A Quick Guide To Ethical Animal Tourism

Ethical animal tourism should be the only way tourists interact with animals during their travels. If done right, wildlife tourism can have a great impact in conservation and protection of animals, bringing much needed funds that can be used to restore wildlife population, increase efforts against poaching, protecting the animals’ habitat, help in maintaining the population and even in creating awareness.

But unfortunately, a lot of animal encounters around the world are far from being ethical, and overly enthusiastic tourists end up engaging in activities that, although seemingly harmless, have a terrible impact on the wellbeing of the animals – which, remember, have feelings too.

The problem is that – without realizing – many of us are actually guilty of getting involved in unethical animal tourism – because you see, even if it is not vividly cruel and violent such as bull fights in Spain or many countries in Central and South America, it doesn’t mean it’s ethical, or fair. And once we do realize that we got involved in unethical animal encounters, we are so ashamed of that to the point we completely avoid ever mentioning it – just in case someone may criticize us.

But I beg to differ. I like to think that I – and you, with me – can learn from my mistake.

And so here I am, telling you all about my experience with unethical animal encounters, asking other blogger friends and long term travelers about it, and sharing a few tips for you so that you know to only get involved in ethical animal tourism and – with that – become a more responsible traveler.

Let me start by telling you what ethical animal tourism is. I will then continue to talk about unethical animal tourisms, and all the things you shouldn’t be doing during your trips. Finally, I will be sharing a few tips and questions to ask yourself so that you can be sure to be only engaging in ethical animal tourism.

Ethical animal tourism
Safaris – when run appropriately – are great examples of ethical animal tourism

What Is Ethical Animal Tourism? 

The whole point of ethical animal tourism is to make sure that animals are treated humanely. It means that you, as a tourist, can observe animals and even interact with them in ways that don’t impact their welfare. The final goal of the activity is to raise funds for the protection and conservation of said animals, as well as raising awareness on the most common issues they may be facing in terms of living conditions in their natural environment; the challenges of their protection and conservation, and so on. 

An animal sanctuary can only be deemed ethical if the animals there live in an environment that is as similar as it can be to their natural one – in terms of habitat, presence and interaction with other animals, feeding patterns, climate and so on. Places like circuses, most zoos and even some well known “temples” that keep animals in cages, in chains and / or train them to do things they wouldn’t be doing in nature are anything but ethical. 

elephant rides

Unethical Animal Tourism – AKA All The Things You Shouldn’t Do

All countries in the world are involved in unethical animal tourism to a certain level.

Mike Huxley, of Bemused Backpacker, says “A huge amount of greenwashing is employed to prey on the naivety of tourists and travelers alike who think it is okay to ride on an elephants back, get a selfie with a tiger, cuddle a baby orangutan or swim with a dolphin, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved.

Unfortunately too many people put their desire for a once in a lifetime experience with their favorite animal above any ethical concerns, and are either unaware of, or don’t care about the abuse and exploitation that occurs just so these wildlife tourism companies can turn a profit.”

Just in case you are wondering whether you are about to be involved in ethical animal tourism or not, here is a list of things you really shouldn’t be doing – not matter how fun they may sound.

ethical animal tourism

Selfies with tigers

This is always a no-no. Tigers are wild animals, and any selfie with a tiger – whether innocently posing with one that is half asleep, or to bottle-feed a cub – will involve some level of drug being administered to the poor animal. Because really, although it may come as a surprise to you (*sarcasm*) tigers aren’t bottle-fed in their natural environment. 

But let me tell you a bit more of what I have discovered.

A few years ago, while drafting my itinerary for South East Asia, I came across a bunch of travel blogs, travel diaries and magazines – in both Italian and English – that recommended visiting the famous Tiger Temple in Thailand, not too far from Bangkok, supposedly a conservation centre run by Buddhist monks with the aim of saving tigers and re-introducing them into their natural environment.

It all sounded great, were it not for the photos I saw: men holding tiger cubs, feeding them with a bottle; tigers chained – you get the idea.

