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Can Animal Tourism Ever Be Ethical?

by | August 14, 2020

Animal tourism is a huge part of our culture. In the era of Tiger King, you don’t even have to visit animal attractions to support them; we often watch animal tourism and exploitation happen from the sidelines.

Across social media, you can find photos of people riding elephants, posing with wild monkeys, and swimming with dolphins. When celebrities or friends post photos posing with tigers or riding camels in the desert, they inspire others to do the same, continuing a cycle of contribution to unethical tourism. This brings some important questions to light.

Is all animal tourism unethical? Or can you participate in interactions without harming animals or their habitats? Here, we’re exploring how whether popular types of animal tourism can be ethical, and the gray areas that surround the subject.

A monkey sits angrily at the bars in a cage animal tourism

The Truth About Animal Tourism 

In 2015, Oxford University published a study that exposed the behind the scenes cruelty that often goes unnoticed in animal tourism. The university “reviewed 188 wildlife venues featured on TripAdvisor and found that 75% of the different types of attractions involve wildlife cruelty,” concluding that “at least 4 million tourists who visit tourist attractions involving wildlife are likely to be contributing to large-scale animal welfare abuses.”

TripAdvisor responded to the study by ending ticket sales to the attractions in question, a huge win for the World Animal Protection’s “Wildlife. Not Entertainers” campaign. However, this action was only one step forward in a process that is still ongoing. Abuse still runs rampant in the animal tourism industry and can be difficult for tourists to spot.

To write her 2019 National Geographic exposé “Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism,” Natasha Daly visited animal tourist hotspots across the world and witnessed horrific practices and acts against animals. 

Daly writes, “The wildlife tourism industry caters to people’s love of animals but often seeks to maximize profits by exploiting animals from birth to death. The industry’s economy depends largely on people believing that the animals they’re paying to watch or ride or feed are having fun too.”

Daly notes that animal tourism is able to succeed because tourists are typically “eager to have a positive experience” and do not consider the experience of the animals that they are interacting with. 

The sad truth about animal tourism is that most animals being used as entertainment are suffering. However, there are still ways that people can have experiences that are positive for both them and the animals they are interacting with.

Children looking at a lion in a zoo in Copenhagen

Zoos And Aquariums

The split between entertainment and education lies at the center of the debate between vegan zoogoers and those who think it’s better to stay home. 

Some argue that zoos are exploitative in nature and that the animals in zoos are used for entertainment only, or that using them to turn a profit is inherently wrong.

Others argue that zoos and aquariums can be great places to educate and inspire people to take interest in animal welfare, and that these facilities can also be great homes to conservation efforts.  

Not all zoos and aquariums are created equally. Funding, caregiving, and space can all affect how well animals are actually treated in the facilities. 

The amount of funding that a zoo or aquarium receives can greatly affect the treatment of its animals. Larger accredited institutions will likely take greater care of animals than small roadside zoos or drive-through zoos. 

However, the money that zoos put towards animal welfare and conservation might be better spent elsewhere. The Vegan Society estimates that “the money used by Western zoos to update elephant enclosures for 200 elephants could have kept Kenya Wildlife Service going for 14 to 15 years.”

Before visiting a zoo or aquarium, you might want to do some research about where its funding comes from, how its animals are treated, and what conservation efforts it is making. Is the facility’s main goal to promote animal welfare or to make money? The answer to this question will help you to determine if a visit will be ethical or not. 

So, are zoos and aquariums ethical? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Research is key in determining how ethical a facility is. 

A group of tourists riding elephants
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Animal Riding

The popularity of using animals for entertainment goes far beyond seeing them in a zoo; people also frequently ride animals like horses, camels, elephants, and even yaks as a means of fun and entertainment.

Organizations like PETA and World Animal Protection have long advocated for a halt to animal riding. 

Not only do animals trained for riding have to spend day by day carrying tourists, they are often made to do so through cruel training and behavior tactics. Horses are briddled and whipped, elephants are controlled by bull hooks, and camels are often pierced through the nose to attach handling ropes. 

Can riding animals for entertainment be ethical or vegan in any circumstances? By veganism’s most strict definition, the answer here is no.

A bear is made to perform by four people in a Russian circus in 2011

Animal Shows And Circuses

Since the early 1800s, animals have been showstoppers at the circus, but are they able to consent to a lifetime of being entertainers? 

Much like animals used in riding tourism, circus animals are often trained in harsh ways. Circus trainers use “whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks” and more to control animals with force so that they can perform in circuses.

Animals used in performances will also spend their life in confinement, often with little space to move about as they naturally would.  

Is going to an animal show vegan or ethical? It appears not. What about going to the circus? PETA recommends going to see animal-free circuses in lieu of more traditional circuses. A trip to the circus can be ethical (and still entertaining) if no animals are used in the show.

Mother and baby white rhinoceros at Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana

Animal Sanctuaries And Attractions 

The popular Netflix show Tiger King recently revealed that what some might call sanctuaries are more likely to be places of profit. Tiger King reminded the world that even when people appear to love the animals that they are responsible for, they can still abuse them and use them for personal financial gain. 

Sanctuaries and private attractions often claim to be helping animals, but they pose a problem to many species. Currently, more tigers live in captivity in the US than in the wild globally, and most of these tigers are not well cared for. 

Animal attractions draw customers in with the promise of a unique experience with animals, which are often nonnative and thus more exciting. They’re places where you might pay to pose with a wild tiger or hold a baby monkey for photos. In animal attractions, there are no benefits for the animals that are being used as entertainers. 

What about sanctuaries? Sanctuaries are places where animals are able to live out their natural lives in protection with space and care. Sanctuaries often exist for endangered species or to serve as rehabilitation centers for injured or abandoned animals. 

