8 Ways That Travellers Unintentionally Commit Animal Cruelty

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Have you ever inflicted animal cruelty while travelling? Your first instinct is probably to say “never”. You may even feel offended by the question.

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After all, you’re a good person. You love animals. But it’s that love and desire to interact with animals that can unintentionally hurt them, especially when travelling.

Read on for 7 ways that travellers unintentionally commit animal cruelty so that you can avoid these things on your next vacation. 

1)Animal Cruelty Act: Tiger Selfies – Or a Selfie With Any Type of Animal 

Tiger farms created for tourists cause the tigers an incredible amount of suffering.
By Okras (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that you are walking alone in the dense jungle of India. You hear a branch snap. Then a low guttural growl. You freeze. The noise stops. You silently take a step forward. Your heart is pounding so hard you think it may jump out of your chest. The hair on your arms is standing straight up. That’s a natural reaction if you think you’re being stalked by a tiger.

What’s not natural is to hug a tame tiger who’s on a short chain. The only reason it isn’t tearing into you with his 3 inch long canines is that he’s on drugs. Furthermore, if a tiger or any animal has to be on a leash, it’s to prevent them from escaping – i.e. they’re not there voluntarily. It’s a sign of animal cruelty.

Tiger Temple in Thailand

The infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand made international headlines. 40 dead tiger cubs were discovered in the freezer. In addition to the mistreatment and cruelty to tigers, they were closed down due to illegal wildlife trafficking and the trafficking of tiger parts. You can read more about it here. While it’s the most famous, it’s unfortunately not unique in its animal cruelty. There are approximately 200 tiger farms in Asia.

Tiger farms have nothing to do with conservation—they just bring extreme suffering to these wild animals while living in appalling conditions,”  Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a senior wildlife advisor at World Animal Protection.

Furthermore, a study by WWF-UK reveals 76% of respondents weren’t aware of tiger farm practices in Asia, which are fuelling the illegal wildlife trade and jeopardizing the recovery of wild tigers across the continent. However, upon learning about tiger farms, 86% want to see these facilities closed urgently.

Most travelers aren’t bad people (well excluding the above 14%), just uninformed. Tiger farms are notorious for greenwashing tourists with false conservation claims to justify their existence. These tiger farms are huge tourist attractions.

The tiger farms are run as a business. Without tourists, they wouldn’t exist. By visiting one you’re inflicting animal cruelty on the individual animal and you’re also contributing to the demise of a highly endangered species. If you want to see a tiger, see one in the wild in a place like Kanha National Park & Tiger Reserve in India. 

Related Reading: 58 Best Wildlife Books That Animal Lovers Will Devour

Why Selfies with Any Wild Animal Are Cruel

Even if it’s not a dangerous animal, like a lemur, taking a selfie with a lemur means that lemur can never be re-introduced into the wild. It will be too used to people. Furthermore, you have to question where the lemur came from.

Unfortunately, in Madagascar, the only place on the planet where lemurs are found, they’re often taken from the wild. Tourists are told that they were former pets who were rescued. However, often nothing could be further from the truth.

Furthermore, the lemurs are usually miserable. They’re social creatures. They need to live with other lemurs. Not people. In addition to loneliness, they often show atypical behaviours as a result of stress. They’re also malnourished and not fed anything resembling a natural diet. In short, life is hell for animals used for selfies with tourists.


2. Why Riding an Elephant is Cruel

Elephant rides are a form of animal cruelty.
When I lived in Thailand 20 years ago I rode an elephant. Back then it wasn’t considered as a form of animal cruelty. I remember asking the Mahout (a person who rides with and tends to the elephants) whether it was good for the elephants and he assured me that they enjoyed it. He also said the bullhook they used didn’t hurt the elephants because they had such thick skin. His explanation didn’t sit well with me even back then but I stupidly ignored my gut.

Tourists may think activities like riding an elephant do no harm,” he told The Dodo. “But the brutal truth is that breaking these animals’ spirits to the point that they allow humans to interact with them involves cruelty at every turn.” Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach  senior wildlife and veterinary adviser at World Animal Protection.

While the elephants may seem to be in good shape, they’ve been broken since the time they were babies. They’re taken from their mothers when they’re very young and kept in physical restraints. Food and water are withheld until the animal does what the trainer forces it to do.

But the animal cruelty doesn’t end there. The elephants are frequently kept in chains, and unable to interact with each other. It’s devasting for such a social animal.

The physical and physiological damage done to elephants so that tourists can ride them is awful. Many elephants die of stress and exhaustion of hauling so many tourists each day for long hours. The owners of such places see dollar signs in their eyes choosing not to see the obvious animal cruelty that they’re inflicting.

If you want to see an elephant go see them in the wild. I highly recommend Sri Lanka or Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa or Etosha National Park in Namibia. 

