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Grappling with the ethics of wildlife encounters abroad: Part 2

In the second of 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…

Sitting on my living room floor, my back resting against the couch, I surveyed the organised mess that surrounded me. The floor was littered with clothes, guidebooks, camera equipment, and all the other travel necessities I was trying to shove into my 35-liter backpack. Plane tickets were booked, hostels reserved, tours scheduled. Now all that was left to do was go.

I was headed to Europe, mostly to visit friends but also to sit on sandy beaches, savour yummy foods, and immerse myself in different cultures. As a world traveler with deep compassion for my global neighbours, both wild and human, my idea of experiencing local cultures often means experiencing local wildlife. For me, such wildlife encounters provide an unparalleled opportunity to meet and interact with creatures I might not otherwise have a chance to know.

At Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, mahouts carefully survey the body language of elephants for permission to let tourists approach. Photo: Katy Schaffer

But it’s also important to me to interact ethically with all animals, wild or otherwise. And during my last international trip—to Southeast Asia and Australia—I’d learned a lot about how I define ethical wildlife encounters.

At Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, I learned about an animal’s right to consent as I sought permission from Maya the elephant to let me gently pat her side.

At Sydney’s Featherdale Wildlife Park, I found I was uncomfortable with having a wild animal pose with me for a photo.

And at Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest, I felt like an intruder in the monkeys’ home as I ducked out of the way of undaunted, scurrying macaques.

At Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest, a Balinese long-tailed macaque swings through tree branches high above the heads of awestruck tourists. Though monkeys and tourists both roamed freely through the Monkey Forest, I struggled with feeling as though I were intruding in their home. Photo: Katy Schaffer

I might not call all of these experiences ethical, but they were meaningful and educational—and they left an indelible imprint on my travel philosophy.

Sometimes I feel like I have more questions than answers when it comes to navigating the complex and profound ethics of interacting with wildlife abroad. I am sure, however, that as a traveler, I want to spend my tourist dollars visiting sanctuaries and engaging in ambassador wildlife activities that help safeguard the right of non-human animals to exist on our shared planet. I also want to support organisations that actively conserve wildlife and provide safe opportunities to interact with animals. I believe that such intimate encounters with wildness allow me to be a more authentic advocate for Nature.

So, off I went to Europe, camera in hand.

Seabird symphony in Northern Ireland
White bird wings flashed through the cloudless blue expanse above me as thousands of seabirds called to each other in blaring unison. Bumping elbows with other tourists who pointed excitedly toward the sky, I felt like an audience member at a raucous symphony, the perfectly tuned screeches, squeals, and squawks serving as the lead instruments. The birds above me performed an intricate ballet to accompany their song—wheeling, diving, and soaring through the open air.


I was visiting Northern Ireland’s Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre in County Antrim, which offers some of the most rugged and dramatic coastline in all of Ireland. I’d visited the Emerald Isle twice before and was looking for a unique, off-the-beaten-path experience to make my third visit extra special. The Seabird Centre definitely delivered.

Even getting to the Centre was an adventure. After a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland to Rathlin Island, a few other tourists and I jostled along narrow, winding roads in a shuttle bus with no shocks. We eventually arrived at the visitor centre on the other side of the island. After paying our entry free, we descended a steep metal staircase built into the side of a cliff to reach the viewing platform.

Managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Centre is hugely important for seabirds of all kinds. Hosting one of the United Kingdom’s largest seabird colonies, it’s home to numerous species of marine birds, including guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, and Northern Ireland’s only breeding pair of chough.

Recently, chough and corncrake have returned to the area after a 20-year absence. Ireland’s farming practices have decimated suitable seabird habitat, and warming waters have caused food supplies for marine birds to dwindle, so they take refuge at the Centre, which actively restores the island’s coastline to benefit Nature. The RSPB also works to create “Futurescapes” by connecting patches of protected areas, like the Seabird Centre, to enhance the conservation of vulnerable species—similar to Wildlands Network’s proposed Wildways!

As I descended the staircase, I could hear the shrill calls of seabirds growing louder and louder. The distinctive kitti-wake! kitti-wake! calls of the birds with the same name echoed in my head as I made my way down to the viewing platform. There, staff members provided telescopes and binoculars for scouting puffins and other popular birds.

Kittiwakes. Photo: Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland/Wikimedia Commons

And I sure needed those binoculars! The viewing platform was far removed from the seabird habitat, which stretched down a sheer cliff on the north side of the island. Several hundred feet below me, birds floated on the water’s surface, rested on the rocky shore, and settled in the craggy notches of the cliff. A few birds flew up to where we stood and circled above our heads, checking out their nosy visitors.

These seabirds were totally left to their own devices, safe from overeager tourists and photographers, allowed to come and go as they pleased. I did want to get a nice picture of a puffin—they’re such interesting birds to look at, after all—but they were too far away to be captured even by my long zoom lens. In hindsight, I suppose this was a good thing. The puffins were free to be wild puffins, and I wasn’t allowed to disturb them for the sake of a photo.

The beleaguered donkeys of Santorini
Perched high atop the remains of the ancient volcano that formed this picturesque Greek island, Santorini is arguably the crown jewel of the Aegean Sea. It’s definitely the most popular Greek island: On its only 76km²of rock and sand, Santorini welcomed over 5.5 million overnight visitors in 2017 alone. After my visit to Northern Ireland, I became one of the millions of summer holidaymakers who revelled under Santorini’s hot Greek sun.

Among Santorini’s most unique features—beyond its sun drenched stucco houses, aquamarine waters, and breathtaking sunsets—are the seaside accommodations built directly into the cliffside and offering stunning views of the water. Generally, these accommodations aren’t accessible by car; they can be reached only by descending precipitous, tight pathways.

