How to avoid animal cruelty when you’re traveling

With the COVID-19 pandemic in retreat, many countries have opened up their borders and relaxed travel restrictions. The once tourism industry is now expected to boom back as people rush out to quench their wanderlust after having been held up since 2020.

If you’re planning a vacation, you must be researching the most exciting & Insta-worthy spots to visit with your spouse, friends, or family. As exciting as the prospects can be, it would be wrong to have fun at the expense of our poor animal friends. After all, would you really consider it a good memory if an innocent being was abused because of you?

From beating horses & elephants for jungle rides in Kerala to sedating tigers for photographs in Thailand, animal cruelty is rampant in the travel sector.

The majority isn’t even aware they’re participating in it. They fall for those cute adorable chimpanzee eyes and rave over the flipping fins of dolphins in Sea Parks or aquariums, but they don’t know about the treatment these animals receive once the park’s doors are closed. The victims are often starved, abused, and cramped up in tiny cages overnight.

I’m guilty of contributing to all these forms of abuse. As a curious but naive kid, I’ve posed tiger cubs and snakes. I’ve also visited dog and husky cafes, not knowing how cruelly the pups are treated when the guests aren’t there to watch. I know better now. We can’t change our past, but we can educate ourselves, make conscious changes, and spread the word.

Very few of us would intentionally want to be involved in someone’s torture. So on that hopeful note, I’ve compiled an ethical checklist for choosing any accommodation or activity. It’ll reduce the chances of you contributing to any form of animal abuse.

No living being, human or non-human, should be harmed for our enjoyment. After all, they’re ethically equal to us. So the only good holiday is an environmentally responsible and sustainable one.

Quick Checklist

I have some bad news. Almost all animal-based tourism is abusive. If the animal is there primarily to entertain tourists, it’s not a good sign. So here are some activities you should try not to participate in unless you’re okay with punishing other beings for your enjoyment.

  • Buying souvenirs with animal products (e.g. ivory, leather)
  • Dog or cat cafes
  • Elephant or horse rides
  • Feeding giraffes, chimps, or fishes
  • Posing & taking photos with any reptile, bird, or mammals
  • Eating exotic animal meat (e.g. snakes, insects, deer)
  • Circuses or performing acts (e.g. monkeys on the street)

Let’s discuss some of them in detail.

1. Avoid touching or posing with animals

This is the most popular activity of the lot because getting a snap with a cute orangutan or ferocious tigers is sure to fetch you many likes.

But the truth is no animal, exotic or domestic, is interested in taking pictures with you – your cat will agree. In their natural habitats, they would just go about their own lives, so if they’re posing with you, it’s a clear sign they’ve been trained for that purpose. “Training” is just a euphemism for long working hours, painful beating, and starvation.

But it doesn’t end there. If the animal is predatory, like a tiger or lion cub, they’re heavily sedated (drugged) and declawed/de-toothed as well.

Other common victims of this modus operandi are snakes, small reptiles, baby elephants, owls, eagles, chimpanzees, orangutans, and dolphins.

It’s not just photography you should steer clear from. Feeding the animals, sitting together for meals (e.g. elephants joining you at the dinner table), and playing games with them, all have some abuse going on behind the scenes. The staff will often starve the poor beings so they become hungry enough to eat whatever tourists offer during the day.

This rule also applies to dog cafes, fish foot spas, or any other establishment that has animals as its “main attraction.” We might think that the dogs are happy to play with us, but they often have to deal with neglect, harsh training, and propping up by the staff whose only goal is to make them look good in front of visitors. Some cafes even forcefully tie diapers to the pups, which causes skin rash and urinary tract infections.

Last but not the least, I hope I don’t have to point out that hunting or any other form of “chase and capture” activities are a big no-no. No amount of marketing mumbo-jumbo can justify killing a being. It doesn’t help to control or fund the revival of their population. Please don’t fall for such claims.

What to do instead: Virtually adopt an animal. Nowadays many shelters or real sanctuaries give tourists the option of sponsoring an animal’s care & meals for a week, month, year, or lifetime. I’ve listed some reliable options below.

  • Born Free UK
  • David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
  • Elephant Conservation Center, Laos
  • World Wildlife Federation (WWF)

This is just as good as clicking a selfie with the animal. They’ll actually send you the animal’s videos, which you can post on your socials, and proudly tell your friends about the difference you’re making, urging them to join in whenever they can.

People will love you even more for the effort, and the animal will consider you their true hero!

