for future breeding programs, often in cooperation with other zoos.
That said, more travellers are becoming interested in actual animal encounters in exotic destinations, whether it’s swimming with dolphins in Hawaii or riding elephant-back in Zimbabwe.
The issue of ethical animal encounters, both in the wild and in captive situations, has jumped to the fore of late, and it’s easy to see why.
As our daily lives become more frantic and urbanized, more and more of us are reaching out to wilderness areas — and the creatures who live there — in hopes of reawakening a part of our own natural-history DNA.
That has inevitably led to money-making schemes involving captive and semi-captive animals, everything from “lion walks” with lion cubs in South Africa — who more often than not are being raised to be killed in canned hunts, “bred for the bullet,” as the animal advocacy group Blood Lions labels it — to baiting wild animals with food, whether it’s Japanese macaques who frequent Nagano’s hot springs or semi-wild leopards on privately owned game reserves scattered throughout southern Africa.
There’s a growing interest, though, in genuine ethical animal encounters, in which everyone from tourists to nature photographers are encouraged to experience true wilderness, and leave behind as light a footprint as possible.
Make no mistake: This is not a trend, as much as we wish it were otherwise. It’s more like the germ of an idea marketed to a niche group of green-minded world travellers who pride themselves on being informed and tend to vote based on environmental concerns, whether it’s ecological sustainability or concern over climate change.
The travel site TripAdvisor — a partner with the equally high-profile travel-booking site Expedia — recently vowed to de-list resorts, vacation spots and tour operators who exploit captive and semi-captive animals for financial gain.
Nature magazines and travel periodicals are jumping behind the idea, too, from Getaway Magazine and the travel site Go2Africa to Africa Geographic.
It’s not always easy to know upfront what’s appropriate about animal encounters, especially when all one has to go one is a slick brochure or an eye-catching website. I’m not fond of lists as a rule — they tend to be facile, misleading and downright unhelpful at times — but one of the great side-benefits of many of the articles that have appeared in the environmental press lately have been easy-to-read pointers, do’s and don’t's aimed at the reader who’s short on time but still keen to learn the facts.
Some go as far as to recommend certain attractions and activities over others. And while that sounds fraught with peril for potential abuse — who knows who’s in bed with whom; not everyone knows that TripAdvisor is married to Expedia, for example — they at least get people thinking about the right questions to ask.
I’ve curated a few highlights here that I happen to agree with, or have had personal experience of. For a solid, tmore horough breakdown of the issues involved, do check out the article written by South African lifestyle blogger Kathryn Rossiter at Becoming You (BecomingYou.co.za):
Yes, a lot of this is obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.
Just because something is obvious, though, doesn’t mean it isn't worth repeating. We could all use a gentle reminder every now and then.
• The best encounters are the ones that nurture our fascination with the natural world, on the natural world’s own terms.
There’s a difference, for example, between learning how to free dive, so one can explore the sea on one’s own, and going shark diving in a cage, where the sharks are lured by chum bait. (There’s a growing belief that shark-diving operations that lure sharks with bait have inadvertently led to an increase in shark attacks at nearby beaches. It may be scientifically unproven, but it certainly seems logical.)
• Avoid any encounter where animals are forced to touch you, whether it’s a tiger cub at a Buddhist temple in Thailand (open, then closed, then reopened) or a captive dolphin at a five-star resort on the French Polynesian island of Moorea.
Be mindful that you’re the intruder; once you’ve gone home, they have to live with the effects of whatever it is you’ve done.
Some animal advocates even recommend that people actively discourage curious animals from touching them, by squirting monkeys with a water bottle for example, or by rolling up the car windows around a curious bear.
Again, this seems obvious, but gentle reminders are always helpful.
• Beware big cat sanctuaries that claim to release their cats back into the wild. The plain truth is that once an apex predator has been habituated to being around people, it can never be released — ever. Period. Genuine big cat sanctuaries are careful to keep their releasable cats far away from people before releasing them; every staff interaction, such as feeding the cats and veterinary interventions, is kept to a minimum, and done at a distance.
• Paid volunteer programs sound good in principle, but again it’s a good idea to think ahead and do as much reading as possible.
There are two schools of thought here. One is that so-called “animal ambassadors” — unreleasable animals ostensibly used for school meet-and-greets and other public-relations purposes — should be barred altogether, as it’s unethical to pull an animal out of its family just for teaching purposes.
I’ve seen it the other way, though. I know of one respected NGO in Namibia that used a cheetah ambassador for many years. The cheetah in question was the runt of a litter, and very sickly when the mother and her cubs were caught in a gin trap on a neighbouring farm and dropped off at the cheetah refuge. The NGO director wanted to release the mother and cubs back into the wild as soon as possible, before they became too habituated to people. It would have taken too long to wait until the sickly cub recovered, though. On the other hand, releasing the cub back into the wild with its family would have been tantamount to a death sentence.
Was it right or fair for the NGO to keep the cub and raise it to adulthood, knowing that it could never be released back into the wild? Would it have been preferable to euthanize the sick cub, or release it knowing that it would die a slow and painful death? Again, there are no easy answers.
Those are the kinds of question any would-be volunteer should be considering, though.
• Some animal advocacy groups hold that tourist paid volunteer programs be banned entirely.
The argument holds that only qualified volunteers, whether zoologists, field biologists or veterinarian trainees, should be allowed to volunteer at wildlife sanctuaries.
Then again, the hard reality is that there’s plenty of “grunt work” at animal sanctuaries — clearing bush, filling in holes under wire fences under the broiling hot African sun, etc. — that doesn’t necessitate physical interaction with animals, but which helps sustain conservation efforts just the same.
Would you spend two weeks of a paid vacation clearing thorn bushes or filling holes in dirt to help save the world’s remaining population of wild cheetahs? Those are the kinds of questions would-be volunteers need to be asking themselves.
• For more background on ethical animal interactions, volunteering at animal sanctuaries, docheck out the Facebook pages of Volunteers in Africa Beware (https://www.facebook.com/volunteersbeware/?fref=ts), Blood Lions (https://www.facebook.com/BloodLionsOfficial/?fref=ts) and the conservation NGO website WildlifeAct.com.
• A family-oriented, small-scale NGO called Green Girls in Africa (greengirlsinafrica.com) has come up with an animals’ bill of rights — five pointers, for domestic and wild animals alike — to weigh when considering any animal encounters.
The site itself features thought-provoking posts with headings like, “Debunking the many myths of lion cub petting,” and “to pet or not to pet,” and is worth a visit.
Green Girls in Africa’s “Five Freedoms for Animals”:
1 Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
2 Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
3 Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4 Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
5 Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
• For what it’s worth, Nairobi’s world-renowned Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Giraffe Manor — also in Kenya — and organized gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda top many lists of ethical animal encounters.
This post is by no means all-encompassing, nor does it even scratch the surface of available information. It’s a start, though. The best information is always that which you find on your own.