The other day we shared a post on our Facebook page called “Why you shouldn’t ride Elephants in Thailand”. I have previously also written about the topic because with a blog named The Midnight Blue Elephant it is a something close to my heart and because it is the right thing to do. Or rather not to do.

What was interesting about this Facebook post, however, was the discussion in the comments that followed. While I tell myself to not read online comments I still sometimes do. It is like a digital car crash you can’t look away from. In this discussion, though, I thought I would be safe. How can you not agree with the sentiment of not riding elephants after learning the cruel facts and if you are somehow a decent human being?! I was wrong. Apparently some people thought it hypocritical to eat meat and still take a stance against elephant riding. What I thought could become an interesting conversation (maybe the person had a point) turned into trolling and name calling and eventually comments had to be deleted. Yes, kindly note, you are entitled to state your opinion on Travelettes but trolling is not on. Neither is name calling, racism or being a general asshole.

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But back to the elephants. I personally don’t think to be a carnivore and still advocating against animal cruelty is mutually exclusive. At least, that is what I am doing right now. You may think that I’m wrong and surely the discussion has merit, but I’ve got to start somewhere and this is the battle I pick. Who knows, maybe one day I will be a vegetarian or a vegan, but right now I just want to talk about why it is wrong for anybody to engage in activities that use animals for entertainment purposes, regardless of what’s on your plate.

Lions and tigers and bears – oh my!

First of all, I want to say, I get it. Animals are great and wild animals come with an extra appeal of being exotic, sometimes dangerous, and often far removed from our everyday life. So, of course, I understand the desire of wanting to get close, feed or pet them. Heck, I am like Elvira from the Looney Toons when I see a stray kitten. Mind you, a kitten is not a lion cub and I have learned a long time ago that you need to leave a cat to her own devices, taking only the crumbs of affection she is willing to give you. That’s how cats work.

I have also walked with a lion and pet a cheetah and those were absolutely amazing experiences that I will never forget. But lately, these memories have turned sour. In recent months, I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the ways humans (ab)use animals for entertainment purposes and this is when I realized that walking lions and petting cheetahs is wrong. Walking a lion has nothing to do with conservation, with helping lions or even learning about lions; it is a purely hedonistic experience, one I now deeply regret participating in.

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While I can’t take it back, I do want to make sure I ask the right questions before engaging in any animal related activities the next time and I want to encourage you to do the same. I think very little things make someone a bad traveler, but supporting unsustainable, cruel practices does, at least when you know better.

Just in time for this post, I stumbled over an awesome brochure by the World Animal Protection organization called Checking out of Cruelty. It not only gives information about some of the worst practices but also lists some amazing alternatives and the best tour operators worldwide who don’t support animal cruelty.

Some of the activities to look out for and avoid are easy enough to spot. If you honestly think that a tiger cub likes to be cuddled by foreign hands all day, I don’t know what to tell you. Others are a little less obvious but include activities like elephant riding, snake charming and taking pictures with monkeys. Even if the animals are not being manhandled during the activities it doesn’t mean they don’t suffer on a daily basis. More often than not were they cruelly taken from their mothers when little and still hurt from that trauma.

The elephant in the room

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Elephants, though big and sturdy looking, have very sensitive spines and are not meant to be ridden. In order to ‘domesticate’ them, they have to undergo a horrid treatment in a so-called breaking camp as babies. Here they are forced in tight confinements, bound, and are repeatedly beaten with bull hooks or wooden planks until the little animal’s spirit breaks and it appears tame. The pain doesn’t stop for them once they are fully grown. Not only do they often suffer from post-traumatic stress but elephants are social creatures who need to roam wild with their families and friends, not being chained away on their own.

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Just because elephant riding is an old tradition in many Asian countries doesn’t make it a good one. Just something to consider when you are tempted to climb on Dumbo’s back next time you are in the area. If you are still not convinced, I’d just ask you to watch this video before you go (personally I can’t watch it!).

Monkey business

While I was on a trip with Intrepid I also learned about the horrible treatment of the monkeys you will sometimes see posing for pictures with tourists.

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Again, I get it. I love monkeys too and seeing a cute monkey face, all I want him to do is wrap his long, spindly arms around me and give me a hug. But the reality is that the ones you see roaming beaches, night clubs, and markets have been taken captive from their mothers. In order to release their babies, mothers will be shot and literally drop their babies into the arms of their killers.

The babies are then put to work either sedated or energized with drugs, depending on their mood. Especially during puberty, they need to be tranquilized to become more docile and usually, have their teeth pulled to be less of a threat. Once they are fully grown, they get discarded. Grown monkeys are not considered cute enough to be appealing for photo ops with tourists.

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No posing here. In fact, she will have her tupperware full of nuts stolen by this guy in just a moment and never get it back!

Cobras will often have their fangs pulled or their mouths sewn shut which makes them not only suffer miserably but also slowly starve to death. While I’m not a fan of snakes in general, I don’t think any animal deserves such treatment for human entertainment and alleged bravado. And so the list of horrible practices for our entertainment goes on and on.

The conversation about conservation

There are countless of other activities and some do fall in a gray zone. While shark cage diving, manta ray feeding or lion walks don’t necessarily harm the animals, it does offset the natural balance of things. Any animal that gets used to being fed will not behave like a wild animal anymore and will get too used to humans over time.

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Whether an animal has been captured for entertainment purposes or has been rescued from an even worse fate, but has to now earn its living by interacting with tourists, almost makes no difference. While not all interactions with humans harm the animal per se they are a far cry from something that can be called conservation. Conservation is a term that while sounding oh-so-appealing and good, is unfortunately not regulated in any way. Conservation is an easy label to stick on and a good marketing strategy, conservation sells. However, true conservation will always put the animals first not you. Nicola Beynon from World Animal Protection says:

“If you can hug it, ride it or take a selfie with it in a close encounter, chances are that animal has been suffering and subjected to cruelty.”

Personally, that is not a chance I want to take. Ultimately there is nothing better than having a real wildlife encounter with a wild animal. Whether that is a whale shark swimming next to you on its own free will, seeing a pygmy elephant smiling at you from the distance or having a kitten follow you into the jungle just because it seems to like you.

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This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!