It was so obvious that this attraction was not running things in an ethical way, that I was shocked to see so many still visiting. 

Yet, for the sake of being fully informed, I decided to investigate a bit more. A few clicks and a whole bunch of information popped up. Right there, available for anybody to read, was a piece on the Tiger Temple by National Geographic where the journalist told of a series of “bizarre” events in the conservation centre.

She suggested that tigers were “beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors,” and that they were likely drugged so that they wouldn’t be aggressive and the visitors would be able to pet or take the unmissable selfie without risking their life. She even mentioned the sale of tigers to the Chinese black market where they’d be used to extract a little bit of everything.

The same issues had been already denounced in 2008 in a report by Care for the Wild International, which concluded that an attraction like the Tiger Temple was not only not contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild, but it in fact increased the illegal trafficking for the sake of keeping the captive population.

So that’s where the tourism money would be going: not the conservation of tigers for sure, but mere profits for business.  

Taking selfies with tigers is definitely the opposite of ethical animal tourism.

GOOD TO KNOW: The same concerns raised about tiger temples in Asia can be raised about places in Africa that offer lion encounters and lion walks. None of them are ethical, for lions are drugged in order to become easier to control when interacting with visitors.

PETA
Baby elephant chained by all fours, men pulling on his/her legs – this is how elephants are trained for circus or to carry humans – photo courtesy of Sam Haddock (PETA)

Riding elephants

It is now a well known fact that riding elephants is synonym of unethical animal tourism. But this hasn’t always been the case, and until a decade or so ago elephant rides were quite the thing to do in South East Asia, India and Sri Lanka. 

Travel blogger Mike Huxley recalls how during one of his first backpacking trips, he joined an elephant safari – something he is now ashamed of and an experience which he used to change his way of traveling altogether, now having become an advocate for responsible tourism.

The issue is that elephant rides continue being offered – and despite the wealth of information available online that suggests they cause terrible suffering to the animals, travelers continue paying for them.

For the sake of information, let me tell you what happens to elephant that are used for rides.

In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as “the crush,” which has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more pliable and submissive.

They are then confined in small cages or pits, so small that they can’t move around. Finally, they are tortured and beaten constantly for a long period of time with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. Elephants are starved, they are not allowed to sleep, they are tortured and abused both mentally and physically.

All elephants seen carrying around tourist have gone through this process.

Furthermore, carrying people actually causes the elephants a lot of harm and physical pain. Their spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, even less so when they have to do it all day long, every day, without the chance to rest and eat.

Yes, they elephants are huge. But despite their size their backs hurt when they carry people as well as the wooden saddles strapped to their backs, causing skin and tissue damage. Elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries and crippled as a result of these activities. Not to mention the emotional pain of being abused, the constant fear they feel, and the stress that such a social animal – used to living in groups – feels when forced to live alone.

If you decide to get involved in an elephant safari you are in a way stating that no, you really don’t care if your actions lead to the atrocious suffering of an animal. Or to death, even.

Once again, elephant rides are a great example of unethical animal tourism.

GOOD TO KNOW: Many so called elephant sanctuaries and orphanages aren’t much better than elephant rides. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, in Sri Lanka, is a very sad example of what everything an orphanage should not be, with allegations of animal cruelty as expressed in this post. If you wish to visit an elephant orphanage, make sure to research properly about it (more about it below!).

ethical animal tourism
Giulia used to work in dolphinariums and knows what goes on behind them

Swimming with dolphins

It isn’t just elephants that are trained to do things they wouldn’t do in nature, just for the sake of entertaining people. The same sad fate is faced by dolphins who work in dolphinariums, where they are threatened so that they will keep performing and entertaining the human spectators. Dolphins are trained to follow their trainers’ instructions, and if they don’t they will get no food or some other kind of punishment. They are very stressed as they have to work continuously, every day and many times a day.

