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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Death by Tourist

A common refrain among people who are opposed to zoos and aquariums is that the proper way to view animals is in the wild.  It certainly is true that ecotourism has been on the rise in recent years.  I've traveled across the US for wildlife-watching opportunities, whether it be the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska, whale-watching off the New England Coast, or seeing crocodiles and alligators side-by-side in the Everglades.  I've also gone abroad, to Africa and to Latin America.  I've loved these trips and the experiences they've provided, as well as the knowledge that my expenses are helping to support the conservation of these species.

Not everyone has as much fun.

Ecotourism can be a bit anti-climatic and, sometimes, uncomfortable.  For every David Attenborough moment you have, there's a lot of sitting and waiting, or driving and waiting, or other-things and waiting.  I had a hard time getting photos of the cranes in Nebraska because my fingers were too frozen to properly work the camera.  I've been drenched in the rain while birding ("chance of light showers" my butt...) and burned to a crisp because I was too busy watching wildebeest to remember to reapply sunscreen.  And, truth be told, I saw more species - more closely, and at greater ease, and displaying more behaviors - in one day at a mid-sized zoo than I did in a week in Belizean jungle.

Not everyone has that kind of patience.  When I went to Africa for the first time, I occasionally heard grumbles from people who had paid a lot of money and didn't feel like they were getting their money's worth, just because there weren't any elephants on view at that moment... even if we'd seen dozens the day before.

The end result has been the establishment of some unsavory practices in ecotourism around the globe.  People trying to force wildlife encounters, or engaging in unsafe practices (for humans and animals) to make them occur.  They may bait animals, creating dependence and increasing aggression, while causing poor health by feeding improper foods.  They may over-habituate animals, which can lead to aggressive begging and potentially endanger tourists.  They may harass animals by getting too close too often; cheetahs in East Africa are particularly known for abandoning their kills under the pressure of being surrounded by minivan-loads of encroaching tourists.  Sometimes, they may take wildlife captive, label themselves as "sanctuaries", and charge visitors for petting encounters.

A recent National Geographic article has highlighted recent examples of this exploitative practice in the Amazon, where toucans, sloths, anteaters, caiman, and other rainforest animals are kept as tourist playthings by local people.  While I've written before about the benefit of zoos in the developing world... this is not what I had in mind, and this is not the role that they should play.  This isn't about educating local peoples and connecting them to their wildlife heritage, all in a setting that provides for optimal animal care.  This is mistreatment of animals, forced into repeated contact with humans without a chance for privacy or escape.

I always encourage readers to do their research when visiting a zoo or aquarium.  Look for accreditation by AZA, EAZA, ARAZPA, or another accrediting body. Maybe look at pictures and skim the website for red flags.  Please do the same when patronizing animal attractions abroad, whether it be a sanctuary, a zoo, a tourist experience, or an animal encounter.  Ask yourself if it's good for the animals involved.

No selfie is worth the lives of animals.

In the Amazon, day trips that include wildlife interactions are increasingly popular, though they pose welfare and conservation concerns, advocates say.  Here, tourists crowd in on a pink river dolphin outside Manaus, Brazil.  The dolphin's scratches are a result of battling with other dolphins for baitfish.  Photograph by Kirsten Luce, National Geographic.

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