Shortly after we got married, my husband and I moved to Nepal. It was a dream job for him and certainly an adventure for me. As soon as we got assigned, we got the Lonely Planet guide. In their list of things you should definitely do there, one was riding an elephant. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to miss something as exciting as that.
The article encouraged people to ride elephants in the Chitwan National Park, a protected area in the South of the country. The idea was to get a better view of the wildlife there. The so-called “jungle safaris” were and still are a very popular attraction. For USD15 (or less), you can “hire” an elephant that will take you inside the park on a trip that can last up to 1 hour.
Back then I had not heard about all the cruelty inherent in every single ride. Without knowing, I almost participated in one of the most gruesome forms of “modern” wildlife entertainment. It was thanks to a lecture I attended at a very opportune timing that I found out about what these majestic animals go through in order to be trained and forced to work for tourists. After hearing Carol Buckley, the founder of Elephant Aid International deliver a very well documented and powerful speech, I decided to join a local non-governmental to prevent this cruelty as much as possible, starting with my friends and community.
A few years later, I am still involved in this cause and I’ve found many others doing the same: creating awareness among tourists and visitors to put an end to an cruel, dangerous and irresponsible tourist attraction.
Now that I’m living in Jordan, I have found myself in a similar situation. One of the most anticipated joys of living here was visiting Petra. It was something I wanted to do for a long time and so I was extremely excited to go there, despite having heard of the abuse of working animals.
The time of the year when we went (November) was perfect because the weather was ideal for long walks and hikes. However, once we got there, the rampant abuse of donkeys, horses and mules tampered our experience. I knew there wasn’t much I could do whilst there, so I decided to talk to the animal handlers and inquire about the open wounds in the horses stomachs and the scars on the donkeys foreheads and snouts.
When I came home I knew I had to tell their story. I want to believe that if people find out about what happens to these poor animals beforehand, they will be less inclined to participate in activities that exploit them. Seeing animals suffer hurts me to the core. You can read about my detailed trip here.
Recently I realized that there will always be cruelty involved in animals used in tourism. Every time I travel, I see too many heartbreaking examples of unhealthy and unhappy sentient beings abused for our amusement.
Doing something helps us become a part of the solution and at the same time, it makes us feel like the situation is not hopeless. So here are some simple ways in which we can be all be activists for the animals wherever we are in the world:
1. Reach out to reputable animal welfare organizations - Whether you’re moving to a new place or you’ve been there for a while, it is smart to spend some time doing research on what groups and associations that protect and advocate for animals are out there. For example, in Nepal you can find Association Moey that retired Nepal’s first working elephant, Elephant Watch Nepal, which raises awareness on the plight of captive elephants used in jungle safaris. There is also the Bhaktapur Animal Welfare Society that rescues and rehabilitates street dogs. In Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park is giving former abused elephants a second chance. In Malaysia, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. These are all places I have personally visited or been in contact with and they all rely on private funding, so consider visiting their venues and making a donation. In Jordan, there is a renowned organization called Al Ma’wa that is helping former zoos and circus wild animals recover from trauma and thrive. The Humane Animal Welfare Center has over 300 rescued animals, including abandoned exotic birds, dogs, cats, bunnies, etc. I was impressed when I saw first hand how they provided medical assistance to an injured donkey.
2. Collaborate with other individual activists - Reaching out to local groups on social media and connecting with people that share similar interests (volunteers, animal welfare activists) and talking to friends of friends is very effective. Building your own network of people who support the animal cause is very important. It mobilizes the means to help animals in case of an emergency, it connects you to people who care and it helps spread the word about what you’re doing.
3. Share their story – If you have heard about the “ripple effect” then you know that by telling even one or two people they may tell one or two more and hence help spread the word. In today’s social media world, every person who “likes and shares” is doing already a lot. So add your voice and your images and talk about what you saw. Sharing your testimonial and (photos) on blogs, Facebook groups or on social media, you will have an impact. After my visit to Petra and a later one to Wadi Rum, people responded to my posts (many hadn’t realized the abuse before). Remember to narrate what the animals went through, who and where they were with, the date, venue and time of the day of what you saw. Your involvement is valuable beyond words. Most of the people who visit tourist sites are focused on the excitement and the marvel and not looking (or seeing) at what is really happening.
--> For those of you who are or have been actively involved in animal welfare, you might have been personally affected by gloomy situations. These are two ways in which you can continue to help those beautiful souls in need in a balanced and sustainable way.
4. Overcome Compassion Fatigue - In an interview a couple of years back, Nathan Runkle, founder of Mercy for Animals (MfA) talked about how important it is to be aware of your emotional wellbeing when you’re trying to help animals. Some situations feel insurmountable and hopeless and in many cases, it will take decades before they get better. And although it is true that as activists we must keep trying our best we also need to step back when necessary. He mentioned that it is common for people involved in animal welfare to experience anxiety, sadness and powerlessness. So, taking some distance (even physically) for some time is beneficial to your mental health.
5. Practice Self-Care - Healing and nurturing activities like meditation, good
quality sleep, seeing friends and doing fun things (not related to the animal causes) can actually help us be in our best mental and emotional state to continue to help animals in the long run. Talking to people who are going through the same or who know you and understand you is also helpful and cathartic. It is not only ok, but necessary to look after ourselves when we’re being affected by situations we can’t change overnight. This is also true for those moments when we’re going through an adjustment period or personal difficulties.
Have you experienced the same throughout your travels? What suggestions would you give us to help animals wherever we go? Eager to hear from you!
Thank you for being here.