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The cost of your animal encounter: From San Diego’s SeaWorld to Thailand’s Elephant rides

Writer: Tawney

Writer: Tawney

“Humans are in fact the endangered species, because we’ve stepped out of nature.” David Sheldrick

My desire to squeeze animals of all shapes and sizes didn’t dissipate when I stopped playing with stuffed ones. In fact, I’m officially declaring myself an animal addict and I’m here to confess the mistakes I’ve made and share the lessons of learned in search of my next animal fix.

The Mistakes:

My 6th grade class had an assignment to spend a day shadowing someone with our dream job. The classroom filled up with future fireman and news anchors, but I made all the kids jealous sharing my day spent with the animal trainer at Sea World. It was my happy place and I spent countless hours hanging over the dolphin encounter for that one second of rubbery contact. Unfortunately, it took a decade for me to admit that there’s no tank large enough for an animal that swims 100 miles a day. I declared never to step foot in a Sea World again and if I could take back all those happy memories getting splashed by shamu, I would. It’s a hot topic today with the film showing the dark side of Sea World. I highly recommend it.

Fast forward to a trip to Southeast Asia where animal abuse for tourism is as common as your beautiful beach. I needed a break from editing in my hotel room and took a solo stroll through the busy streets of Phuket. My hotel was surrounded with bars, massage parlors, and creepy tourist men leading young local women to god knows where. It was feeling dirty and city-like so I was shocked to see the most adorable and peculiar animal shoved in my face. My first instinct was to keep walking, but my addiction took over and I RIGHT_Tourism_03turned back. Unfortunately, my slow loris selfie didn’t get anyone arrested like Rihanna’s. I just got a photo that should have been captioned, “I just paid to have this babies teeth ripped out and mother killed.” Like?…… I didn’t know how horrible this situation is, but I should have gone with my first instinct.

A couple weeks later I followed some new friends to one of the many elephant encounters on the side of the road. The elephant was unchained and walked over to the plank where two adults jumped into the big cage on it’s back and his “caretaker” sat in front on his neck. After our walk they forced him to do a little show for us with a hula hoop. I flat out ignored the unsettled feeling I had for my moment with the gentle giant. It was my first connection with an elephant and I quickly became interested in them, but I knew nothing yet.

The next week another new travel buddy asked me to join her on a day trip to the Patara Elephant Farm where a thai family breeds elephants and allows tourists to come in and be an elephant owner for a day. They inform you of the negative effect tourism is having on the elephant population and the bad practices other operations are using. They had around 20 people there all of whom get “their elephant” for the day to bathe, take on a short walk (riding with no cage), all while learning about their health and wellbeing. It was magical and I was convinced it was great for everyone involved. After a few years of study and more elephant encounters I doubt that it was great for them and have sought out the best options for elephant encounters, but i’ll get back to that.

Lastly, I was baited by the popular  Tiger Kingdom where you can snap a picture with a big cat in your lap. Maybe it was because I’d already committed animal encounter crimes (even thought I didn’t REALLY know it yet) but as much as I wanted to go here, I wouldn’t let myself. The small cages, the debate over drugs, the constant interaction with humans, and abnormal behavior. Their tigers for gods sake, this isn’t normal. We can’t force disconnect from the natural world just for a second of  ”connection” and a new Facebook picture.

The Lessons:

Right now I’m in Africa. I’ve been lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at the parks and spent a lot of time with elephants, giving me a honest look at wild animals. I’m no expert, but it’s clear to me now how much research should go into an animal encounter experience and when to just say, “no”. One side of the never-ending debate will say you should always say “no”. There is no situation where a wild animal should interact with a human for enjoyment or tourism. Is there a way for us to have positive close encounters?