Most people will take part in the so called “dolphin encounters” and “dolphin shows” without knowing nor asking themselves what is behind this reality. I did that myself, years and years ago, during a tour I did in Cuba. When offered the chance of swimming with dolphins, I didn’t give it too much thought, even though I had a gut feeling that it was wrong. Years later, I am still ashamed of what I did.

Mount Bromo
If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.

Riding a horse-pulled carriage or even simply riding poorly treated horses

Yes, even the seemingly harmless horse-pulled carriage ride, or a ride on a horse to the crater of Mount Bromo, in Indonesia, is to be considered unethical animal tourism. 

Just think about it: how can a horse be happy when sitting in the sun and / or traffic and noise of a city? I know, it may be romantic to ride a carriage through Central Park in New York, or around the streets of Rome, but how fun is it really for the animal? Well let me tell you: none. 

The same goes for riding horses. Now, this is not an easy one to spot because riding horses is considered ethical and fair pretty much anywhere in the world. But if you see a horse like the one pictured above – foam at his mouth, pouncing its legs, very thin – there is only one right thing to do: refuse to ride it. It’s the only way you can get the message across that the ill-treatment of animals – including horses – is unacceptable, and that there are ways for ethical animal tourism.

What NOT to do in Siem Reap
Tourists riding elephants in Angkor Wat

Unethical Animal Tourism In Natural Environment

You may think that the moment you step outside and spot animals in their natural environment, those encounters will be ethical. You’d be surprised, but even when seeing animals in their natural habitat, things can go wrong and the experience may end up being less than ethical.

The following are some animal encounters that, despite taking place in their natural environment, may end up being unethical if not done right.

swimming with whale sharks

Swimming with whale sharks

Swimming with whale sharks sounds like a great idea. Say that, during a trip, you discover that this is a possibility, and that the price is these huge majestic creatures are doped up on constant food chucked from rowing boats, surrounded by far too many snorkeling humans and penned into a small section of water. 

This may happen if you decide to swim with whale sharks in Cebu. A proper research into the topic may show that the whale shark experience in Oslob isn’t an animal-friendly activity: tour guides actively feed the whale sharks to encourage them to stay in the area for the tourists.

This may not seem harmful at first, but the practice is having detrimental effects on the whale sharks. It is changing migratory patterns of the whale sharks, which may alter their breeding habits in the future, as well as providing them with an insufficient diet for repopulation and ultimately cause decline in their species.

GOOD TO KNOW: The same exact things could be said about swimming with manta rays, an activity that is offered in many places in the world.

Yala National Park
An elephant showing signs of stress at Yala National Park

Safaris

If done right, a safari can be a fantastic way of seeing animals in a completely ethical way. I have done a great deal of them – in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia – and all of them were incredible experiences were the number of vehicles allowed in the proximity of animals was limited by local policies and tour operator guidelines, all in the best interest of local wildlife.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case and I can tell you there are safaris where no respect whatsoever is shown for the animals. 

Safaris in Sri Lanka are extremely cheap compared to Africa, which means that many more travelers can afford them and this in turn means many more vehicles in national parks. Unfortunately, there is no real system to limit the number of cars on a sighting, and since guides and drivers work on a tip basis and often assume that the more animals tourists will see, the higher the tip they will receive, there literally race their jeeps to get to an animal sighting faster and before anyone else, in total disregard of speed limits in the park, driving off road and risking hitting animals along the way.

I was a witness to that myself. There were so many cars at an elephant bull sighting in Yala National Park, cars kept pushing closer and closer, that the poor animal was in obvious distress and eventually charged the cars, who left just as quickly as they had arrived. Let me tell you, it was not pretty to see. 

GOOD TO KNOW: Although some may argue that trophy hunting can have a positive impact on local communities and on the maintenance of the delicate environmental balance of a place, as well as being a deterrent to poachers, I fail to see its purpose and to be it remains unethical animal tourism.

Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need - photo courtesy of Michaela
Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need – photo courtesy of Michaela

Turtle watching

Turtle watching – whether snorkeling with turtles or observing them nesting or hatching – is a great way of admiring these beautiful animals. You’d think nothing can go wrong when you just sit around to observe, but – once again – that’s not necessarily the case. 

In order to be done ethically, it’s necessary that tourists engaging in observing turtles nesting get a much needed briefing that explains that they shouldn’t be taking pictures with flashes and using flashlights without red filters (even when the turtle aren’t in “trance”); that they should not be chatting away like they would at a beach party; and that by all means they shouldn’t get close to the animals or touch them. 

What About Zoos?

Now, this is a tricky question I knew you were gonna ask. 

In general, and much like aquariums, zoos make me truly uncomfortable and I would never consider visiting one – not even one that is thought to be ethical. But that’s me. You see, the thought of animals in captivity, being kept in a cage for people to see them, far away from their natural habitat, sends a shiver down my spine.

However, I do know that nowadays many zoos are making an incredible effort – and actually succeeding – to promote conservation, and successfully breed animals that are at high risk of extinction. Many of them now allow animals much more room to roam around.

Keep in mind, however, that the fact that some zoos are ethical doesn’t mean all of them are. And if you wish to visit one during your travels, you should definitely research about them to see if they are working on conservation. On the other hand, ask yourself whether you really want to support the idea that it is ok to keep animals captive for mere touristic purposes.. 

things to do in Namibia

A Few Tips For Ethical Animal Tourism

A golden rule to become more responsible tourists is that if animals are involved in an attraction, it’s likely something that you shouldn’t be doing. And, if you want to see animals in the wild (the proper wild), you must do your research online to ensure that the tour is done in a wholly ethical, responsible and safe manner – unfortunately, the majority are not. 

The whole point when considering ethical animal tourism options is understanding that no animal would ever choose captivity over freedom (so simple right?). Furthermore, it is very much possible to see animals in their natural habitat – so why would you choose to see them in captivity?

Engaging with animals in ethical ways is easier said than done when even the places that feign a responsible tourism badge are not entirely trustworthy. Thus, what can we do to make sure that animal encounters are run in an ethical way and that abuse and practices in the tourism industry that have an adverse effect on animals stop for good? 

Here are a few tips.

Do your research

Make sure to research before you travel; take the time to educate yourselves on the issues involved; don’t support organizations that profit from animal cruelty and abuse; and instead search out and support the truly responsible wildlife tourism activities.

Watch out for places that advertise themselves as sanctuaries but which in reality are just exploiting animals for profit. A few things you may do to gain more knowledge are:

READ ONLINE REVIEWS – Other travelers are bound to write about their experience.

OBSERVE PHOTOS – That’s how you may realize that the activity is not run in the best interest of the animal. I did this when researching the Tiger Temple in Thailand and it took me a split second to realize that the tigers that appeared in selfies had been drugged. Try to see if it is clear that animals have access to food, water and shade; make sure to look out for chains and cages. 

READ ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION – Make yourself acquainted with the organization’s mission, their numbers, their funds. See what activities they offer. Check if they work with local authorities to protect wildlife and the environment. See if they give back to local communities; if they invest in raising awareness. Ask them questions, talk to them: are they transparent? Are they obviously working to protect animals? Are you still unsure? A plain Google search name of the organization + animal cruelty may bring out some surprising results.

ethical animal tourism

Ask yourself the right questions

Here are a few ones you may want to consider.

WOULD ANIMALS BEHAVE LIKE THAT IN THEIR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT? – No elephant would throw a ball, paint, play a football game or even simply carry humans on its back in its natural environment. If any of these activities is offered, steer away.

WHO IS GAINING FROM THE ACTIVITY? – Does the organization you are about to pay to engage with animals work for the benefit of animals, visitors or – even better – for their simple profit? Keep in mind that the aim of ethical animal tourism is to protect animals and preserve their species. If this isn’t clear, if the benefit of animals isn’t put first, once again steer away.

