With new terrains come new, exotic animals, and the titillating possibility of getting to interact with one. When you think of animal-related tourism, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the standards of living that the animals have to deal with. “Blackfish,” a documentary on Netflix about the danger of keeping orcas in captivity, exposed Sea World—but, globally, there are a lot of Sea World lookalikes that fly under the radar. Here, we’ve compiled a list of animals often exploited via tourist activities, and corresponding alternatives that will help you love on animals without hurting them.
Safaris in Africa have been linked to a decrease in poaching (it follows logic: when there’s more tourists watching the lions, there’s less opportunity to kill them). That being said, some companies get too close to the animals, and don’t respect the environment. Thomson Safaris in Tanzania has partnered with the African Wildlife Association, to ensure that their practices are not only doing no harm, but also doing good. Plus, their staff is nearly all Tanzania-born, and receive fair wages, benefits, and professional training.
It's a popular activity in Hawaii to jetty out on a boat (that looks eerily similar to the one in "Jaws"), and get inside a cage to be submerged underwater for shark-watching purposes. Controversially, sharks are often lured with chum, or bloody fish—but not so in Hawaii, where it was banned. Hawaii Shark Encounters is dedicated to shark conservation and education in the area. The visit the same site three miles off shore, where sharks naturally appear in the wild.
In general holding baby wild animals, while all kinds of adorable, is not good for them. If you still need to get your baby animal fix on, try volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary like GoEco’s sanctuary in Hartebeespoort, South Africa, where your interactions with lion cubs are both cute and helpful. The sanctuary rehabilitates over 30 types of animals, from lions and hyenas, to hippos and zebras. Although animal interaction is not guaranteed, since the priority is their welfare, your odds are pretty good—especially since volunteer stays range from two to 12 weeks.
Much like pina coladas or sunburned dads, photo ops with dolphins seem to accompany every sunny getaway. But swimming with Flipper is cruel for a number of reasons: healthy dolphins shouldn't be kept in captivity, because they're not able to get adequate exercise or escape conflicts with other dolphins, and are susceptible to diseases both from their living conditions and from the humans they're interacting with. There are plenty of tours that participate in the Dolphin SMART program, which promotes wild dolphin tourism and keeps a safe distance so as not to disturb them. On the Wild Dolphin Cruise at The Florida Aquarium, you may even occasionally sees manatees as an added bonus!
Another photo op no-no: We’ve all seen images of people in Thailand riding elephants or getting lifted with their trunks. However, any elephant in captivity has gone through a "breaking" where they are trained to submit to human command. While this practice varies in cruelty, it is across the board harmful to the animal. Volunteering at an elephant refugee center is much more hands-on than briefly riding one. At the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand, elephants that have been kept in captivity as performers recuperate by roaming about as they please, with the goal of eventually being rereleased into their natural habitat. As a volunteer there, you are able to wash, observe, and feed the elephants. With options to stay for just a few days, or take up a longer residence of one to two weeks, you’ll get your fair share of quality time with these wise beasts.
Cool as it may look, ostriches are not physically able to safely carry the weight of a human being. There are plenty of ways to see these animals, but keep in mind that farms are raising ostriches to kill them for their meat—seeing them in the wild is much preferable to seeing them pre-slaughter. In South Africa there is no shortage of wild ostriches. If you rent a car or take a drive of any kind, chances are you’ll see ostriches. They tend to congregate near the Cape Point Nature Reserve, which is a beautiful place to visit.
The Gibbon and Loris species of primates are objectively super-cute with their giant eyes, ears, and hair—and so are often passed around as photo props for unsuspecting tourists. Even Rihanna posted a selfie with one while in Phuket (the men who allowed her to pose with the fuzzy creature are facing jail time). Since both are a protected species, anyone you see parading one around for photos is actually breaking the law. The best strategy is to volunteer at a release and research center, where the ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the animal to living back in its natural habitat. The Lum Nam Pai Wildlife Sanctuary in Maehongson Province, Thailand, is supported by the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.