Ehrlich was unfamiliar with Alaska wildlife tour operators, so she looked for companies affiliated with sustainable tourism organizations and marine life advocates. She also read independent reviews, peeking photos of the excursions, and “meeting” the owners and staff through their online profiles.
“I wanted to make sure the operator was doing the best for the wildlife,” said Ehrlich, who ended up booking with Seward Ocean Excursions. The company is a member of Whale Sense, a voluntary best-practice program sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and holds certification from Adventure Green Alaska, which promotes sustainable practices.
Before the pandemic, about 110 million people visited tourist attractions in the wild every year, according to World Animal Protection. The international organization has determined that 75 percent of activities that involve wildlife, such as tiger selfies, ostrich tours, dolphin swims and crocodile farms, harm participants with four legs, fins or feathers. A 2016 World Animal Protection report, using research by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, found that 3 in 4 animal attractions involved “animal abuse or conservation concerns”.
“It can be challenging for the traveler to identify and select wildlife tours and activities that meet a certain standard,” said Jim Sano, vice president for travel, tourism and conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
Attitudes towards animal attractions are constantly evolving. Over the years, a number of entertainment activities, such as dolphin shows, cuddling tiger cubs, sloth selfies and bathing elephants, have lost their innocent charm. Court Whelan, Chief Sustainability Officer at Natural Habitat Adventures, an eco-tour operator, said the pendulum also swings against rippling water to attract marine life, which he describes as “unnatural interference.”
Despite the ethical minefield, experts say that animal attractions can be valuable and even critical experiences for all species involved. “Travel is part of the solution to saving wildlife,” Whelan said, “as long as you minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive benefits.”
Here are tips for dealing with the wild kingdom humanely.
Read the booking sites. Many online booking sites have established animal welfare policies that inform travelers about unethical attractions and define their stances on these types of diversions, such as banning abusive activities from their platforms. For example, Viator and its parent company, Tripadvisor, will not list excursions where animals are injured or killed, such as bullfights. The companies also do not accept advertising money or book experiences that violate certain humane standards, such as physical interactions with captive wild or endangered species (with a few exceptions) or appearances that humiliate the animals. For example, travelers can’t book Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, where guests can bathe the colossal inhabitants, or one of the SeaWorlds, for their whale-like shows and swimming. (To read Tripadvisor’s policies, click the paw print icon that appears in the “About” section of each pet attraction.)
“We have stopped booking many of the thousands of animal attractions or bookable experiences,” said Brian Hoyt, a TripAdvisor spokesperson, adding that travelers should share their concerns about a company’s mistreatment of animals at awpolicyreview@tripadvisor .com.
Tripadvisor is one of several travel booking sites and operators that have consulted with World Animal Protection about its protocols. The organization has also advised Airbnb, Expedia Group, EF Go Ahead Tours, Booking.com and Virgin Holidays. In September 2020, it published an animal welfare ranking of more than a dozen travel companies. Airbnb took first place; GetYourGuide, Klook and Musement finished in last place.
Groupon was not involved in the investigation, but earlier this year the US office of World Animal Protection launched a campaign asking the discount travel company to stop selling tickets to attractions that operate animals. Groupon, which previously listed Joe “Tiger King” Maldonado’s Oklahoma Zoo, has not commented on the organization. At the time of going to press, The Washington Post had not received a response requesting comment.
Play detective. Before you book, check out the reviews and photos shared by visitors. Check independent review sites and social media. Watch out for red flags such as guests feeding, petting, driving, or taking close-up selfies with wildlife. (This rule generally applies to wild animals, not pets.)
“If you can touch a tiger, you’re not at the right place,” said Carson Barylak, campaign manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Other troubling signs: A significant population of juveniles or inbred or hybrid species such as white tigers or ligers, a lion crossed with a tiger. Barylak said such evidence could indicate that a company is breeding the animals or playing a mad scientist.
“True sanctuaries are not breeding stock,” she said.
Look for vetted places. Bypass the research step of the rabbit hole with an organization that collects pre-approved sanctuaries, conservation areas, wildlife viewing tours, and more. The Phoenix-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, for example, has accredited or verified more than 150 sanctuaries, rescue facilities and rehabilitation centers around the world. With the interactive map you can search by animal and region. Connecting, for example, ‘great apes’ and ‘Africa’ yields five results, including Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya.
“Real shrines are working to solve the problems caused by pseudo shrines,” Barylak said.
For lions, tigers, and other oh-mys, Barylak recommends the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, whose members include several sites open to the public, such as Carolina Tiger Rescue in North Carolina and Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary in Nevada. The Performing Animal Welfare Society, which operates three rescue centers in California, holds its “Seeing the Elephants” event on select Saturdays at the ARK 2000 grounds in San Andreas. The last of the year takes place on December 3; check in the fall for 2023 dates.
The World Cetacean Alliance has created a map with certified tour operators and zoos and aquariums near (Gloucester, Mass.) and far (Mozambique). For an even greater menagerie of zoos and aquariums, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria has more than 400 members in nearly 50 countries in Europe and Western Asia. The Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia approves wildlife parks in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Singapore. And the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has accredited nearly 240 facilities in 13 countries, including the United States, Canada and Mexico.
A note about the AZA: It accredits zoos and aquariums that allow animal interactions and demonstrations, a position many animal welfare groups fail to embrace. Dan Ashe, the association’s president and chief executive, said these activities could benefit the animals if used for enrichment purposes and managed by wildlife professionals. He added: “The animals should be able to make their own choice and leave if they are not interested. They should not be coaxed, guided or coerced by food. The activity should not humiliate them or be disrespectful. It should promote empathy for the animal.”
Ultimately, it is up to the visitor to decide whether to support or skip these institutions. “The burden is on us to ask, ‘Is it healthy for the animals? Is it healthy for me?’ “As he said.
Join an advocacy group. Raise the trust bar by signing up for an excursion organized by or affiliated with an animal welfare or conservation organization. Pacific Whale Foundation’s PacWhale Eco-Adventures leads dolphin and whale safaris in Maui, among other whale-watching trips. The Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, Florida, hosts turtle walks on select evenings in June and July, as well as day trips later in the summer that focus on loggerhead turtles at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
For-profit travel companies and non-profit organizations also collaborate on tours and tours. Nearly 20-year-old partners, the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures have collaborated on more than 80 trails in 37 countries, according to Sano. One of WWF’s newest partners is Airbnb: in December 2020, WWF Mexico joined forces with the short-term rental company and the Mexican Federation of Tourist Associations to promote five driving routes through environmentally attractive areas in Mexico like the Jaguar’s Corridor, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Calakmul.
Be aware and speak out. Familiarize yourself with local, state, and federal conservation laws before embarking on an animal adventure. For example, a rule in Hawaii prohibits people from swimming with, approaching, or staying within 50 meters of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Maui County, which includes the inhabited islands of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, banned facilities to display captive dolphins, porpoises, and whales. It also banned commercial shark travel activities.
Nationally, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which turned 50 this year, prohibits feeding or harassing wild marine mammals, such as seals, whales, dolphins and manatees. According to NOAA Fisheries, illegal activities include “attempts to swim with, pet, touch, or provoke a reaction in the animals.” Last month, the U.S. House passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which, if the Senate passes the bill, will ban people from buying feral felines as pets and ban exhibits that allow the public to come into direct contact with big cats. such as lions, tigers and leopards.
If a company is violating an animal protection law or ignoring best practice, Whelan recommends you follow Homeland Security’s advice: “If you see something,” he said, “say something.”
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines related to the pandemic before planning any travel. Information about travel health declarations can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map with travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s health declarations webpage.