Learn from your mistakes

We all make mistakes, and despite our best intentions sometimes things don’t go as we wish, and we whip ourselves forever because of that. I have gotten involved in unethical animal tourism in the past, but though I am embarrassed I let it happen, I have learned from my mistakes and make sure to research and educate myself any time I know animals are part of the experience I am about to sign up for. 

And educate others

It’s our role, as responsible travelers, to never miss the chance to educate other travelers on responsible wildlife holidays, especially when it comes to ethical – or unethical – animal tourism.

In order to reach this very important goal we can all do our part, first of all by not paying for such shows and encounters where animals are exploited, but also by educating the new generations teaching them the true value of nature, whose beauty reaches its greatest expression only when far away from our exploitation.

It’s important to also point out the consequences of irresponsible tourist practices. Little by little we can all start to shift the tourism industry to become more responsible. 

Conclusions

It is still possible to have an awesome experience, and at the same time help the animals instead of contributing to their abuse, exploitation and ultimate extinction.

Some may argue that local communities still need to exploit animals to make a living – but it’s actually the other way around. Local communities can still earn a living and the tourism industry profit if attractions involving the use of animals are run in an ethical way, that emphasizes the need of caring for them and if they actually offer tourists the chance to interact in an actually constructive way.

Ethical animal tourism means observing animals in their natural environment with a reputable company who works hard to protect them and is known to be ethical – it’s this kind of organization and tour operator you should support, by traveling with them, by making donations, by suggesting them as good companies to other travelers.

Remember that interaction with animals should never cause them pain, stress or discomfort. If we all push for a change, this will eventually occur – many operators are now clearly stating that activities such as elephant rides are no longer an option, because of public outcry. 

The whole point is that seeing animals during a trip is absolutely amazing, but we first and foremost have a duty to protect them.

Further readings

These other posts may come as useful resources:

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Read about ethical animal tourism and how to be a better traveler - via @clautavani

24 thoughts on “A Quick Guide To Ethical Animal Tourism”

  1. Thank you so much for featuring me in this article, Claudia. I am very proud of contributing – even if litte by little – to the liberation of animals in captivity, and to the end of animal abuse in general. Raising awareness is the key. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I’m sharing it away! 🙂

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    • It was about time that I also sent a message. I found myself in situations that made me cry, when I saw animals suffering and nobody cared. It is only fair that I clarify how I feel about it!

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  2. Lovely round-up Claudia and thanks a lot for including my experience! It’s so important to allow a look “behind” the scenes of attractions that seem to encourage eco-tourism in the first place.

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    • Your was an important experience, teaching us that we should be wary even of the ones that seem to be having the best intentions on paper!

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  3. Excellent post Claudia, it is so important that awareness is raised on the issues surrounding wildlife tourism so that travellers can make more informed, ethical choices. It’s all about putting the animals welfare and interests above our own selfish experiences.

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  4. Thank you for this post, Claudia. We were recently on Koh Chang with my girls and I admit, we did ride an elephant at Ban Kwan Chang, as the place was recommended as treating elephants respectfully. When we were there, I looked for signs of abuse but as far as I could see, the elephants looked OK and well fed. When I discussed with one of the camp employees, he knew quite a lot about their elephants and that’s not something I would expect if they didn’t care about “their” animals. The next day, coming back from a jungle hike, I did find big chains around trees close to Ban Kwan Chang and assumed that the elephants were probably chained at night. I am not an elephant specialist and have no idea if that’s standard procedure in an open space or not. However, the training/taming/torture process you describe is simply horrific and if these elephants were mistreated that way, this needs to stop and be mediatized until the elephants are treated in a humane way. This reminds me of horrible stuff I’ve heard on bear cubs being orphaned and then trained to “dance” on hot coals in the late 19th century in the Pyrenees. As for the Tiger Temple, it’s notoriously bad and all the snake farms around Bangkok are on the same model. Good luck in your mission to uncover this type of greenwashing.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment. I am so glad I made you open your eyes and consider what’s behind those attractions. It means we have done a good job at reporting the truth. Don’t be too hard on yourself now – you have surely understood that you should not do it again!! 🙂

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  5. A great article – Until a few years ago, I would not have even thought about the behind-the-scenes treatment of animals for tourism purposes – who doesn’t want to cuddle a koala or ride in a horse and cart? But having read a lot of articles and seen how big animal tourism is in different countries (such as elephant parks in Asia) I am saddened by a lot of what goes on and would no longer consider these attractions. It’s great to have current articles shedding light on these issues, making people more aware of the realities of animal cruelty.

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    • Thank you for your comment Jenny. It is not a merry topic and it is hard to talk about such issues, but one has to. I am sure you have been spreading the word too!!

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  6. Thank you – my own post on the Elephant Nature Park will be published soon, but in the meantime, I will be sharing this post!

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    • Thank you so much Leigh! Make sure to email me your post. I will be glad to read it and share it for sure!

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  7. thank you so much for this article, there is never too much information about this topic. I had heard that the Tiger Temple had closed, but probably there are many 🙁
    besides animals though, we must never forget that such governments also use human beings as attractions, as for example long-neck women in Thailand. I refused to go and see them as I refused to ride elephants, but there is really need for widespread information for all tourists and travellers to make such abuses stop. that’s why your article is so useful!

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    • I have to agree with you! Yes, some governments even use human beings as tourist attractions and that is crazy. Of course, unusual cultures are a way to attract more tourists but this should never turn into human rights abuses!

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    • Definitely so! We all have a duty to do so. The first thing we need to do, as travelers, is refuse to do activities where animals are exploited! Spread the word!

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  8. Good for you! Loved this article. Well supported and so on point. I didn’t think about this stuff until a few years ago and now am astonished at how poorly animals are treated for tourism. (Not to mention all the rare animals tourists eat as part of the “experience.” ) Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
    • You got it – once you learn about it, you also start noticing and there is no going back to irresponsible tourist practices 🙂

      Reply
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  10. Amazing article Claudia and thank you for raising awareness of animal issues at tourist attractions. I was born and raised in Asia but immigrated to the US a few years ago. Asia really lacks the development in all fronts when it comes to animal welfare. A fundamental reason can be that in Asia, people tend live in big cities, thus people were raised detached from nature and animals in general. In addition with the profit-driven world/tourism, it only gets worse.

    On the flip side, I believe responsible tourism should be the only way to travel in the future, and social media as well as a more connected world is helping this trend. As a blogger and traveler, I believe we can make some impact for the better and thank you so much again for this article.

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    • Mao, thank you so much for your comment and for taking the time to explain the reasons behind such cruel treatment of animals in Asia. I have recently come across an Italian tour operator selling “responsible” tours of Sri Lanka and the main photo to the tour was that of people riding elephants. When I commented, saying that is not exactly responsible, the comment was deleted. When I shared it on my social media, saying that this company was anything but responsible, the admin contacted me in private saying that mine was libel. Seriously? Then he started talking about his PhD on tourism etc and the relationship between animals and humans in Asia. You are confirming now that even Asians know that this kind of treatment is cruel!!

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  11. One of the best articles I have read regarding ethical tourism. A new dolphinarium has opened at Coral World St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, which we opposed and still oppose, unconscionably these dolphins…other than being captive live in a known polluted watershed with tourists paying to be immersed in the same pathogen borne sea water. They have the nerve to call it a sea side sanctuary.

    This article illuminates the cause and effect of animal abuse and torture, only to satisfy human entertainment as part of the travel experience.

    I’m grateful for such a concise analogy of animal abuse as entertainment and how people can stop this torture simply by not “buying a ticket” as they travel the world.

    Reply
    • Thank you Rita – I appreciate everything you say. I often come across people who ignore the importance of ethical travel. I pointed out to one that riding a horse pulled carriage in the streets of Rome in the summer is not truly kind to the animal, and she plainly said that she was on vacation and was free to do what she wanted. I hope less and less people will show this attitude in the future!

      Reply

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