Ehrlich was not familiar with Alaska wildlife tour operators, so she looked for companies affiliated with sustainable tourism organizations and marine life advocates. She also read independent reviews, eyeballed photos of the excursions and “met” the owners and staff through their online profiles.
“I wanted to make sure the operator was doing what is best for the wildlife,” said Ehrlich, who eventually booked with Seward Ocean Excursions The company is a member of Whale Sense, a voluntary best-practices program sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and earned certification from Adventure Green Alaska, which promotes sustainable practices.
Before the pandemic, about 110 million people visited wildlife tourist attractions each year, according to World Animal Protection. The international organization determined that 75 percent of activities involving wild animals — such as tiger selfies, ostrich rides, dolphin swims and crocodile farms — are harmful to the four-legged, finned or feathered participants. A 2016 World Animal Protection report using research by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that 3 in 4 animal attractions involved “animal abuse or conservation concerns.”
“It can be a challenge 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 toward animal attractions are constantly evolving. Over the years, a number of amusements, such as dolphin shows, cuddling tiger cubs, sloth selfies and bathing elephants, have lost their innocent charm. Court Whelan, chief sustainability officer with Natural Habitat Adventures, an eco-tour operator, said the pendulum is also swinging against chumming waters to attract marine animals, 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. “Trips are part of the solution to saving wildlife,” Whelan said, “as long as you minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive benefits.”
Here are tips on how to humanely engage with the wild kingdom.
Read the booking sites. Many online booking sites have created animal welfare policies that educate travelers about unethical attractions and define their positions on these types of diversions, such as banning abusive activities from their platforms. For instance, Viator and its parent company, Tripadvisor, will not list excursions that involve hurting or killing animals, such as bullfighting. The companies will also 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 performances that demean the animals. For example, travelers can’t book the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, which allows guests to wash the hulking residents, or any of the SeaWorlds, because of their cetacean shows and swims. (To read Tripadvisor’s policy, click on the paw print icon displayed in each animal attraction’s “About” section.)
“We stopped booking many of the thousands of attractions or bookable experiences involving animals,” said Brian Hoyt, a Tripadvisor spokesperson, adding that travelers should share any concerns about a business’s mistreatment of animals at [email protected].
Tripadvisor is one of several travel booking sites and operators that consulted with World Animal Protection on its protocols. The organization has also advised Airbnb, Expedia Group, EF Go Ahead Tours, Booking.com and Virgin Holidays. In September 2020, it released an animal welfare ranking of more than a dozen travel companies. Airbnb clinched the top spot; GetYourGuide, Klook and Musement tied for last place.
Groupon was not included in the survey, but earlier this year, World Animal Protection’s U.S. office initiated a campaign asking the discount travel company to stop selling tickets to attractions that exploit animals. Groupon, which previously listed the Oklahoma zoo run by Joe “Tiger King” Maldonado, has not responded to the organization. At press time, The Washington Post had not received a reply seeking comment.
Play detective. Before booking, scrutinize the reviews and photos shared by visitors. Check independent review sites as well as social media. Pay attention to such red flags as guests feeding, petting, riding or snapping close-up selfies with wildlife. (This rule generally applies to wild animals, not domestic critters.)
“If you’re allowed to touch a tiger, you’re not in the right place,” said Carson Barylak, campaigns manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Other troubling signs: a significant population of juvenile animals or such inbred or hybrid species as white tigers or ligers, a lion crossed with a tiger. Barylak said such evidence could indicate that a business is breeding or playing mad scientist with the animals.
“True sanctuaries aren’t breeding animals,” she said.
Seek out vetted places. Bypass the rabbit-hole research step with an organization that aggregates preapproved sanctuaries, conservation sites, wildlife-viewing tours and more. The Phoenix-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, for one, has accredited or verified more than 150 sanctuaries, rescue facilities and rehabilitation centers around the world. Its interactive map allows you to search by animal and region. Plugging in “great apes” and “Africa,” for instance, produces five results, including Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya.
“True sanctuaries are working to solve the problems created by pseudo-sanctuaries,” 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 runs three sanctuaries in California, holds its “Seeing the Elephants” event on select Saturdays at its ARK 2000 property in San Andreas. The last one of the year will take place on Dec. 3; check in the fall for 2023 dates.
The World Cetacean Alliance created a map that highlights certified tour operators and zoos and aquariums from near (Gloucester, Mass.) and far (Mozambique). For an even larger 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 gives its stamp of approval to wildlife venues 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.
One note about the AZA: It accredits zoos and aquariums that allow animal interactions and demonstrations, a position that many wildlife welfare groups do not embrace. Dan Ashe, the association’s president and chief executive, said these activities can be beneficial to the animals if they are used for enrichment purposes and administered by wildlife professionals. He added: “The animals should be able to make their own choice and move away if they’re not interested. They should not be coaxed or directed or coerced by food. The activity should not demean 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?’ ” Ashe said.
Tag along with an advocacy group. Raise the confidence bar by signing up for an excursion arranged by or affiliated with an animal welfare or conservation group. Pacific Whale Foundation’s PacWhale Eco-Adventures leads dolphin-viewing and whale-watching cruises in Maui, among other cetacean-centric outings. The Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, Fla., organizes turtle walks on select evenings in June and July, as well as daytime outings later in the summer that focus on loggerhead nests in Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne Beach, Fla.
For-profit travel companies and nonprofits also collaborate on trips and tours. Nearly 20-year partners, the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures have teamed up on more than 80 itineraries in 37 countries, according to Sano. One of WWF’s newest partners is Airbnb: In December 2020, WWF Mexico combined forces with the short-term rental company and the Mexican Federation of Tourist Associations to promote five driving routes through such ecologically enticing areas in Mexico as the Jaguar’s Corridor, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Calakmul.
Be aware and speak up. Before you set off on an animal adventure, familiarize yourself with local, state and federal wildlife protection laws. For example, a rule in Hawaii forbids people from swimming with, approaching or remaining within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Maui County, which includes the inhabited islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai, banned institutions from exhibiting captive dolphins, porpoises and whales. It also outlawed commercial shark tour operations.
On a national level, 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 “attempting to swim with, pet, touch, or elicit a reaction from the animals.” Last month, the U.S. House passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which, if the Senate approves the bill, will prohibit people from acquiring wild felines as pets and ban exhibits that allow the public to directly interact with such big cats as lions, tigers and leopards.
If a business flouts an animal protection law or ignores best practices, Whelan suggests you follow the advice espoused by Homeland Security: “If you see something,” he said, “say something.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.