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Grappling with the ethics of wildlife encounters abroad: Part 1

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In this two-part series, Wildlands globetrotter, Katy Schaffer, explores the complexities of ethically interacting with animals who can’t speak for themselves in Asia, Australia, Ireland, and Greece…

As a globetrotter who cares deeply about protecting wild nature, one of my favorite travel activities is checking out local wildlife. Not only are such experiences great ways to explore how different cultures relate to their natural environments, but they can also be bucket list items for an animal lover like myself. Bathing elephants in Thailand? Check. Feeding kangaroos in Australia? Check. Scouting wild puffins in Northern Ireland? Check!

Bathing elephants in Thailand is definitely one of my top 5 travel experiences. Photo: Katy Schaffer

But while such wildlife encounters might be worthy of bucket lists, it’s important to consider whether a given opportunity is ethical and responsible. Before embarking on a wildlife experience, I’ve learned to ask myself, Does this encounter treat animals as inherently valuable and with the dignity they deserve? If not, what about this particular experience strikes me as unethical? Should I still participate in it? Usually, my answer is no.

I believe all forms of life have the right to exist and thrive—but animals can’t speak for themselves. Therefore, it’s critical that we as travellers use one of our most powerful resources—our tourist dollars—to benefit exploited animals across the world. And if a particular wildlife encounter turns out to be less than ethical, we must promise to more carefully evaluate how future wildlife opportunities align with our duty to care for our wild friends.

felt conflicted about hand-feeding kangaroos. On one hand, I was bribing them with treats for their attention. But on the other, I was simply offering them food. They could choose whether or not to hop over to me. I was glad this friendly fellow decided to say hi. Photo: Katy Schaffer

I’ll be the first to admit, though, that spotting unethical wildlife encounters from a distance isn’t always easy. After all, Internet research and guidebooks can only reveal so much. Actually participating in these experiences can paint a whole different picture. What’s more, the definition of “unethical” is subjective; what might seem unethical to me might be totally acceptable to another traveler.

On 2 recent international trips—one through Australia and Southeast Asia and another though Europe—I participated in several different wildlife experiences, not all of which I would call ethical in hindsight. Some of these encounters left me awestruck and joyful from witnessing the majesty of wild creatures, while others left me confused and conflicted after witnessing the exploitation of certain animals for the sake of profit.

Meeting Maya at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park
Led by her mahout (keeper), the female elephant finally broke through the line of trees upon which all of our eyes were trained, and I caught my breath. My tour group and I had been told her name was Maya, and she was headed toward us so that we could feed her melons from a basket. I couldn’t believe I was seeing my first wild elephant—her spotted ears, curled trunk, powerful feet, swishing tail, amber eyes. Maya was beautiful.

When we finished feeding her melons, Maya stuck her trunk through the safety railing in search of more treats. Instead, she was met with gentle pats, and she curled her trunk around our arms, seeming to play with us. Photo: Katy Schaffer

I was visiting Elephant Nature Park (ENP), just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The park is home to more than 35 formerly abused and distressed elephants from all over Southeast Asia, many of whom were either forced to perform tricks or give tourists rides.

One of the injured elephants being rehabilitated at ENP. Before relocating to ENP, she had stepped on a landmine and was badly injured. The purple ointment on her foot helps her open wounds heal. Photo: Katy Schaffer

When I first decided Thailand—whose national symbol is the Thai elephant—would be part of my 3-week tour of Australia and Southeast Asia, I knew this was my chance to see elephants in the wild. However, it was important for me to ethically interact with these graceful creatures. I didn’t want to see elephants being abused for the pleasure of tourists. I definitely didn’t want to ride them.

Among Thailand’s myriad elephant parks, ENP stood out to me because of its commitment to rehabilitating abused elephants. At ENP, there are no tricks or elephant rides. Instead, the resident elephants are treated like the emotionally intelligent creatures they are, worthy of our respect and empathy. They are rehabilitated and given a new life and families. What’s more, the price of admission provides directly for the care of all of the elephants at ENP.

I suppose one could argue that ENP still practices a form of exploitation, leading elephants to tourists who are anxious to get their hands on one of these gentle giants. And indeed, there were a few people in my group whose only goal for the day, it seemed, was to touch an elephant or take that perfect selfie for their curated Instagram feed.

ome tourists seemed intent on testing Maya, poking at her to get her attention. When Maya didn’t respond, this particular tourist dropped his stick and didn’t bother her again. Our tour guide encouraged us to keep a respectful distance. Photo: Katy Schaffer

While neither of those desires is necessarily unethical in its own right, a day at ENP is about so much more than merely checking “touch an elephant” off of one’s bucket list. During my visit, I was overwhelmed with humility in the face of such wild beauty and power. Our tour guide spent most of the day educating us about why elephants are so special. We learned that these huge, sensitive mammals are intensely communal and thrive when they are part of a family—so much so that caretakers at ENP match each new elephant with an existing elephant “family” within the park. We also learned that elephants are incredibly kind, clever, and caring creatures.

