Animal Tourism [Can Be Tricky]

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Like a lot of kids, I was raised with a deep love of animals. My family went to the San Diego Zoo often, so I got to see a wide variety of exotic creatures and the very best (and most natural) enclosures for them to live in. I’ll never forget when the “Heart of Africa” section opened; acres of beautiful open spaces for animals to roam, that looked like they had actually been taken straight from the African plains.

Being around animals that much had the effect my family intended- I became obsessed with animals and nature. I loved learning about different species, and was proud of all of the work the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park (now called the Safari Park) were doing in the field of conservation.

As I grew older and began exploring the world on my own, I always thought of myself as a responsible and ethical traveler. Then I went to Southeast Asia, and all of that was tested.

When thinking of how animals are treated in Asia, the examples that come to mind first are the two I saw on the news before I left Australia- the Japanese fish ice rink incident, and the mall in China that houses “the world’s saddest polar bear.” Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes for the less wealthy areas I was heading to. I made a promise before I left home that I wouldn’t make any of the classic tourist mistakes- elephant trekking, posing for pictures with drugged up tigers, etc. But I had no idea there were so many ways to make mistakes.

Sugar Cane Snacks
Sugar Cane Snacks

I did go hang out with some elephants. I looked online to find a sanctuary that could be trusted, one that didn’t use the sharp hooks, megaphones in the ear, chains, and knives that less reputable “sanctuaries” have become infamous for using to control the huge animals. I spent an afternoon at Baan Chang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and had some mixed feelings. I was led to believe that this place was one of the “good ones,” and it did seem like the mahouts (elephant handlers) actually cared for their elephants. But after being there for a short time, I saw that all the elephants that weren’t walking with our group were chained up by the leg. And although they never used them, most of the mahouts still carried knives and hooks on their belts. If I could go back and pick a different place to go, I probably would.

The second mistake I made came on my last day in Thailand, after I returned to Bangkok. I booked a tour of the famous floating markets for my last day, and while shopping I came across a girl holding a tiny, fluffy creature. I stopped dead in my tracks; it was a slow loris, one of the cutest creatures known to man and made famous by certain “tickling” videos on YouTube. The girl saw the look on my face and came over to me, and I didn’t need much convincing to get my photo taken holding the sweet little thing. Extremely excited, I posted the photos to Facebook later that afternoon.

Cute, But Not a Good Idea
Cute, But Not a Good Idea

The first comment I got made me sick to my stomach. A friend of mine had written that slow lorises were an endangered species, and that I was perpetuating their capture from the wild by paying to hold it and sharing pictures of me doing it. Although I had known what the slow loris was, I had absolutely no idea that it was endangered. I spent the next afternoon doing some research; the number of slow lorises in the wild has been drastically reduced by the illegal pet trade and demand as a “medicinal” animal. As someone who does actually care about the conservation of threatened species, I felt horrible. And as much as I was hurt by the way my friend had gone about letting me know this information, calling me out on social media so harshly, I knew she was right and I can understand why she felt like she had to say something. In the end, I’m glad she called it to my attention so I could learn more about lorises and their current situation.

For my last animal adventure, I decided to finally visit a zoo (something I’d been EXTREMELY hesitant to do) while visiting Myanmar. The Yangon Zoological Garden was a bit of a revelation. It is very old (over 100 years), and located in a country that is set back in time at least a few decades. I went in expecting the worst when it comes to animal care and humane treatment, but I found a surprising amount of good along with the bad. Yes, some enclosures were much too small and didn’t provide enough stimulation for the animals, but others were large and almost reminded me of San Diego.

Elephants Asking for Treats
Elephants Asking for Treats

What mattered most to me was that they obviously cared about conservation and education. There were signs with tons of information about most of the species on display, and a small museum as well.

Cheeky Sunbears
Cheeky Sunbears

To my foreign eyes, it seemed like they were doing the absolute best they could with what they had. Myanmar’s infrastructure is nothing like the West; they had a sign posted saying that it had taken them 5 years to rebuild some buildings that had been damaged in a cyclone. Many of their people live in barely passable housing; it isn’t reasonable to expect 5-star accommodation for their animals. If nothing else, kids in Yangon will grow up learning about animals and building an enthusiasm for them just like I did. I felt like my money had gone towards something good that day.

The moral of the story is that nobody is perfect. I know I’m certainly not. As hard as I tried to be an animal welfare-conscious traveler, I still feel like in some ways I failed. I don’t judge my friends who have posed for photos at Tiger Kingdom, and I hope others will decide not to pass too much judgement on me as well.

To those of you planning to visit Southeast Asia, please make sure to do your research! And know whatever questions you have, someone who’s been through it is always right here.

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