There’s a lot of debate over riding elephants and the training (or torture) that’s used to tame these wild animals. If you do your own training ritual research you’ll find horrific footage of abusive training methods that are the quickest and easiest way to get these creatures show ready. Apparently there are more humane ways to train an elephant, but it seems like most are hesitant to believe these methods are used in most tourist operations. At this point that evidence is completely irrelevant to me. The elephant population is dwindling quickly and if there is a chance their mental wellbeing is at stake, why would I even consider jumping on it’s back for my enjoyment? Plus, that part is kind of boring. It really is, slow and uncomfortable. Letting them inspect your face with their trunks???? That’s where the magic happens.


I got some quality time with baby elephants (main photo) at the David Sheldrik Wildlife Trust where some friends are making a film about their work and poaching. DSWT work alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service to track down poachers, injured elephants, and raise orphaned babies who lost their mother until their off milk and ready to go back into the wild. They have a great program for the public to visit with the babies and a reasonably priced option to adopt one for a more intimate interaction and updates on it’s well-being. Because of circumstances these elephants are slightly accustomed to people and yet still feel pretty wild which kept me from pushing the limits of proximity and also consider how much “training” it would take to make them as tame as the places i’d visited in the past. Hmm

I believe there are organization life David Sheldrick Wildlife trust who are doing great work protecting animals while allowing us safe opportunities to “step into nature.” It’s these interactions that have inspired me to learn more and take action and while I’m extremely ashamed of the mistakes I’ve made I hope that sharing them will invite you to think twice.

Resources: (please comment if you have more) gives you the run down on all the things to look out for with animal tourism. adopt a baby!

Elephant Nature Park seems to be the poster child for elephant encounters in southeast asia.

Social Media! I’ve been obsessed with the thought of swimming with whale sharks, but won’t go where they’re baiting the whales and throwing a ton of tourists in a day (like Donsol Bay, Philippines). Through searching hashtags on instagram I found a marine biologist/photographer who gave me a recommendation for a whale friendly dive spot run by other marine biologists in Mexico. Yay!

WILD :: Kenya’s Elephants and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust from Village Beat on Vimeo.







3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bri Andreucci #

    I’m glad you posted this. I recently volunteered at Chipangali Animal Orphangage in Zimbabwe. A couple of perks were riding on the elephants and walking with the lions which were about 3 hours away from the Orphanage. Do you think its possible that a rescue would suggect excursions that have abusive practices towards their animals? I really hope I did not contribute to their cruelty. That makes my stomach turn. I hope you have a great time where you are. Africa is amazing. I hope to go to Thailand soon to volunteer with the elephants there.

    March 8, 2014
    • Hi Bri. How was volunteering at the orphanage?
      We can never really know what practices are used, which puts us in a tough position as supporters. What we can do is ask questions to give us an idea if they are looking out for the overall well-being of the animal and make our call from there.
      Why are these animals in captivity or available for interaction?
      If they were rescued, when will they be reintroduced back into the wild?
      If they won’t be reintroduced back into the wild, why?
      “Their safety” might be a common answer for this question, but animals should be rescued and cared for in a way that will allow them to be safe in the wild after some time. Obviously there are some situations where that’s not possible, but I think this is where we can be fooled by the word “rescue”. For example, the cats at the Tiger Kingdom are “rescued” and breed which convinces tourists that they’re supporting a good program. However, this breeding program isn’t helping this endangered species at all and they’re living situation is horribly unnatural. Tigers born in captivity don’t learn to hunt and in turn can never be safe in the wild. It’s a viscous circle that leads to one thing…business.
      If we can’t trust asking the source, researching online reviews is always helpful.
      Check out the elephant place in thailand I linked to in the post, they have a volunteer program. Enjoy that beautiful country :)

      March 8, 2014
  2. Bri #

    It is tough! I’m trying to find a program with tigers and I am not having any luck. The people at Chipangali are very good people that really care about the animals. That was an awesome experience. If you go there and want to visit Victoria Falls, don’t stay at the Backpackers!! They hate feral cats. I saw them actually slingshot one.

    March 23, 2014

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