The burning issue: Are wildlife attractions ethical?

A recent World Animal Protection report detailed concerns related to wildlife tourist attractions — we look at the ethics of tourism experiences with captive animals.

By Emma Gregg
Published 6 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:16 BST
Dolphin jumping out of water


Photograph by Istock

Three out of four wildlife tourist attractions inflict cruelty or raise conservation concerns, with up to 550,000 animals suffering as a result, according to World Animal Protection. The organisation's global study, published in February, says around 110 million people visit 'cruel wildlife tourist attractions' each year. Based on research carried out by the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), the report focused on sanctuaries, entertainment and interactive experiences featuring captive wildlife. While most of those questioned after their visit say they'd prefer to see wild animals in the wild, as many as 80% were unaware of any wrongdoing at the venue they'd just visited.

Are performing dolphins as happy as they look?
Appearances can be deceptive. In the wild, dolphins are free to swim up to 40 miles a day and dive down many metres to avoid sunburn. The limitations of a dolphinarium exposes them to stress-related illnesses, including heart attacks and gastric ulcers.

Is there anything wrong with cuddling a captive tiger or lion cub?
World Animal Protection has discovered that in Thailand, Australia, Mexico and Argentina, zoos which allow tourists to hug tiger cubs have a policy of removing cubs from their mothers at an unnaturally early age and keeping them in small cages, or chaining them up in bare concrete compounds. Blood Lions, a South African documentary film released in 2015, revealed that unscrupulous operators recruit paying volunteers to help hand-rear and habituate lion cubs without letting them know they've been bred specifically to be shot in a canned hunt.

It's OK to ride a horse, so why can't I ride an elephant?
While horses have been domesticated for centuries, there are no domestic breeds of elephant and an elephant's back cannot withstand heavy loads. In Thailand, elephant ride operators subject baby elephants to a training process that World Animal Protection describes as 'horrific'. They're confined, beaten and prevented from forming natural social relationships.

Surely the breeding of endangered turtles has to be a good thing?
Leaving aside the fact that its original purpose was to raise turtles for meat (and it still produces turtle steaks and burgers today), Cayman Turtle Farm, for example, in the Cayman Islands has serious failings, according to World Animal Protection. It keeps its turtles in cramped conditions and allows visitors to handle them, exposing them to injury and illness.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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