Courtesy // Jordan Whitt

Creature Comfort: Choosing ethical wildlife attractions

By Vawn Himmelsbach

If you love animals, the chance to see them up close may seem like a dream vacation opportunity. But do some research first.

There’s no shortage of exotic animal encounters being offered to entice travelers. Around 100 million people visit wildlife attractions each year, according to World Animal Protection, a global non-profit animal advocate, but it also notes that 75 per cent of these venues have a negative impact on wild animals. Often, animals have been snatched out of their natural habitat to become “props” for tourists, which can cause long-term harm.

“Many wild animals that are used for the tourism industry have endured severe trauma, like being removed from the mother at an early age, facing inhumane training methods and cosmetic alterations (such as) removal of teeth or claws,” says Michèle Hamers, wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection Canada.

Animals in captivity can’t engage in natural behaviours, often leading to boredom, frustration and stress, warns Hamers. That translates into abnormal behaviours, from pacing and self-harm—such as plucking out their own hair or feathers—to unnatural aggressiveness. “Other impacts are less visible, like PTSD and depression,” she points out.

Unfortunately, there is no globally recognized body—nor any formal standards or certifications—that people can turn to for determining if a wildlife experience is ethical. However, they can watch out for these red flags suggested by World Animal Protection:

  • Avoid venues where you can touch, hug, feed, take a selfie or closely interact with a wild animal.
  • If a “sanctuary” sells, breeds or makes animals perform tricks, it’s not an ethical operation.
  • Be skeptical if operators “guarantee” an encounter with animals in the wild—it could mean animals are baited.

“Labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘rescue centre’ can be used by anyone, so people cannot rely on such descriptions,” notes Hamers. The same red flags apply to wildlife voluntourism.

World Animal Protection provides tips on its website to help people determine if animals’ basic needs are being met by the operator or venue.

Several groups are establishing volunteer or independent certifications to guide animal lovers looking for ethical ways to interact with wild animals. Whale Sense—sponsored by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—assists visitors to find whale-watching companies committed to responsible practices. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries—which has accredited more than 200 sanctuaries, rescue facilities and rehabilitation centres—enables visitors to its website to search by animal and region. And the World Wildlife Fund has teamed up with Natural Habitat Adventures on 90-plus conservation-based itineraries, searchable on its website.

While you might not get close enough for a selfie, the magic of an encounter with happy, healthy animals in their natural habitats is, after all, hard to beat.