One could also argue that ENP’s elephants aren’t really wild: They interact with human caretakers and tourists every day, and they live within the confines of the park—however roomy those confines might be. However, the mahouts and tour guides encouraged the elephants’ wild urges and respected their instinctual needs to roam and engage with other elephants, allowing them to live as wildly as possible while safely recovering from past traumas.

In addition, it was clear that the mahouts loved the elephants in their charge, nuzzling them affectionately, offering them treats, and even talking to them out loud. Mahouts and elephants have a very special relationship: The two are often bonded when they are both young, and mahouts become part of the elephant’s adoptive family. Traditionally, mahouts train elephants to accept human riders with metal hooks—but the only equipment the mahouts at ENP used were their hands, to gently guide the elephants toward visitors or to the river.

A 1-year-old baby elephant affectionately cuddles the mahout. Photo: Katy Schaffer

Finally, our tour guide made sure we kept a safe distance from the elephants—especially the babies and moms—and discouraged us from making sudden movements. As visitors to the elephants’ home, we were allowed to do only what the elephants allowed us to do.

For example, if I got too close to Maya, it was because she chose to approach me; I was not allowed to approach her. Furthermore, we were allowed to pet Maya only after our tour guide had surveyed her body language and deduced that she would be comfortable with us gently patting her side. And in order for us to bathe Maya in the river, she had to first grant us permission by walking herself into the water. Essentially, the tour guide obtained Maya’s consent before allowing us to interact with her in any way. At ENP, it was all about listening to the elephants—not the tourists.

Say cheese! This elephant in particular liked my camera. He lumbered right up to me and stuck his trunk out, posing with his stick and letting me snap several photos. I wasn’t allowed to approach him, but he was allowed to approach me if he so chose–and I was glad he did! Photo: Katy Schaffer

Nuzzling Noah at Sydney’s Featherdale Wildlife Park
On a day trip to the stunning Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, Australia, my tour group stopped by Featherdale Wildlife Park to view native Australian wildlife, including dingoes, kookaburras, wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.

A kookaburra perches on a tree branch inside his metal enclosure at Featherdale Wildlife Park, which boasts “the largest collection of Australian fauna”—on only 7 acres. The boundaries of the animals’ enclosures were always visible. Photo: Katy Schaffer

At the park, I had the opportunity to take a picture with a koala named Noah. A handler placed Noah on a tree in front of me, with plenty of eucalyptus to keep him occupied. I was allowed to gently pat his bottom as he munched on his treat. I also had the opportunity to hand feed kangaroos from cups of food provided by Featherdale.

My partner poses with Noah the koala and me at Featherdale. Throughout our photo session, Noah munched on the delicious eucalyptus his caretaker had supplied him with for his troubles. Photo: Featherdale Wildlife Park

Unlike ENP, the animals’ enclosures at Featherdale were disconcertingly small. The park boasts “the largest collection of Australian fauna”—over 1,700 individual animals—on only 7 acres. I also found it a little upsetting that some tourists didn’t seem to respect the animals’ inherent dignity, poking at them through their cages or chasing individuals who had wandered out of their open enclosures and onto the pathway.

Although I took a picture with Noah the koala, I left the park with mixed feelings about having a wild animal pose for my entertainment, even if he was fed yummy treats for his troubles. (In human terms, that could also be called a bribe!)

A tourist pokes at a group of little penguins. Even inside enclosures, animals at Featherdale can’t escape overeager tourists with sticks. Photo: Katy Schaffer

On the other hand, Featherdale seemingly does a lot of good for the animals it stewards. The park maintains several conservation initiatives and breeding programs in conjunction with its education and community outreach events. Featherdale also rescues and rehabilitates distressed wildlife, providing a sanctuary for wild animals who might have otherwise disappeared from the Earth.

I believe Featherdale’s education of tourists and schoolchildren is critical to instilling a sense of respect for wildlife in the general public, even if the animals don’t have space to wander freely, away from grabbing hands. If I return to the park, though, I might not pose with Noah the koala again. I think I’d leave him be.

