I never swam with dolphins as a kid. And it killed me. It seemed that ALL (said with the whiny tone of eight-year-old Emily) of my friends had a pastel-framed photo with a shiny, smiling dolphin, hung prominently on their refrigerators with a Sea World magnet. My jealousy was palpable. My classmates were up-close and personal with beautiful creatures I’d only read about in books, or seen in my favorite movies, and I had… two rescue dogs who barely knew how to “sit.” Needless to say, swimming with dolphins was high on my “must do before I die” list, at the mature age of eight.

Then I grew up a bit. And started to read a few articles, and watch a few too many documentaries about animals in captivity. It’s safe to say that my opinion about clinging to a dolphin’s fin for a fast swim in a circular pool, changed rather quickly. It was officially off the list. Dolphins don’t belong in tiny pens, and they certainly weren’t put on this earth for the sole purpose of framed Sea World souvenirs. On to the bigger and better things dotting my aforementioned list, the most important being, of course, traveling. And it’s safe to say, I’m happily making my way through a vast list of countries, landmarks, and oceans, as I work my way around the world.

But the more I travel, the more I understand where the dolphin craze, which stormed the 1990s, comes from. As travelers, I think in every new place, there’s a desire to see something unique, or to have an experience that only exists in that location. And as an employee of a huge boat that shuttles tourists from one country to the next, I can now confirm that animals are a huge part of said “experiences.” You know what you can do in Honduras? Hold a sloth. I’m sorry but this one was a shocker to me.


I learned about sloths in grade school and accepted that they lived deep in the rainforests, and I would never encounter one, let alone stay in one place long enough to spot one. But some clever entrepreneurs spotted a cash machine in the form of these slow-moving dinosaurs, and snatched up a few for some expensive photo ops.

Unfortunately in Costa Maya, Mexico the dolphin game is still going strong as well. What’s the first thing that greets you in the cruise terminal? A shamefully small pool filled with beautiful creatures that belong five meters in the other direction, in the ocean, and far away from the grasps of happily uneducated tourists.

And in Grand Cayman, the gorgeous tax haven, lined with some of the world’s most stunning beaches, I discovered you can swim with yet another marine being: Stingrays. (Although this attraction is completely in the wild, and the stingrays are free to do whatever they please.)

Full disclosure, I took the animal bait.

My eight-year-old self got the best of me when I heard “sloth sanctuary” and I was first in line to hold a twelve-year-old slow-moving furry friend named Grandma. The place had the word “sanctuary” in the title, and a huge sign saying “WE DON’T BUY ANIMALS” so I figured I was one of the good tourists, right? The sloths were lounging around in trees, seemingly happy and unrestricted. Then I saw the monkeys in cages and the stressed-out parrots, and I started to question my decision. And I quickly came to the realization that I have to do better. We, as travelers, have to do better. We waltz into foreign countries, happily contributing to the local economies, but we must be more careful about where our money is going. Especially when it involves those who don’t have a voice… like sloths.

But how do we do better?

Luckily for you, me, and all of our traveling friends, I know a guy named Mohsin Kazmi, who is at the forefront of conservation and awareness in regards to all things travel, jungle, and animals. He’s a badass photographer, who casually leads expeditions into the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest with Tamandua Expeditions, and I feel lucky to call him a friend (especially when I have camera questions…).

So Mohsin gave me his standard guidelines for deciding if an animal “sanctuary”, “refuge” or whatever else they’d like to call it, has the right priorities, when it comes to our furry friends. Let’s all learn from my sloth mistake, and follow these words of wisdom when deciding if an awesome photo op is doing more harm than good.

So when you’re booking your next excursion to an establishment boasting about its animals, ask yourself the following questions from Mohsin:
  1. Is the company doing something that’s relevant to promoting conservation and improving local ecology?
  2. Does their money come from donors? Who are they?
  3. Do they have long-term programs in place that they can talk to you about?
  4.   Do the animals look healthy?

You don’t have to be a top-notch detective to answer the questions above. A quick Google search or social media scour, will tell you everything you need to know. Is the focus on conservation, or on photo packages? I think we all know what the right answer should be.

And please don’t let this information get you down in the traveling dumps. The world is an incredible thing to explore, and every new place is full of new experiences, and new creatures as well. But let’s make sure that, as visitors, we stay in our place compared to the locals. And by locals, I mean those with scales, fins, and claws as well. It’s their world and we’re just passing through. Let’s keep it that way.