Cliffside hotels on Santorini, facing the iconic view of the caldera. Most of these hotels are only accessible by foot—or donkey, for some tourists. Photo: Katy Schaffer

My taxi from the airport dropped me off in Imerovigli, one of the island’s tiny villages. The taxi could only go as far as the main road, which snaked along the island linking Santorini’s villages together. From the main road, I had to wend my way up and down the claustrophobic cobblestoned staircases as I searched for my poorly signed hotel. Weighted beneath my heavy backpack, I walked…and walked…and walked, until I finally found my lodgings. The weather was blisteringly hot: When I shrugged off my backpack, my shirt stuck to the beads of sweat rolling down my back. The hotel receptionist offered me a chilled tropical drink and I chugged it like water. Only afterward did I learn the drink was alcoholic!

Because of Santorini’s accessibility issues and its overwhelming crowds, donkeys are a popular mode of transport. These beasts of burden can notoriously haul heavy loads and reach places cars can’t. As I explored the island, I saw lines of donkeys tied together with rope hauling luggage and tourists up crazy-steep staircases, delivering their loads to swanky boutique hotels.

Donkeys carry tourists up steep cobblestoned pathways through one of Santorini’s little villages. Photo: Rennett Stowe

These images broke my heart—and actually made me mad. As hot and tired as I was from carrying my own belongings to my hard-to-reach hotel, I couldn’t have imagined forcing the poor donkeys to do for me what I had the ability to do for myself.

Now, you may be thinking: Donkeys aren’t wild. True, but even though Santorini’s donkeys are domesticated working animals, they are nonetheless worthy of our respect and compassion. After all, wildlife aren’t the only animals we encounter in the world. I believe each and every creature should be treated with kindness.

On Santorini, one especially popular route for the donkeys requires them to climb more than 1,300 feet up a staircase carrying cruise ship passengers from the island’s main port to the capital city of Fira at the top of the island’s ridgeline. There are other options to make this particular ascent: a 30-minute walk up the stairs, or a 2-minute cable car ride. But some tourists choose the more “authentic” option of riding a donkey.

Thankfully, the government of Santorini recently stepped in to regulate the conditions of donkeys used in the tourism industry, following outrage from animal welfare groups. When enacted, the regulations will limit the weight of each load the donkeys can carry and make the number of hours they can work commensurate with their weight and size. Officials also agreed to improve shade and water availability for the animals.

Even when not carrying heavy loads, Santorini’s donkeys delight and amuse tourists as they’re led by their handlers up and down precipitous stone pathways. Photo: Katy Schaffer

Unlike some of my earlier encounters with animals during international travels, I could easily deem this experience with Santorini’s donkeys unethical. And my solution was pretty simple: I didn’t ride the donkeys, just like I didn’t ride elephants in Thailand. But I won’t pretend my solution is equitable for those Santorinians who own the donkeys and depend on them to provide an income to sustain their families. Some of these owners might even truly care for the animals in their charge. I therefore can’t advocate that no tourists ride donkeys—though I do think it’s important to consider the donkeys’ inherent right to lead a dignified life outside of humanity’s needs and expectations.

Coming home
When I left Europe, I felt I had forged a stronger, more profound connection to the animal world. I had witnessed the joyful abandon of soaring seabirds. I’d also successfully sidestepped an exploitative donkey encounter in Santorini, even if doing so raised complicated questions about the relationship between humans and other animals, especially those animals we depend on for our survival.

I know I don’t have to travel to far-flung destinations to commune with Nature or encounter wondrous, wild species. I don’t even have to visit special sanctuaries. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, for example, I have access to some of the best hiking trails and most diverse waters in the U.S. If I’m lucky, I might encounter a northern spotted owl, a Southern Resident orca, or a mountain goat on one of my many outdoor adventures.

Northern spotted owl. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Tips for fellow travellers
Are you thinking about building some ethical wildlife encounters into you next trip? Here are some tips I’ve learned through my own global travels.

  1. Visit the host organisation’s website to look for information that will help guide you in your decision-making. For example, does the organisation describe efforts to conserve the animals in its charge? Do they tell you if and how the price of admission helps to fund animal care? (See the About page of Elephant Nature Park’s website, which convinced me to pay them a visit.) Are visitors allowed to touch animals while the animals are kept still? If so, the animals may well be sedated. I’d reconsider visiting such a place if that’s the case.
  2. Read independent reviews. Look up the encounter on TripAdvisor, Viator, and other travel review sites. Search for “[name of experience] reviews” on Google to see if any reviews by travel bloggers pop up in the results. Such reviews may help you decide whether this particular encounter is right for you—and for the animals you want to meet.
  3. Ask other travellers visiting online travel forums if they’ve experienced the wildlife encounter you’re considering. What are their thoughts about how the animals were treated? Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, and Rick Steves host robust travel forums with regular engagement. Facebook travel groups like Women Who Travel, Nomadic Network, Outside Travel, and Bring Me Community are also great places to pose questions to thousands of other travellers who might have already experienced the encounter you’re researching.
  4. Talk out your plans with your friends, family, and travel buddies. Based on all of the information you’ve gathered so far, would any of them participate in this experience? Do they have unique insights into the ethical treatment of the animals you hope to see?
  5. Still not convinced one way or the other? Call or email the organisation directly and tell them about your concerns. But be forewarned: They may try to sugarcoat the wildlife encounters they offer because they want you to buy a ticket, so make sure you listen carefully to their responses and try to read between the lines. Can they provide specific information about how they care for the animals in their charge? If not, you might want to look elsewhere for ethical wildlife encounters.
  6. If you decide to add the encounter to your itinerary and it ends up striking you as not-so-ethical, reflect on why you feel that way. Share your experience with other travellers who might be considering this same encounter.

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.