There are many issues in ethics for travelers to consider, especially when visiting developing countries.
In countries where wealth and education are less evenly distributed, there is a greater risk for exploitation of those who are unable to protect themselves. This could include “beneficiaries” of corrupt aid agencies (i.e. orphanages or community projects which do not actually help those that they are supposedly designed to help), indigenous people, and of course, animals.
It can be difficult to sort through foreign attractions and uncover what’s truly ethical and what’s not, especially in countries like Thailand where many clearly unethical practices are accepted as standard. Animal tourism in particular is huge in Thailand. If you go to Thailand without taking pictures with a tiger or riding an elephant, did you really even go?
In the end, much of this comes down to personal belief and choice. As powerful as words are, it can be hard to change someone’s mind once they have decided on the ethics of a particular practice or attraction. However, having taken part in animal tourism in Thailand firsthand, here are my thoughts on the whole ordeal:
Elephant riding is arguably one of the biggest draws for visitors to Thailand. It makes sense–elephants are amazing creatures, so who wouldn’t want to get up close and personal with one?
In the early stages of planning my trip to Thailand, I was so excited to ride an elephant. Of course, I wanted to make sure I chose the right place, so I began doing some research.
As you may or may not have guessed, I was pretty shocked by what I discovered.
There is undoubtedly a lot of corruption and straight-up cruelty at play in the elephant tourism industry. Before an elephant can be ridden, its spirit must be broken–which typically includes being separated from its mother at a young age and being continuously starved, beaten and abused until it is “tamed,” leaving it with many physical and emotional wounds.
Even if these other things weren’t true, the wooden baskets used to ride elephants can also cause spinal injuries and cuts on the belly and legs.
Knowing this, there was absolutely no way in hell I was riding an elephant, in Thailand or anywhere else.
I’m sure that most people who do choose to ride elephants have no idea that this is what’s happening behind the scenes–they just want to interact and spend some time with these amazing animals.
Luckily, there’s an alternative: Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants. I spent a full day here in lieu of riding an elephant, and I am so glad that I took this route.
I highly, highly, highly recommend Elephant Nature Park to anyone interested in interacting with elephants.
The staff and volunteers here make it an effort here to teach you a lot about the elephants, and will share personal stories about each of the elephants you meet.
The park is huge, and the elephants (as well as several hundred cats and dogs) roam freely.
The first thing that struck me about this park is that the scenery is seriously beautiful; picture Jurassic Park for elephants, and you’ll be right on target. The mountains surrounding the park are densely forested and perfectly green, and the skies are misty and mysterious. This is definitely a paradise for elephants.
There were two or three baby elephants when we visited, and obviously I fell head over heels in love with all of them. Baby creatures of any kind are always adorable, but seeing a mini version of an animal that is normally so massive and powerful was ultra special. They were so playful and full of energy, and I felt so happy for them knowing that they were born and raised in such a kind environment.
These babies will never have to have their sweet and wild spirits broken!
You’ll get to observe the elephants, feed them, bathe them, touch them and take plenty of pictures. It made my heart soar to see these elephants and know that they would never have to work or perform again. They were free–and if you think about it, should an elephant ever be anything but free?
There are several places in Thailand where you’re able to take your picture with both fully grown and baby tigers. The top four are Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, and Tiger Temple in Bangkok, Krabi, and Phuket. Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai generally receives the most positive reviews, so that was the location that we opted to check out. The controversy here is that some visitors believe the tigers have been drugged and sedated, in order to subdue them and make them safe for human interaction.
However, after visiting Tiger Kingdom for myself, it’s my honest opinion that they’re not drugged. Most of the tigers that we saw were very, very active. The babies that we played with would barely sit still. They were running and hopping all over the place, swatting and biting each other and making adorable baby tiger growling sounds. *Swoon*
The trainer tried his best to get them to sit still so that we could get a few decent pictures, but I was honestly just happy to see that they were so playful and alert. In fact, we only saw maybe two sleeping tigers during our visit. The babies were absolutely adorable, and super amusing to watch. I was so relieved to find that our experience here was nothing like the negative reviews we had read online, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with those little munchkins.
We only paid to go in and play with the babies, but the big tigers that we saw in the cages were super active as well–much more active, in fact, than any tiger I had ever seen in a zoo at home in the US.
We arrived to the park right when it opened around 9am, so it may be possible that the tigers are more active at this time and less active during afternoons, when it’s hotter and after they’re been awake and playing for a while. Tigers naturally spend much of the day sleeping, so I wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear that they were sleepy and lethargic during the hot Thai afternoons.
However, I realize that some people are opposed to keeping animals in cages for human entertainment whether they are well cared for or not, so I completely understand and respect the opinions of people who opt not to visit Tiger Kingdom.
I had heard before coming to Thailand that there would be an abundance of monkeys, sloths, and slow lorises on the streets of Bangkok for taking pictures with. All online resources were very clear: do not take your picture with these animals.
In addition to the fact that the big city of Bangkok is clearly no place for a monkey, many of these animals are mistreated or have had to undergo painful operations (such as removing the teeth of slow lorises) in order to make them safe for handling by humans. Either this is a fading practice, or I simply missed all of the streets where these animals are kept.
Regardless, this is an attraction that I would skip.
The one place that we did actually run into some monkeys was at Monkey Beach on Koh Phi Phi. Before coming here, I had seen pictures of monkeys on this beach drinking out of Coke cans or eating from bags of chips. The idea of humans knowingly feeding junk food to an animal and getting entertainment out of it honestly infuriated me, so I was really hoping that this wasn’t too common of a practice.
Luckily, when we visited the beach we only saw people feeding the monkeys pieces of watermelon or other fruits. Although this definitely encourages the monkeys to become dependent on humans for food, I was relieved to see that they were at least becoming dependent on healthy, monkey-appropriate food.
One point I will draw attention to is the fact that this beach was covered in trash. A lot of tourists visit here, and it seems that the nature has suffered as a consequence. However, I think the monkeys themselves are doing alright–in fact, the humans on the beach seemed much more afraid of the monkeys than the monkeys were of them!
The bottom line? Animal tourism in Thailand is a tricky subject. It can be hard to differentiate right from wrong. My only advice is to do your research, use your best judgment, and consider whether or not you would put your family pet through the same experience–that should do the trick.
What are your thoughts on animal tourism abroad? Have you had any experiences that were similar to mine? Different?