The wallabies at Featherdale have open enclosures. I watched them wander out from under the railings that defined their enclosure’s boundaries and mingle with tourists who were delighted at the opportunity to pet them. Looks like this wallaby just wanted a snack and didn’t mind being petted as long as he was eating! Photo: Katy Schaffer

Meddling monkeys in Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest
In Bali, I visited the Ubud Monkey Forest, a nature preserve in which tourists can wander through Balinese long-tailed macaque habitat. The forest, which houses three temple shrines, is apparently very important to the local town. In addition to encouraging a spiritual connection with the natural world, the preserve is a source of income for some of the people living nearby, who work to conserve the forest’s population of more than 600 monkeys. The Monkey Forest also provides valuable opportunities for scientists to study macaque social interactions and behaviour.

A monkey sits on the wall that lines the tourist pathway at Monkey Forest. The monkeys are not confined in enclosures and can wander about the forest with their human visitors. Photo: Katy Schaffer

While wandering through the forest, I saw no physical barriers between tourists and monkeys. The monkeys weren’t kept in enclosures with railings to keep tourists at safe distances; instead, they roamed throughout the forest as we fed them pieces of fruit. But the monkeys weren’t given total freedom over their habitat. Monkey Forest staff, armed with slingshots, were posted throughout the preserve to intervene should monkeys attack tourists or fellow monkeys (though I never actually saw a staff member use a slingshot).

Despite the slingshot deterrents, the monkeys were brazen. It was actually a little disconcerting how comfortable they were with people—comfortable enough to climb on our backs or unzip our bags looking for more food. The monkeys weren’t wary of people at all. In fact, they even allowed me to approach them to take pictures. This presented a strange paradox for me: While I felt like an intruder in the monkeys’ home, I still wanted to get close enough to take that perfect photo for my own Instagram feed—and I was allowed to do so by the monkeys’ human guardians.

A female monkey nurses her young offspring. I relied on my zoom lens to capture this closeup, but I was still able to approach the mother macaque without any warning from her that I was getting too close. In fact, she paid me no mind at all, focusing instead on her child. Photo: Katy Schaffer

It was this opportunity to interact with the monkeys without restriction that stayed with me long after my visit. The forest is managed according to the Hindu philosophy “tri hita karana,” which promotes spiritual and physical wellbeing via three harmonious relationships: humans with other humans, humans with the Supreme God, and humans with their environment.

Admittedly, I know very little about this philosophy or Balinese culture as a whole, and I recognise the profound complexities of wildlife conservation worldwide. Still, from my outsider’s perspective, the conservation model practiced at the Monkey Forest didn’t seem to do enough to honour or dignify the monkeys themselves—whom I prefer to envision swinging wild and truly free through the trees of their home, unimpeded by slingshots or my presence and my camera lens.

Wild reflection
After I returned home, I struggled with conflicting feelings about my different wildlife experiences. I’d encountered some wondrous wildlife and had the pictures to prove it, but I had more questions than answers about ethically interacting with creatures who can’t speak for themselves. Did Maya and her elephant friends really enjoy being surrounded by tourists? Did Noah really mind having a stranger pat his bottom? Did the macaques even notice my camera lens in their faces?

Tourists engage with elephants in the river that borders ENP. All of these elephants consented to being bathed by stepping into the water, munching on melons as they enjoyed a cool, refreshing splash. On the other side of the river, tourists were allowed to ride elephants at a different park. Photo: Katy Schaffer

One thing, however, became very apparent to me during these particular travels, and I would ground myself in this new knowledge when I planned my next international trip—to Europe:

Although the line between engaging with an animal and exploiting his or her uniqueness for the entertainment of tourists isn’t always clear, it’s important to define that line for myself—and not cross it.

Header image: An elephant casts her amber eye on me. I wonder what she saw when she looked at me—if she wondered what kind of animal I was or what I was doing in her space. Photo: Katy Schaffer.

About the Author: Katy Schaffer is the Communications Coordinator for Wildlands Network: an international nonprofit, working to reconnect, restore, and rewild North America. Katy helps direct the strategic messaging for Wildlands Network while producing and maintaining content for the Wildlands Network website, social media accounts, and other channels.

Katy grew up in South Texas, enjoying the region’s many wildlife preserves and some of the world’s best BBQ and Mexican food. She moved to Central Texas to attend the University of Texas at Austin, earning Bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and Public Relations in 2015. Katy worked as a magazine editorial assistant and media relations specialist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before relocating to Seattle to be closer to family. As a recent transplant from Texas, Katy actively explores the Pacific Northwest, adventuring in both the city and the surrounding wilderness.