6 Ways To Be An Animal-Friendly Tourist And Still Enjoy The Sights

by Jessica Elliott
Warner Bros. Pictures

By now, you've probably seen the tourist and selfie-shaming video that's been circulating around the world of a baby dolphin dying because people wanted to take pictures with it. People are the worst, right?

Well, yeah. But instead of just shaming the participants of this event and sharing the story with captions like "Humans are disgusting," and "Love for all creatures (crying emoji)," let's talk about what we can do about it.

To be clear, those things are true. We can be pretty disgusting, and we have to find better ways to show our love for all creatures. But, it isn't so simple. The "why" should be compelling enough on its own.

Animals are, of course, a huge part of a massively intertwined ecosystem. So, outside of the fact that they are living and adorable beings, there is the whole, "If we wipe out umbrella species, the whole thing comes undone and predators start looking for different prey, and that's not good for anyone" thing.

But, that's a chat for another day. Even for many who know and feel the "why," the "how" isn't so cut-and-dried.

Little Flipper got our attention because we humans love us some dolphins. If this had happened with an animal that has been portrayed as a cartoon villain all our lives, I doubt the reaction would be so strong. It is, however, a good start to the conversation.

So, now we all know we shouldn't pass around a creature that lives in the water because that's going to turn out unfavorably. That's an easy one, though. What about everything else?

I reached out to some of my favorite travel and animal lovers to ask them to share their tips for digging a little deeper and making sure we're doing the right thing.

1. Care enough to ask questions.

Do these negative experiences mean we shouldn't interact with the wild at all? Of course not. I have personally gone swimming with whales in Tonga, which is one of the few places where it is legal to do so. But, we do have to do the work to make sure we're making the right decisions.

Remember, tourism dollars are demand dollars. What we spend them on is important, and it drives supply. We can't get mad at the tiger "sanctuaries" for existing, without understanding that they only do because people go to them. So, the first step is to care enough to do the research.

Yes, it sucks because sometimes, it's hard to do more work. The answers aren't always clear.

We can't “treat them like a photo opportunity,” says photographer and traveler Natalia Anja. The idea of getting the great shot with an adorable animal is an Instagrammer's dream, but she urges you to ask yourself why that opportunity is there. It's there because they were likely tortured or beaten to be “trained.”

I was researching swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob because something about it just didn't settle with me. It isn't like the sanctuaries, where they're overtly mistreated.

But also, why was that opportunity there? I went to the Internet, but my answers didn't get any clearer. So, I asked a friend who works with marine life what she thought. She directed me to the article linked above, and talked about the fact that humans feed them, as well as other potential, further-reaching impacts.

Just because the animals aren't being mistreated in front of you, that doesn't mean it hasn't happened before. There is a greater impact to the species or ecosystem. Just because the word “sanctuary” is on the brochure, unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's true.

2. If it's not normal animal behavior, walk away.

I met Karyn of the Lost Lemurian in Thailand. I was elated when she told me how passionate she is about the elephants there because I couldn't wrap my head around how I felt about all the elephant "sanctuaries."

I knew the tiger ones were bad because tigers don't generally like to lie around and hang out with people, but how could I tell who the good guys and bad guys are when it comes to elephants? She put it pretty simply: You want to look for a place that lets elephants just be elephants.

"A lot of people are delighted by the sight of an elephant painting, or a dolphin performing tricks or even a monkey in a costume posing for a selfie with tourists. But the truth is, whether an animal has been raised in captivity or taken from the wild, it is a long, usually cruel process to get any animal to adopt a behavior that isn't natural for him or her.

If you see an animal doing anything unnatural, that is a huge red flag. Vote with your money, and only visit places that allow animals the same kind of behavior they would exhibit if they were in the wild."

You can watch more about elephant tourism here, or see more videos about animal welfare, environmentalism and other topics on the Lost Lemurian YouTube channel.

A beautiful alternative to the elephant businesses in Thailand is the amazing humpback whale experience in Tonga. I went with Deep Blue Diving, and I could not have had a more awe-filled day.

As the day started, I loved that Lahaina kicked it off by telling us we might not see whales. We were going into their space, and everything about the day would be about protecting the whales and their natural habits. Under no circumstances were we to touch a whale, or we wouldn't touch water again.

We were going into their habitat, and the most important thing was that the whales got to be whales. If they wanted to be whales who swam near us, great. If not, that's their whale-prerogative.

Lahaina felt the same majesty we did as these whales swam with us. An hour into the first mother and calf swimming with us, she smiled ear-to-ear, looked at the group and said, "She likes us."

That was it. Mama whale was 100 percent in charge of the experience, and she gave us a great one.