3. Why Walking with Lions or Cuddling Lion Cubs is Cruel

walking with lions is condemning lions to a life in cruel captivity or being sold for canned hunting, in other words it's animal cruelty
Walking with lions By Quadtripplea (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Similar to how you’d feel to encountering a tiger in the wild, you’d probably feel goosebumps when meeting a lion in the wild.

Lion walking is a relatively new tourist attraction taking place mainly in South Africa.

The cubs are taken from their mothers when they’re very young and tourists pay to hold lion cubs in the name of conservation. When they’re older they’re trained to walk with tourists in the name of rehabilitation and reintroduction.  

In reality, it’s not possible to reintroduce lions into the wild who’ve spent so much time with people. At best, the lions face a brutal life in captivity kept in too-small cages. At worst, they’ll be sold to a canned hunting farm where they’re familiarity with people makes them an easy target.

They’re (the lions) kept in miserable, squalid conditions until they’re sold as living targets to a trophy hunter. So any tourist who pays to walk with lions is contributing to the canned lion hunting industry. Chris Mercer, co-founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting.

To find out more about the canned lion hunting industry and how travelers are inadvertently contributing to it by caring for lion cubs and walking with lions watch Blood Lions.

This documentary follows acclaimed environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, and Rick Swazey, an American hunter, on their journey to uncover the realities about the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa. It’s a story that blows the lid off claims made by these operators in attempting to justify what they do.

I had great lion sightings in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Nature Park and Tembe Elephant Park, both in South Africa.

4. Not Saying Anything When Your Safari Driver Gets to Close to Wildlife Is an Act of Animal Cruelty

Jeeps at Yala in Sri Lanka crowd out leopards causing them undue stress. Avoid this form of animal cruelty by telling your driver to back off.
Safari jeeps crowding around a leopard in Yala National Park who is scared out of his tree.

I’ve done quite a few safaris. I have always found that the drivers had a good balance of getting the jeep close enough to get a good look at the animals without getting too close and causing the animal stress. That all changed when I went to Sri Lanka both in Kaudulla National Park with elephants and in Yala National Park with leopards.

In Yala, our guide spotted a leopard in a tree. Word soon got out and other jeep drivers got excited. They pulled in closer and closer to give their guests a better viewing opportunity. Our driver kept revving his engine and getting closer. I asked him to back off. Nothing. So I asked again. He seemed really surprised. He was just trying to give me the best photo opp possible.

But at the cost of stressing out the leopard.

What if the additional stress meant that later that night the leopard was too tired to hunt? We don’t know the chain reaction we cause by stressing out wildlife. We were now blocked in by at least 20 other jeeps, all revving their engines.

Finally, having had enough the poor leopard decided to seek out a quieter location away from the shouting tourists and diesel fumes. That meant he had to climb down the tree and cross the road several meters from our jeep!  This resulted in a leopard viewing of a lifetime. But at a HUGE expense to the leopard who had been sleeping peacefully before we came and wrecked it all.

Our guide Jerome sadly shook his head and said; In 10 years it will be virtually impossible to see a leopard in Yala, we will have scared them all away.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with him.  I loved my time in Yala. But I was very disappointed to see how little respect some of the drivers had for wildlife. The drivers get too close or rev their engines. And it’s not just one or two jeeps, there are dozens of them, resulting in traffic jams along the road.

How to Respectfully View Wildlife While on Safari

I  get that everyone wants to see a leopard, I know I certainly did, but not when it inflicts animal cruelty. And not when we are interfering with their natural behavior.  Had all the jeeps stayed a few meters further back on the road, it’s likely the leopard would have remained undisturbed in his tree. Given the choice, I would have gladly sacrificed my photo opportunity for the well-being of the leopard.

This lack of respect for wildlife that I saw with several Sri Lankan tour operators is one of the motivating factors for me offering a custom Wildlife and Cultural Highlights of Sri Lanka Tour.  I’ve teamed with a tour operator who I’ve personally traveled with and who is responsible. They’re not leopard chasers as they call the other jeeps. They want you to see wildlife but not in a way that hurts wildlife. And I still saw a leopard when I went with them.

The first thing you can do to avoid this from happening is

1) travel with a responsible tour operator, like Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel that respects wildlife. When you observe wildlife, like lemurs, we insist on keeping a respectable difference to the animals

2) If it does happen, ask your guide/driver to back off.  If you love animals you don’t want to cause them more stress that will have unintended outcomes that you have no way of knowing – starvation, becoming prey, etc.

And if you go on a self-drive safari follow these tips from Travel4Wildlife.