2. Don’t visit animals in captivity

Zoos have caught the whiff of the growing public resentment towards their industry. So they invest heavily in PR campaigns to create the fake brand image of a sanctuary or “responsible protection & conservation center for rescued animals.”

That’s a steaming pile of BULLSHIT.

If there’s any kind of obstruction or protective fence/cage, it’s a prison, period. There’s no such thing as a happy animal inside an enclosure. This applies not just to mammals but marine life as well. No dolphin, octopus, whale, shark, or any other kind of fish would want to stay in an aquarium if given the choice.

Even the animals made to participate in circuses or entertainment shows & stages are forcibly captured from the wild – often snatched from their mothers at birth – or bred in captivity for the sole purpose of serving the audience.

The businesses use several sly tactics to sugarcoat the ugly truth. They’ll put up posters of their ethical commitment to wildlife organizations, show you documentaries or footage of happy animals, etc.

But think about it – if the organization really cared for rescued animals, the staff would’ve set up an immediate rehabilitation program to release them back into the wild after the wounds have healed.

What to do instead: Go for an open sanctuary safari ride (early morning or late night) or an open ocean scuba dive. Instead of the animals being caged for your entertainment, you’ll be entering their natural habitats briefly and non-intrusively in a truck/car or a swimsuit.

As a rule of thumb, always visit animals in the open wild. On that note, here are some beautiful natural animal landscapes you can add to the list.

  • The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (giant tortoises, penguins, and seals)
  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
  • Sri Lanka (for baby tortoise migration)
  • Borneo Island (for orangutans)
  • Kangaroo Island, South Australia
  • Kaikoura, New Zealand (sperm whales & orcas)
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia (deep-sea diving)

2.1: How to tell if it’s a real sanctuary

Here are some quick ways to decide if you’re visiting a real conservation park or just another zoo/roadside animal center that’s posing as one to avoid legal action.

2.1.1: Are the animals given ample space & facilities to stay engaged?

If it’s a small enclosure, you’ll notice the animal pacing around back & forth, which is a sign of stress & claustrophobia. In a real sanctuary, most animals roam freely, and those who are ailing from injuries or diseases, rest in large enclosures. These are often fitted with pool baths (for bears/tigers), playgrounds (for monkeys), and enough tools or activities for daily simulation

2.1.2: Are the animals allowed to form herds and communities?

Any real sanctuary will consider the animals’ social needs as the top priority. So they’ll allow a group of animals to interact, stay together, and bond.

Many senior animals will often play a vital role in helping new young rescues settle down and learn the ropes to be fit for being rehabilitated in the wild.

Case in point, if you see the animals being cooped up individually, it’s a big red flag.

2.1.3: Are they accredited?

The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) is a watchdog that only admits organizations that are serious about helping animals. There are less than 160 accredited sanctuaries around the globe (four in Asia), so that shows how serious these guys are with their quality checks and standards.

Visit their website to see if the facility you’re visiting happens to be on their list.

If not, at least ask the team for any certifications & documentation by their local country’s government that demonstrates their commitment to animal protection.

2.1.4: Are they breeding animals?

No reputed sanctuary will breed animals. According to PETA, sanctuaries “never breed or sell animals, and they allow rescued exotic animals to live out the rest of their lives in peaceful, spacious, natural habitats with members of their own species.”

2.1.5: What does your gut feeling say?

Ask yourself these common-sense questions, and if you can’t get clear answers, err on the side of caution. It’s not worth the risk.

  • Is this the animal’s natural habitat & behavior?
  • Has the animal been altered to make it less dangerous? (e.g. debeaked birds, defanged snakes)
  • Does the animal have constant access to food, fresh air (ventilation), and water?
  • Is there an experienced medical professional/vet on call to take care of the animal’s needs?
  • Does the animal have other friends from its herd to socialize and stay busy?
  • Does the animal look really relaxed and peaceful in its surroundings?

3. Don’t stay at places with animal furniture

Most travel booking sites will give you a complete virtual tour of the property. You can also consult Google images or social media for crowdsourced data.

If you spot animal heads, bones, tusks, antlers, fur, hides, or any other sort of animal-sourced decoration on their property, it’s best to drop your bags somewhere else.

Coming to the dining aspect, avoid places that are famous for serving exotic animal dishes like crocodile, snake, or bear meat. These resorts are often involved in other forms of cruelty as well.

Consider going on an animal-free diet when you’re traveling, if you’re not already plant-based. A plant-based diet has been scientifically proven to provide more energy and nutrition, so if you choose the right foods, you’ll be plenty full and energised for the day.

