Animal Attractions to Avoid these Holidays

This blog post was prompted by a recent news article about an elephant that died from exhaustion while performing tourist treks at the Angkor Watt Temple, Cambodia. Article.

Trekking elephant dies from exhaustion at Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia. Photo by EARS

Trekking elephant dies from exhaustion at Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia. Photo by EARS

I so often see well educated animal lover’s posting their photos with tigers, monkeys, dolphins and elephants and they don’t seem to realize they are supporting industries that negatively impact the animals welfare. In this post I will discuss some of the more famous animal attractions and animal friendly alternatives for you to try for your next holiday.

Elephant Trekking

Perhaps the most popular animal attractions in South East Asia, Elephant trekking is in fact cruel and unnecessary. So why is the trekking industry so bad? I mean their big animals right and they don’t seem to care that we ride them?

Well first of all the method used to ‘tame’ an elephant for riding is known as 'breaking the elephants spirit' because a baby elephant is essentially beaten and starved for days. Then the new mahout comes in and ‘rescues’ them by giving the elephant food so that they seem like a savior. From this point bull hooks (sharp pointed sticks) are used to ‘train’ the elephant to tolerate riders.

Secondly although elephants are strong their backs were not designed to carry the weight of multiple tourists and a wooden saddle.  Daily trekking causes permanent damage to their spine not to mention the wear and rub of wearing a wooden saddle day after day. Trekking elephants are also deprived of normal social interactions and behaviours such as foraging, bathing and exploring.

But there is good news – there are organizations that allow you to interact with these beautiful elephants in a cruelty free way. Just beware of ‘pseo-sanctuaries’ that claim to care for these animals but still make them perform treks or tricks.

Elephant nature park  offer day trips where you can pamper these beautiful creatures and help create a peaceful environment for them.  Wildlife Friend Thailand also takes volunteers for their elephant sanctuary where you perform daily husbandry tasks such as feeding, cleaning, bathing and walking these gentle giants around the sanctuary. Boonme is one such elephant enjoying freedom at Wildlife Friend Thailand after spending 50 years in the tourism industry. See Boonme's Story.

Tiger Temples

Well meaning tiger lovers are attracted to the idea of getting up close and personal with their favourite animals, not to mention getting that tiger-selfie to remember forever.   

Cubs are taken from their mothers at young ages and fed obscene amounts of milk by tourists all for the sake of a few photos. The tigers at these temples are also denied natural instincts like hunting, roaming and even the basic right of exercise.  The diet of pure chicken also predisposes them to metabolic bone disease, dental disease and renal failure.

Although this tiger is being made to smile I don't for a second believe he is happy

Although this tiger is being made to smile I don't for a second believe he is happy

Because a tiger is very capable of killing a human they are often kept sedated with medication to make them more compliant to hordes of tourists getting in their face. But even so accident do happen and there are countless reports like this article.

So where can you get a photo with a tiger? Well nowhere really, at least when it comes to cuddling a fully grown tiger. There are some opportunities to volunteer with hand raised cubs, or consider a big cat safari or visiting a quality zoo to see these amazing animals in a more natural habitat.  One great organisation that can help is TOFT working to promote sustainable wildlife tours, including seeing tigers in the wild.

Swim with the Dolphins

We have always been fascinated by the amazing acrobatic and mental capabilities of dolphins; their intelligence is often compared to our own. So let me ask you this, how would you feel about paying for photos with a group of orphaned humans kept in a cage and starved so that they would then pose with you for food? I’m guessing you would feel pretty guilty. For many aquarium situations this is exactly what happens and your chance to ‘swim with the dolphins’ is in reality a selfie with an intelligent animal taken from the wild and caged for life.

But the good news is there are countless opportunities to experience dolphins in the wild where they can roam and choose to encounter you at their will. Surfing, diving, snorkeling and boating trips offer close encounters with these beautiful creatures, and while nobody will offer you a kiss by or a ride on a dolphin you can rest easy knowing you are not contributing to their plight in captivity. Some companies including Dolphin Swim and Dolphin Excursions. In Australia you can visit the famous Monkey Mia dolphins too!

Monkey Selfie

While sitting in a night club in Thailand sipping a cocktail I had a man come up to me with a tiny gibbon in a diaper– only 50 baht for a selfie, and damn that little primate was cute… but all I could think was that the deafening noise, cigarette smoke and bright lights must have been absolutely terrifying for any non-human. Around me people were lining up to get their thirty seconds of selfie-time with this little gibbon and as the night went on adult gibbons, baby macaque and even an iguana made their way through the night club with ropes around their necks to prevent escape.

These animals are often stolen from the wild as babies and hand raised to encourage them to be with humans. They are often deprived of food, exercise and socialization so that these excursions to a night club become their only opportunity for interaction and food rewards. Totally not worth it just to have your face next to theirs.

A young Gibbon experiencing the 'joy' of tourists at night clubs.

A young Gibbon experiencing the 'joy' of tourists at night clubs.

There are many wildlife sanctuaries or even wild encounters that can be undertaken to see monkeys, and although you will not get to cuddle them you can see them display natural behaviours which will be a much more rewarding experience.

Wildlife Friend Thailand offers volunteer opportunities and tours where you can see monkeys rescued from the tourism trade living in social groups in large enclosures, many of these monkeys are being rehabilitated for release provided they don’t have any long term injuries from their years in the tourist trade.


So in summary if you can pay to kiss, cuddle or take a selfie with an animal it is probably not ethical. Many people are lured in with a genuine interest in these animals but are in fact contributing to poor animal welfare standards around the world. Vote with your wallet and avoid unethical animal travel - source animal friendly alternatives for your next holiday!

If you have any animal friendly travel suggestions please comment below or on the Vet Tails Facebook page to share with the world!