There are parks featuring activities with animals that feel wrong the minute you arrive.
For me, that place was the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo in Bangkok. I’d gone to research a story on crocodiles, but most of the people there were families on vacation. We took in the sights together: tigers languishing in tiny cages, their wounds exposed. Costumed primates in concrete enclosures. Staff performing daredevil feats, slinging crocodiles through the air while tourists threw money over the action from the grandstands. The whole thing made me feel sick.
If you love animals, there’s a chance you love running into them on vacation. From cat cafes to restaurants where alpacas roam to run-of-the-mill zoos, animal tourism can be found all over the world. But what animal lovers probably don’t want is to support cruelty for the sake of sightseeing. Although its world-famous tradition of the running of the bulls remains popular as ever, Spain is seeing attendance tank in its bullfighting rings overall. Travel companies are making efforts to be transparent about animal welfare considerations. Tinder photos that co-star drugged tigers appear to be on their way out, too.
But even with things trending in a moral direction, navigating the world of ethical animal tourism remains a difficult task, and one of the best examples of that is the rise of elephant-sanctuary tourism.
Elephant sanctuaries are billed as places for housing rescued elephants from abusive situations, of which there are many. There’s no shortage of heartbreaking tales of elephants surviving stints working in the circus and logging industries, or just enduring accidents that leave them maimed, such as stepping on land mines. But just having “sanctuary” in the name doesn’t automatically make an organization noble. As the New York Times recently investigated, not all elephant tourism companies operate as advertised.
“The trend we’ve seen in Thailand is a place that’s nothing but a zoo to throw the word 'conservation’ or ‘sanctuary’ and lure tourists in who think they’re helping animals,” says Jason Baker, the Hong Kong-based vice president of PETA Asia. “They’re really just going to a place that buys animals, makes them do tricks and take your money.”
The same thing happens with other animals, such as wolves, bears and tigers.
So if you’re a traveler with good intentions, how do you know if you’re getting duped? Here are some steps you can take to find a place that’s actually for the animals.
Start your quest by finding an animal-friendly sanctuary you’d like to visit. The task is harder to carry out than it may sound. Some businesses know that potential customers are looking for ethical options and advertise as such, even if their practices are harmful.
“A lot of even the worst offenders of abuse have glossy websites that make them sound like they love animals,” says Susan Bass, director of public relations for America’s largest accredited big-cat sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue. “If someone is thinking of doing any touristy attraction that involves big cats, check and see if the facility is accredited.”
Baker says this can go for seemingly charitable event attractions as well. Thailand’s King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament was advertised as a fundraiser for elephant causes, but PETA Asia documented evidence of the polo elephants being beaten and exposed the footage to the public, leading to the event’s cancellation.
To find out if an attraction is properly vetted, Bass suggests referring to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a nonprofit dedicated to sanctuaries, rescue centers and rehabilitation centers that administers accreditation. If you’re still not convinced about a facility, you can cut through the marketing tricks by getting in touch with the organization you’d like to visit.
“You have to ask a lot of questions,” Baker says. “You can ask if the elephants are chained when the tourists aren’t around. You can ask if they’re buying animals or if they’re rescuing them,” the latter being the humane route.
After questions about cruelty-free cosmetics and companies, the most popular topic PETA Asia fields from customers is about animal-related tourism in Thailand. Baker and PETA Asia often hear stories of businesses claiming to be sanctuaries that actually don’t rescue elephants, but buy them instead. These animals may be beaten into submission and trained to do tricks.
“Animals are taken from the wild — they have forged documents, which is easy to do when you can make so much money from an elephant,” he says.
When you’re browsing a sanctuary’s website, TripAdvisor page or brochures, look for some signs of abuse. According to Baker, a telltale red flag is a visible bullhook, also known as an elephant goad, that is used to target tender areas of an elephant’s body to control them.
“Sometimes you can go to a website and see that they have bullhooks in their hands, or you can see elephants being ridden,” Baker says. “You can cross those off your list straight away.”
It’s true that getting animals out of captivity and into sanctuaries is a positive move. Female elephants in captivity have a life span that’s less than half of those living in protected areas of Africa and Asia, according to a study by the journal Science. Baker is always happy to see people take animals from bad situations and put them into good ones, but he’d rather see rescued elephants allowed to be free from direct tourist contact. The definition of sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety — not a place for touching wild animals.
“Oftentimes, people are looking for an Instagram photo, and that’s not what a sanctuary is designed for,” Baker says. “A sanctuary is designed for helping animals, numero uno.”
Those Instagram shots are costly for the animals involved, particularly in the case of photo ops with tiger cubs. Captive tigers are an issue overseas and in America. Some experts estimate that there are 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in captivity in the United States, although it’s impossible to know the real number thanks to loose government regulations. (The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are currently only 3,900 in the wild.) Visiting tiger-tourism destinations fuels the problematic industry.
“What people don’t realize is that those cubs are taken from their mothers at a very early age, and they never see their mother again,” Bass says. “It’s very awful for the mother tiger. Can you imagine having your baby taken away?”
Bass says that while big cat cubs are meant to sleep about 20 hours a day in the wild, they’re constantly woken up and kept awake in tourist photo schemes. Handlers may blow in cubs’ faces to make them appear more alert in photos, or bounce them to keep them from sleeping. The result is detrimental to an animal’s health.
“They get very sick — they don’t have immune systems for this,” Bass says. “Many of them die.”
Bass says that seeing an exotic animal doing something it wouldn’t do in the wild is a signal that a sanctuary may be problematic.
“Normally, tiger cubs would not be held by people if they were in the wild,” she says. “They wouldn’t be posing with a chain around their necks in the wild.”
If a place thinks it’s safe for you to be touching their adult tigers, the tigers are probably being drugged. With tiger trafficking alive and well, completely avoid places that give you personal tiger photo opportunities.
“The 10 minutes you spent with the cub on your lap for social media or an experience of a lifetime means misery and cruelty for the rest of their life,” Bass says.
Just because there are a lot of shady options out there doesn’t mean you can’t find a good sanctuary to visit. As Bass recommended, the GFAS’s website and its “Find a Sanctuary” tool can be used to find tour, internship and volunteer opportunities.
In terms of elephants, World Animal Protection offers a list of elephant-friendly venues in Thailand, Nepal and Cambodia that have been carefully vetted.
Keep an eye out for spots that let elephants socialize in groups. Baker is a huge fan of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, an operation boasting more than 750 acres in Sukhothai, Thailand, where they simply let elephants be elephants. Eight visitors at a time have the benefit of seeing elephants in their element; people can also stay in a guesthouse nearby.
In fact, Baker says, if a sanctuary is truly allowing the animals to live as they should, tourists can get bored — and that’s okay.
“You’re not playing with elephants, you’re not washing elephants, they’re not dancing for you, they’re not begging for food,” Baker says. “I often tell people who are going there to bring a book."
And if you take a look at Boon Lott’s social media channels, such as in the photo above, you’ll see that allowing animals to roam without bother is more special than encountering one chained to a pole at a pseudo-sanctuary. You’ll have the chance to see the majestic creatures and their personalities shine while supporting a noble cause.