Most places now offer vegan menu options, but in case it’s not available on their grounds, use Happycow’s exhaustive global database to search for vegan-friendly restaurants and hotels near you.

In fact, HappyCow has now expanded its knowledge base to become an “Airbnb-like” directory for vegan stays, B&Bs, homes, and resorts, so you can kick off your entire travel planning on their website itself.

In close relation, you can also check out Vegan First’s list of vegan food-friendly airlines so that you don’t have to compromise on your diet when flying within India or abroad. Below I’ve summed up some great takeaways from their list.

  • Indigo Airlines offers a Vegan-friendly Burrito Bowl
  • Air India offers vegan & raw-veg meals on their international flights
  • Air France, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, and US Airlines all have dairy-free veg options

On a related note, here are some meal shortcodes you should know so that you can pick the right one when you’re checking in online or telling the air hostess your preference. I’ve sourced it from The Points Guy, who has written an extensive guide on the topic.

  • VGML: Vegetarian Vegan Meal. This meal will be completely free from all animal products including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. However, this will typically come with the same bread like everyone else, which is often not vegan, as well as butter and a standard cow’s milk for your tea or coffee.
  • VJML: Vegetarian Jain Meal. A very safe option for vegans as this meal will be in accordance with the Jainism religious principles. This means it will only contain fruit and vegetables that grow above the ground, and no animal products.
  • RVML: Raw Vegetable Meal. If you’re looking for a vegan dish, you can’t go wrong with this option, as it will exclusively be a selection of raw fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, that often means the blandest, too.
  • FPML: Fruit Platter. For any fruitarians out there, this is the one for you.

At this point, I should note it’s important to be a bit flexible when you’re traveling. While I myself am a vegan when traveling, I do allow myself to make exceptions when there’s nothing else available in the area.

For medical reasons, I can’t allow my sugar levels to drop too much for too long, so if I have to consume a dairy product even after searching for alternatives, I’ll do it without making a fuss.

When traveling with friends, I’ll let them know my requirements in advance, and try to find a middle way so that no one is inconvenienced. For example, I’ll pack and carry my lunch from the breakfast buffet so my non-vegetarian friends can have a good time but I don’t have to compromise my ethics either!

4. Don’t let Culture justify cruelty

A few years ago, the practice of Jalikattu (bull taming in South India) caught headlines across the globe. People raised concerns about the treatment of the bulls, who have to go through unspeakable torture under the excuse of the festive tradition.

No culture or religion can ever justify cruelty. A real God would never accept his own creations being harmed just to please Him. A real heaven would never accept those who have hurt or killed a living being to get there. Hurting an animal to gain a Higher Power’s blessings doesn’t make any logical sense.

So don’t let anyone persuade you into attending an event that involves animal cruelty by saying that it’s just a part of the local tribe’s culture or heritage. This can include cockfights, animal sacrifice rituals, bull taming, rodeo racing, etc.

5. Report Cruelty when you see it

If you notice an animal in distress, contact the local authorities and make them aware of the situation. If they don’t respond, talk to local animal charities and see if they can do anything about it. I’ve compiled a global directory of trust-worthy NGOs so you won’t have to search any further.

Let the business owner know that you’ll not be returning unless they take proper corrective actions. Posting photos and videos on social media is an effective method to get the business owner’s attention because nobody wants to face a PR backlash online. In the end, they understand the language of profits and loss if nothing else, so put their business on the line.

Above all, don’t be afraid to speak up. Often, many people who wanted to do something about it may have kept quiet because they were afraid to be the first. But once you put up your review online, you’ll likely get a lot of support from other witnesses.

The animals don’t have a voice, so we must make use of ours.

Conclusion: Do what you can, have a fun time!

In this post, we covered some ideas to avoid participating in animal cruelty when you’re traveling out of town for the hoidays. Any vacation will turn out to be great when you have the right company, so animal-based activities are not an essential requirement to make it a success.

No “must-see” attraction or “must-do” bucket list item is worth a life, so weigh your choices carefully. All that said, this is a vacation after all, so don’t stress out too much and forget to have some good ol’ fun.

The idea of veganism and animal liberation in general is to reduce the suffering to a minimum, not completely eliminate it, because that’s impossible unless our race leaves the planet for good.

So our presence will inevitably contribute to animal suffering. When we’re at homes, we can control it to a good extent, but even when we’re heading out to explore new territories, we can stay aligned with our principles by doing a bit of research beforehand.

With that, I hope I’ve inspired you to be an ethical and responsible traveller, especially for the sake of animals. Here’s wishing you a Happy Journey ahead!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *