Attitudes of tourists towards animal cruelty
First, a confession. When I was younger – just a naïve backpacker exploring the world – I did a couple of elephant rides in Thailand. I enjoyed them, lumbering leisurely through the jungle on the back of a majestic animal. Although I didn’t give it much thought, they seemed to be looked after quite well – they were being fed, had water, were spoken to softly by their riders, and were never pushed hard on our meander through the wilderness.
It was only years later that I learned more about the innate cruelty in a practice like this. The elephants are usually taken from their mothers when they are just a few months old to be trained. They are starved, beaten, and isolated while they are just calves until they become compliant. During their entire working life, they are cut with hooks and kept in chains to control them. The average life expectancy for an elephant is about 70 years but most used for rides die before their 30s or 40s.
I don’t think I was alone back then in thinking this was a legitimate thing for visitors to do in the Land of Smiles. These days, my guess would be that most tourists would still think like that. My own views have evolved – but that’s mainly from education and spending several years now writing about travel and seeing some extreme examples of what is essentially animal cruelty.
My suspicions about the attitudes of other travellers were confirmed this week with the release of some new statistics from World Animal Protection. The animal welfare not-for-proft organisation surveyed 13,000 people across 14 countries on their opinions and behaviours surrounding animals in tourism and the results were quite shocking, I thought. (Well, shocking in the sense that there is clearly a problem here – not that I was extremely surprised.)
Although elephant riding gets a lot of attention in discussions about animal cruelty in tourism, there are plenty of other prominent practices. Swimming with dolphins, dancing monkey shows, posing with tigers, and walking with lions are all good examples. They are the sort of things that World Animal Protection asked people about. The focus was on wild animals – not domesticated animals like horses or dogs – being used in inappropriate ways.
The results show that:
- Many people had witnessed cruelty to wild animals on their holidays but about a third went along with it or ignored it.
- About half of the people who did go through with activities that involved wild animal cruelty did so because they loved animals (and, presumably, did not see the behaviour as ‘cruel’).
- About 85 per cent of people agreed that tour operators should avoid activities that caused cruelty to wild animals but 25 per cent said that getting a good price for their trip was more important.
Before we start demonising the respondents who went through with captive ‘wild animal’ experiences, it’s probably important to have a more detailed look at some of the specifics. The reality is that, from a campaigner’s point of view, any type of animal cruelty is as evil as another. For the average tourist, though, different animals are viewed quite differently.
- 68 per cent of people think that swimming with dolphins is acceptable.
- 53 per cent of people think that riding elephants is acceptable.
- 35 per cent of people think that posing with a tiger is acceptable.
The biggest issue in all the examples is perception. Much of the cruelty happens behind the scenes or in the early stages of an animal’s life when they are being trained. The tigers that people pose with, for example, look cute and happy but they are kept in tiny cages where they’re starved and punished to keep them docile. Dancing monkeys are stolen from their mothers and are subjected to such harsh training when they’re young that many don’t even survive long enough to be put to work.
So, what’s the solution? Well, World Animal Protection has launched a new campaign called ‘Before They Book’ with is targeting two very broad groups – tourists and tour operators.
When it comes to tourists, the mission is simply education. By trying to make people aware of the awful treatment of animals behind the scenes, the hope is they won’t book those kind of activities and refuse to take part. The cruelty these wild animals are subjected to only continues because there’s a profit to be made from behaving like that but, if nobody pays for these activities and the money dries up, there would be no need to continue.
In regards to tour companies, the goal is to stop them from even offering experiences like this with wild animal cruelty. I know some of the larger ecofriendly companies are already doing this but there are thousands of tour companies and travel agents out there around the world that don’t think twice about including it in a traveller’s itinerary. But if all of them stopped doing it and offered (just as enjoyable and similarly-priced) alternatives, it would make a huge difference to the number of animals mistreated each year.
It’s estimated about 16,000 Asian elephants are in captivity around the world and being used for the ‘entertainment’ of tourists. Wouldn’t it be nice if this campaign reached even just enough people to see that number come down next year… and then down each year after. Until we talk about this topic more and spread the education widely and globally, there will always be travellers like the young naïve backpacking me who jump on the back of an elephant without realising the horrific life it’s had to make that jungle walk possible.
*All images provided by World Animal Protection