The Right and Wrong Ways to Interact With Wild Animals While Traveling
But not all animal experiences are good for the animal — or safe for the human — and travelers concerned with engaging in ethical animal tourism need to be careful about how they get close to their furry friends.
Activities that were once considered harmless fun, such as visiting a circus or swimming with dolphins, can be exploitative and even deadly for the animals involved.
Travelers need to do their research on any animal experience they want to have to make sure that the animals are given the proper care they deserve. One of the best ways to do that is to try to discern the intent of any experience claiming to be ethical, according to one expert.
“The number of roadside zoos that have tacked on the word ‘sanctuary’ or ‘rescue’ to their names has skyrocketed in recent years. Kind people are naturally drawn to places that claim to rescue animals and offer them sanctuary, but many of these outfits are nothing more than breeders, dealers, and exhibitors who exploit the public's goodwill and generosity,” Catie Cryar, spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Travel + Leisure in an email.
Another red flag to watch out for is any situation in which the animals are expected to perform in some way, whether it's posing for selfies or doing tricks for treats. The most humane and organic experiences with animals are those where the animals just get to be themselves, said Susie Coston, the national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary.
Coston's organization gives homes to formerly abused farm animals and allows members of the public to visit and stay in their cabins to immerse themselves in the sanctuaries’ activities.
“I think we have become such a culture of having to have a selfie instead of allowing an animal to just have their experience,” Coston told T+L. “I think there’s other ways of getting people to appreciate animals without needing them to entertain you.”
We've rounded up ideas for some of the best activities to see and interact with animals, as well as common missteps to avoid.
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and Uganda
Gorrilla trekking is an activity that allows visitors in parts of Uganda and Rwanda to see these great animals in their natural habitat. The hikes can be grueling and are often spread over multiple days, but with only a few hundred mountain gorillas left in existence, the experience is once in a lifetime.
The gorillas live on protected land, and the treks provide a valuable source of income to local economies, making this activity sustainable both for the animals and the nearby communities.
Walking With Giraffes
Hanging With Farm Animals in New York and California
Farm Sanctuary is a rescue center for farm animals with locations in California and upstate New York. The group has helped rescue animals suffering from cruelty of all kinds and given them a location to live out the rest of their lives in peace.
Visitors to the sanctuary can stay in their cozy cabins or tiny homes and interact with some of their cows, pigs, goats, and chickens.
Lion Protection in South Africa
Lionsrock is a big cat sanctuary in South Africa which is part of the international animal welfare non-profit Four Paws. The shelter provides a home for big cats that were exploited, often in circuses or other forms of entertainment.
Lionsrock provides different habitats that cater to the various big cat species in their care.
Participants in whale watching tours, whether in Alaska, Cape Cod, or California, can see the enormous mammals breach and swim about. Proper whale watching tour boats stay far enough way from the animals to protect their safety while still allowing viewers to witness their beauty.
Visiting a National Park
Snorkeling with Sea Turtles
Snorkeling is a great way to see marine life up close without disturbing them. When done properly, it's a safe way to learn about the habitats of many endangered species as well as the obstacles faced by the reefs themselves.
Swimming With Pigs in the Exumas, Bahamas
Swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas used to be on the bucket list of many animal-loving travelers. Recent events, including when a pig died after being fed alcohol, have revealed the potentially problematic nature of this activity.
With little supervision of the interactions, this activity can be incredibly dangerous for the animals involved. Travelers set on seeing pigs in the Exumas can ensure the safety of the pigs by not feeding them on the sand or giving them food outside of their usual diet. And travelers who are interested in seeing pigs can also look into visiting a rescue operation such as Farm Sanctuary or Animal Place..
Petting Leopards or Other Major Predators
Attractions where visitors can pet baby leopards or lions often results in the cubs being taken from their mothers when they're very young. Being pet by humans at an early age can also confuse their predatory instincts, making it more difficult for them to ever be released into the wild.
Interacting with large cats is often not possible, as they are apex predators. Those interested can instead donate or volunteer off-site for an accredited sanctuary, such as The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota.
Swimming With Dolphins
As with the cubs of big cats, dolphins used for dolphin shows or other attractions are often taken from their mothers at an early age. When dragging around heavy humans, they can also experience damage to their fins.