However, even attractions that frame themselves as sanctuaries might be hiding behind false pretenses. While researching for her article, Natasha Daly discovered that the same business was running two elephant attractions within five minutes of each other. One promoted a safe haven for the elephants, and the other had more circus-like elephant riding and shows; the same elephants were used at both locations. The owner admitted that it was simply good for business to offer two attractions that would draw different people.

A true sanctuary can be visited ethically, so it is important to distinguish between them and pseudo-sanctuaries that are running for profit. PETA recommends that you ask eight questions before visiting a sanctuary. Look for a sanctuary’s accreditation, facility space, animal acquisition policies, as well as how visitors are allowed to interact with the animals. 

Is going to an animal attraction ethical? It’s not impossible, but the answer is most likely no. True sanctuaries, however, are vegan and ethical to visit.

A bullfighter waits for the bull at Corrida de Toros
(Alfonso de Tomas/Shutterstock.com)


According to the World Animal Foundation, “every year, approximately 35,000 bulls are tormented and killed in bullfights in Spain alone.” Bullfighting is labeled as culturally embedded art and entertainment, but you don’t have to look far to see cruelty in the tradition.  

Tourism boards and vacation planners heavily promote bullfighting in countries where it is seen as long-established. The World Animal Foundation writes that “Spanish and Mexican bullfight advertisers lure American tourists with mystique. They claim the fight is festive, artistic, and a fair competition between skill and force. What they do not reveal is that the bull never has a chance to defend himself, much less survive.”

Like the animals used in circuses, bulls are treated violently; “Many prominent former bullfighters report that the bull is intentionally debilitated with tranquilizers and laxatives, beatings to the kidneys, petroleum jelly rubbed into their eyes to blur vision, heavy weights hung around their neck for weeks before the fight, and confinement in darkness for hours before being released into the bright arena.”

The bull’s fate doesn’t get any better when he enters the ring; he will most likely die a slow and painful death upon completing his role as entertainer. 

Tradition does not excuse abuse, and although bullfighting is historic and a matter of culture to many, it might be time to stop supporting the tradition. Is it ethical? It appears not, and many native Spaniards agree.  

In fact, most people attending bullfights today are tourists; the tradition has been banned in some parts of Spain, and less than 8% of current attendees are native Spaniards. 

A girl swimming underwater with dolphins

Swimming With Sea Animals

Groups like PETA strongly oppose attractions that profit from activities like swimming with dolphins, whether it is in a seemingly wild environment or an enclosed petting pool.

Instead of supporting a business that uses sea animals to make money, PETA suggests that dolphin lovers look for them in the wild by boating, snorkeling, or paddle boarding. 

If you want a guide to help you find dolphins, the National Marine Sanctuary’s Dolphin Smart site can help you find ethical organizations to support. Having an educated guide can help ensure that you do not accidentally put well-being of any marine animals at risk. 

Is swimming with sea animals in a controlled environment vegan? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. A trip to see them in the wild, however, can be ethical. 

Tourists shoot photos of a cheetah from their safari vehicle
(Villiers Steyn/Shutterstock.com)

Safaris And Wild Interactions 

In her Harpers Bazaar piece “How ethical are animal safaris really?” Ella Alexander writes, “If safari’s history is rooted in hunting, cameras have replaced the gun.” 

Every year, millions of tourists go on safaris in Africa, capturing photos of wild animals in the place of older and more cruel safari traditions. Safaris are founded in imperialism and hunting, both extremely unethical practices, but “the ethics of safari isn’t a clear-cut issue.”

Although most safaris have left their hunting roots behind, the trips can still put both people and animals at risk. 

However, they can also allow for spaces where people can view animals in their natural habitats and contribute to conservation efforts. The money made from safaris helps endangered and at-risk species. Safaris also help to support their local economies and animal populations, often keeping communities together.

What about wild interactions? Wild interactions include any type of contact that people have with animals in their natural habitat, with or without guides. Hiking alongside wild ponies, watching monkeys around a resort, or trekking through biodiverse rainforests are ways that travellers interact with animals. These types of attractions are usually not monetized, but they can still be unethical depending on how tourists are interacting with the animals. 

So, are safaris or wild interactions ethical? They can be, but it can be difficult to draw the line between the good and the bad, as both are incredibly complex situations. As in all animal tourism, it is important to thoroughly research potential businesses and guides before booking or supporting them. 

Lion cub sits in a cage
(Oleg Kopyov/Shutterstock.com)

Can Animal Tourism Be Ethical?

Animal tourism can be ethical, but there are also many unethical practices occurring in the industry throughout the world. Unfortunately, most for-profit animal attractions are rooted in behind-the-scenes cruelty. However, finding practices where the animals are well taken care of can lead to fun, educative, and life-changing experiences.  

No matter what animal you are interacting with, you should be careful to scrutinize the situation beforehand. Research can help you to determine whether or not you want to participate in any aspect of animal tourism. 

It is also important to remember that for some people, the use of animal labor is necessary for survival or transportation. There is a decision between animal entertainers and laborers; people who live in rural areas or in poverty may depend on animals like horses to travel or farm, but it does not mean that all animal tourism is necessary. 

Activists fighting for change in how animals are treated should be mindful of cultural traditions and socio-economic standing; while vegans do not stand for animal abuse, they should strive to be aware of the circumstances of others. 

That said, most of us don’t rely on animal labor to live anymore, so it makes sense that we move away from using them to entertainment as well, and this is a conversation we should all be having.

Have you ever participated in animal tourism? Did you think your experience was ethical? Let us know in the comments below!


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