5) Volunteering with Wildlife or at an Animal Sanctuary – A Seemingly Unlikely Act of Animal Cruelty

me being a responsible tourist by volunteering at a chimp sanctuary in Spain. Check that the organization that you volunteer with is actually helping, not harming animals.
Me cleaning up chimpanzee poop at a primate sanctuary in Spain.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. And I know that your heart is in the right place. But you need to do your research. Many organizations will claim conservation, rehabilitation, and reintroduction as their goals. However, it’s often it’s to line the owner’s pockets with travelers trusted money.

About 15 years ago  I was going to volunteer with lion cubs in South Africa.  I mentioned this to a friend that I had living there.   It sounded very suspicious to him as he was South African and had never heard of this.  He did some research and came back with the terrible news.  

The organization that I had planned on volunteering took on paid volunteers to “care” for “orphaned” lion cubs. Then where the cubs were no longer cute and cuddly, they sold the lions to a canned hunting farm.

Keep in mind this is before the increased awareness about canned hunting – see above.  Needless to say, I didn’t volunteer after learning this and was horrified!

If I could remember the name of the organization as I would happily share it as a Where NOT to Volunteer but unfortunately I don’t remember as it was so long ago.

Volunteering with Animals Can Be a Wonderful Experience for You and the Animals

However, don’t let that dissuade you from volunteering with animals. There are some wonderful wildlife organizations and animal sanctuaries where you can make a positive contribution. And they desperately need your help.

I volunteered with rescued chimps at MONA, a chimp sanctuary near Girona, Spain.  They rescue chimps and macaques are former pets or circus performers. The team is incredibly dedicated, educated and passionate.

The chimps and macaques are very well cared for by a vet, biologist, and psychologist. In addition, both the vet and biologist had Master’s degrees in Primatology.

Chimps are very expensive to care for and MONA does an exceptional job of very limited resources. Volunteers make a positive difference by doing the work and with the money, they pay for the incredible opportunity.

6) Beware of Eating Local Specialities Like Shark Fin Soup When Travelling

You want to immerse yourself in the local culture and eat local food. Kudos to you for that. But please be aware of what you’re eating and the harm it can do to wildlife.

Something that’s very close to my heart since I love diving with sharks is eating shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy. Especially in countries such as China and Hong Kong.

Shark finning is a cruel and destructive unsustainable practice. It’s threatening the entire marine ecosystem. Sharks (of any size or type) are caught and their fins are cut off. The rest of the shark is thrown back into the water. Unable to swim, it either drowns or is eaten alive by other fish. If that’s not animal cruelty I don’t know what is.

Either way, it’s a painful and wasteful death. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year for shark fin soup. This is despite the fact that the fins have no nutrient value and they’re tasteless. Check out this video to learn more about shark finning. 

By all means, eat like the locals do when traveling but know what you’re eating. And the impact it has on wildlife.

7)Why Swimming with Dolphins or Seeing a Dolphin Show is Cruel

We’ve all heard stories of dolphins saving a family from a Great White Shark and of bow-riding. They love surfing the waves of boats. So surely they’ll enjoy swimming with us right? Perhaps on their own terms but not in captivity.

First, there’s the issue of where the dolphins are coming from. Most dolphins are caught in the wild. The cute ones are sold to tourist attractions. The less pretty ones slaughtered for meat.

Families are separated and torn apart. Once caught, the cute ones face a grim future. Enclosures are usually small – they’re all too small when you consider that dolphins swim tens of km’s each day.

Furthermore, dolphins are often kept in incompatible groups. And with such small enclosures, they have no way to escape the conflict. As a result of the conditions and performing many dolphins in captivity die premature deaths due to stress.

Source: PETA. If you need further proof to watch The Cove, it’s an undercover documentary exposing the dolphin slaughter in Japan.

8) Why Giving Money to Dancing Monkeys is Committing Animal Cruelty

Don't give money for dancing monkeys. This type of animal cruelty is very preventable.
Dancing monkey: By Rangbaz (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t resist one last one. This should be obvious. But monkeys on chains don’t want to dress up. They don’t want to dance. They are likely beaten. And are doing it out of fear.

Don’t buy the monkey a banana, or give money. The owner will try to convince you that you’re helping the monkey. You’re not. Instead, you’re encouraging ongoing cruelty.

Instead, report the incident and let the local tourist office. Let them know that you don’t support these types of activities.

Primates are intelligent beings who feel things deeply. It’s why I volunteer on a weekly basis providing enrichment for Japanese macaques at a local sanctuary.

Related Reading: The Best Live Animal Cameras in The Wild for You to Watch

Have you ever inadvertently inflicted animal cruelty while on vacation? We can’t control what we’ve done in the past. But we can try to do better in the future. Being informed and doing our research before we travel is a big part of that.

Help spread the word so that we can stop accidentally inflicting animal cruelty while travelling.