When you love animals, it’s hard to imagine participating in an act of animal cruelty. Of course you would never attend a dog fight or purchase a rhino horn, but when you’re traveling and looking to interact with wildlife, animal cruelty is not always obvious. Many animal attractions market themselves as animal sanctuaries, but too often these so-called “sanctuaries” are just trying to capitalize on a rising public interest in conservation.
Animal Cruelty in Disguise
The people who run these animal attractions know that travelers are no longer interested in gawking at trained circus animals. Many travelers are now more aware of the animal cruelty that occurs when elephants are trained to be ridden or tigers are sedated in order to sell a photo op. However, as tourism has evolved, animal abusers have adapted, lying to tourists and disguising their facilities as animal sanctuaries.
For many years, Thailand’s Tiger Temple seemed like a harmonious alternative to the local tiger shows common in Thailand. Instead of watching tigers perform dangerous tasks like jumping through flaming hoops, visitors could observe the animals living “peacefully” among Buddhist monks. However, in 2016 the temple was shut down for wildlife crimes, and the facility’s cruel practices were exposed, including the drugging, breeding, and selling of baby tigers.
So how can you tell if an animal attraction is cruel or not? According to Leigh Barnes, the chief purpose officer of Intrepid Travel, the first tour operator to eliminate elephant rides from all its itineraries, “Genuine sanctuaries don’t buy or sell wild animals, don’t use the animals for interactions with travelers, and don’t breed wild animals.” To put it simply, true animal sanctuaries are always operating within the best interest of the animal.
Though there are many fake sanctuaries out there, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good ones. Here are a few questions to guide travelers when searching for an ethical wildlife experience or animal sanctuary visit either abroad or in the U.S.
Is the Animal Sanctuary Accredited?
Before visiting any animal sanctuary, you can check to see if it’s been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). This organization requires animal sanctuaries to keep a strict code of ethics and welfare standards before issuing accreditation. The process requires sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers to apply and undergo an inspection of their facilities. Because these organizations have been vetted, the GFAS website is a great source for finding an ethical animal sanctuary in the area you’re visiting. Here you can also find out about organizations that accept volunteers like the Centre for Rescue and Conservation of Orangutans in Indonesia or the Three Ring Ranch in Hawaii.
This list is a great place to start, but just because a sanctuary isn’t accredited doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t legitimate. If you can’t find an GFAS-accredited sanctuary in your destination, there are still many ways you can determine if an animal sanctuary is for real.
How Do the Animals Look?
It may seem like common sense, but there are actually a lot of different things to look for when visually checking for animal cruelty. If an animal appears excessively dirty, this is an obvious sign of neglect, but you should also look for signs of disease or starvation. If you are passing by in person, you might not be able to see the animals before being asked to pay the entrance fee, so your best bet is to check online and see if you can find photos or additional information. TripAdvisor, SmarterTravel’s parent company, is a good place to look for photos and see what other visitors have had to say. If you can’t find a lot of information online about the sanctuary, play it safe and stay away.
How Much Space Do They Have?
Just because the animals look OK doesn’t mean they’re being taken care of humanely. Check to see what the conditions of the sanctuary are actually like. Animals need a lot of room to roam and explore, so enclosures that are cramped or overcrowded are definite signs of animal cruelty and often lead to disease.
For example, a hotel in Bali was exposed for animal cruelty in 2015 when it was discovered that it kept four full-size dolphins in a small chlorinated pool. Not only were the dolphins overcrowded and trained to perform for guests, but the chlorine in the water also caused them to go blind.
When inspecting a sanctuary, another thing to look for is enrichment activities for the animals. What is there for them to do? Artificial habitats should offer ways to keep the animals physically and mentally active, such as climbing structures for primates or water for an animal to splash around in.
Where Do They Come From?
If an organization is breeding animals for tourism purposes, it does not have their best interest in mind. Reputable sanctuaries never breed animals, because to do so would be to take away valuable resources from the animals they are already taking care of. Most sanctuaries rescue their animals from circuses, zoos, or neglectful owners and intend to take care of the animal for the rest of its life. While some sanctuaries have rescued baby animals, the animals in sanctuaries tend to be older. So if a so-called sanctuary is advertising baby animal experiences, this is a huge red flag that they are breeding the animals or separating them from their mothers at birth.
What’s the Visitation Policy?
Many animal sanctuaries sell tours in order to raise funds that support the animals, but reputable sanctuaries usually have strict rules that limit visiting hours so the animals are not overwhelmed. In some places, such as Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, you may even need to book your tour in advance.
If you’re looking for the roots of animal cruelty, follow the money. Around the world, many people abuse animals to make a profit and take advantage of tourists looking to have an unforgettable wildlife encounter. The best way to decide if an animal attraction is ethical or not is to figure out who benefits the most. Trying to maximize profit by opening the facility up to as many visitors as possible suggests a lack of concern for the animals’ wellbeing—and could mean that the owners are scrimping on care in other ways as well. Wildlife interactions can be incredibly educational and impactful experiences for travelers, but these experiences should always occur in the best interest of the animal.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Please Do Not Participate in These Cruel Activities on Vacation
- 10 Coolest Animals in the Galapagos
- How This Tiny Island Could Change Sustainable Tourism
Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.