3. Recycle, and watch your consumerism.

This one isn't as obvious. Wait, what does recycling have to do with traveling and animals? Well, how we treat the planet and all of the decisions we make have real and reaching impacts.

I remember being haunted years ago after watching "Midway," a short film by Chris Jordan. He documented the impact that consumerism is having on as far-reaching ecologies, such as the Midway Atoll in the middle of the ocean.

(Warning: The video is pretty graphic, and it features the insides of decomposing animals.)

What does this have to do with travel, you may ask? Great question. The decisions we make that impact the environment and animals aren't just in the places we visit; it's also how we visit.

I know I took for granted the delicious, clean and safe tap water of Denver until I started traveling. Aside from not wanting to buy water everywhere I went, I hated the idea of buying (and subsequently discarding) so many plastic bottles.

Sure, airport security probably thinks I have a vibrator in my carry-on. But, I also have access to safe drinking water everywhere, without tethering myself to bottled water.

A stunning image of the aftermath of a full moon party in Thailand — taken by Nate Clark — went viral when it was shared by Ocean Defender. The photographer's words in the updated post are moving. They are long, but they are incredibly worth the read.

(Note: Ocean Defender stole his work and edited it without his permission, so I have linked you to his site and not the viral post. I urge you to see his Facebook page and website for more incredible shots.)

The most incredible fact about this is the number of people who have reacted, blaming the tourists or blaming the Thai. Rather than talking about solutions and next steps, so many have jumped to pointing fingers at others. They should internally be asking, "What can I do about this situation, and what can I do differently because of what I know now?"

4. If you see something, say something.

This tip isn't just for the subways of New York. If you see something going on that isn't right, say something about it. Or if it's appropriate, do something about it. One of my favorite animal lovers is Caitlin Amelia, who runs The Travelling Cheetah. She advises on the importance of doing something:

How many people do you think were standing on the Argentinian beach, watching in horror as the poor baby dolphin was passed around, but didn't do a thing? Plenty, I am sure. How many took action? Not one. As with any form of animal abuse, the approach depends on the situation, and possibly the cultural and social norms of the country you are in. In any situation where you think an animal is suffering, it is your responsibility to take action. Call the police or a local animal aid agency, report the situation to PETA, talk to and respectfully discuss the situation with the people holding the animal captive, use social media to create action or even intervene if you consider it safe to do so. Would that baby dolphin still be alive if someone had used his or her turn at taking a selfie to rush the poor thing back to the water so it could swim free? We'll never know.

This also goes for seeing stories shared on social media, and deciding to like and follow accounts that post pictures or stories that go against this responsibility. Lashing out against a picture of someone hanging out at the tiger sanctuary probably isn't the most helpful way to go about it.

But, starting an educated dialogue can be. If you're worried about emotions, be sure to not discuss them in public.

5. Take it upon yourself, but don't blame yourself.

Caitlin also talks about reacting when you're there, and using experiences for education that go beyond just the individual situation. Sometimes, it's something you see on the streets. Sometimes, you've gone to an animal experience that wasn't what you thought it would be.

We all, at some point in our traveling careers, have stumbled into an undesirable animal welfare situation. Take pictures, learn and discuss. Use your pictures, your words, your knowledge and your emotions to conjure up respect for these animals. Talk to the captor and the other tourists, and explain your objections and reservations. Education is the best means to end animal cruelty. So instead of simply witnessing the abuse (while dealing with personal fits of agony and hopelessness by blaming yourself for being there), use your mistakes to make amends. Tell everyone you meet on the road not to visit such a place. Use your experiences to bring justice to these animals.

6. Use resources.

Where do you go when you have questions? My first stop is usually Google. My second is one of the awesome folks in this article.

The Lost Lemurian and the Travelling Cheetah don't just share the stories we want and need to see. They have been great sounding boards for me when I've had questions I just couldn't sort out.

If you're having trouble in your search, find a travel blogger who focuses on the issue at hand and contact him or her. Perform searches on Facebook and TripAdvisor to see what other people have to say. (I find the reviews on TripAdvisor from people who attended something they maybe shouldn't have the most compelling.)

Karyn also recommends Right Tourism as a great resource for making ethical travel choices when it comes to animals. If you're looking for something more academic, you can see the wildlife tourism resources on Sustainable Tourism Online. Or maybe, we all need to just go re-watch "Captain Planet."

"Captain Planet" has been teaching us these lessons for years. Yet, they still really haven't sunk in.

I remember a Planeteer Alert that taught us to cut the plastic that holds six-packs together, in order to prevent ducks from getting stuck in them. (I also just watched a whole lot of "Captain Planet" to try to find that clip.)

This post was originally published on the blog, How Dare She.