Traveling is always very exciting! With more and more people visiting faraway destinations each year, the expectations of having a unique and exotic vacation are high. There are good deals and affordable flights going to Europe and Asia throughout the year, which makes it easier to visit those places on your bucket list. However, this also means that in order to make our holidays feel more authentic, we look for experiences that seem “one of a kind”, like riding elephants, hugging tiger cubs or hiring camels . Unfortunately, not many people know about the tremendous abuse those same choices inflict on animals.
One of the most enriching human experiences we can have is traveling. It helps us open our world to other views, customs, foods, religions and ways of living. Additionally, it is an economic engine for many countries whose revenues are highly dependent on it. The UN’s World Tourism Organization shared in a recent article that international tourist arrivals reached 1.4 billion two years ahead of forecasts, meaning that millions of people were traveling more than in the presumed estimates.
As I see it, there are two sides to the power of tourism: one is the amount of jobs it creates, which generally helps the local workforce and industries. On the other hand, it puts considerable pressure on sustainability and local resources i.e. water, waste management, wildlife and working animals to name a few.
With those concerns in mind, I have put together a short and simple list of ethical choices we can make at any destination we visit this summer. Don’t forget to share it with your friends and family!
Research - As obvious as this may sound, spending time researching the venues you can’t wait to visit can save you huge disappointments and time. Checking the 1 Star reviews of popular destinations on TripAdvisor is very helpful. This is where you will usually find the insights and complaints of most people who are concerned about animal welfare. Other options include reviewing the information available on reliable sites like World Animal Protection, PETA and OneGreenPlanet.
Download - There are several useful Apps to help you research ethical venues that feature wildlife or that allow you to report and share animal abuse should encounter it during your travels. If you’re in the United States, the Animal Help Now! App helps you get a list of wildlife emergency professionals in the area where you are who could provide assistance. Through the PETA: Saving Animals Made Easy App you can take action right from your phone to help animals around the world. The Vegan Lifestyle Mag App features travel articles and videos (as well as recipes and tips) to keep you up to date on humane lifestyle news.
Prepare - If you decide to stay at a place that offers wildlife entertainment, you can choose to opt out if you have concerns about the welfare of the animals. Often times “packages” include activities where animals are kept in chains or cages and are only allowed to come out when visitors arrive. By preparing beforehand, you can come up with ethical alternatives around the area where you’ll be.
When flying, anticipate that you may not find options for you unless requested ahead of time. Order vegan meals in advance and consider bringing vegan snacks from home: almonds, energy balls, nut milks, dark chocolate bars, seaweed or a trail mix. Here’s a list of airlines that offer vegan meals. Note that some of them will require you to order the meal 24 and 48 hours prior to your trip. Doing it on line is usually the best way to go. The acronym they use for vegan meals is VGML (free from animal products) and for vegetarian meals is VLML (Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo Meal).
Visit - There are many ethical places around the world that rescue, rehabilitate and care for wild animals. TripAdvisor features a lot of them, but they also partner with those venues that have been tainted with neglect and abuse of animals. The best way to go about it is to check the travel guides — and — read local blogs or join local facebook groups.
Throughout my travels I have visited and recommend the following:
United States (Maine) Kisma Preserve, a non-profit located near Mount Desert Island that is home to exotic animals like lynx, wolves, bears, a tortoise, and other friendly ones like lamas, goats and chickens. During our visit we met Torby, a baby wolf who is being raised by two Great Pyrenees puppies. Kisma Preserve’s operations run mostly on volunteers who donate their time and skills every day. It has been caring for animals for over 30 years. If you’re in the area, schedule an hour to do the private tour and spend time with rescued wild animals.
Malaysia (Borneo) Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center Located in the Sabah District in the island of Borneo , this UK-managed organization helps care for and rehabilitate orphaned baby orangutans, most of who are victims of the palm oil industry and illegal logging. They teach them skills that will eventually help them adapt and survive when they return to the wild. The staff explained to us that it takes up to 10 years for the orangutans to be able to return to the wild and you can imagine the cost of their operations! By visiting them, you’re also supporting their long-term projects.
Nepal (Chitwan) Tiger Tops Elephant Camp Although this is not technically a sanctuary, it is Nepal’s only elephant-friendly venue. Thanks to their humane and progressive approach, none of their elephants are chained. Their enclosures are big and they have enough space to walk at their leisure. We have visited them three times in the past years, including a recent trip in May 2019. Tiger Tops Elephant Camp partnered with Elephant Aid International, a US organization that provides training and innovative approaches on how to ethically and humanely care for and manage elephants living in captivity. No chains, no rides; pure bliss!
Thailand (Chiangmai) Undoubtedly, the Elephant Nature Park is a must if you’re in Northern Thailand. In fact, if you visit Thailand you should make it a point to go there. There’s a really wonderful week-long volunteer program that is sure to be something you’ll remember in the years and decades to come. The whole experience is very “hands-on”, which means you clean the stables where elephants sleep at night, help with their food preparation, go on a site visit to cut corn for the elephants, etc.
(Phuket) Visiting the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project was the ethical alternative to the exploitative wildlife shows and the elephant riding camps we found around the island. It is a small venue that relies on the donations of responsible tourists to operate their programs. Its main focus is the conservation and rehabilitation of the lucky gibbons that have been rescued or confiscated from the pet trade and tourist industry. It is located next to beautiful waterfalls and a trail that you can easily walk on, preferably with tennis shoes.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary opened its doors to the public in 2017. It was a couple of years after I visited Phuket, but I have been following them closely ever since I found out that it is the first and only legitimate sanctuary in all of Phuket. “Breaking Bad” actor Aaron Paul and rock band Cold Play are amongst the celebrities who have visited this safe retirement home for elephants. Here’s a very positive article CNN Travel wrote about Phuket Elephant Sanctuary.
Ireland (County Kerry) Located at the Dingle Peninsula, the Courtown Seal Rescue Centre gets calls from joggers, locals and anyone who finds seals at the beach shore in need of medical care. They rehabilitate them and help them to return to the sea. We loved the work they do there, like providing the seals with medical care (some of them have severed limbs or deep cuts), feeding them, keeping them at their nursing pools and finally releasing them. If you’re in the Dingle Peninsula area, be sure to visit the Courtown Seal Rescue Centre. You’ll feel very good about visiting them.
Jordan (Jerash) Al Mawa for Nature and Wildlife is a refuge for wild animals rescued from war zones, zoos and abusive private owners. Here you will see lions, bengal tigers and bears. We visited each area and saw how well fed and kept they were. The lions for example live in an open space surrounded by trees and artificial pools. One of the bears has a similar enclosure, where she naps under green bushy trees. I personally recommend visiting Al Mawa either on your own or with a small group of people as we must remember that these wild animals have already been through a lot of trauma and that now is their chance live in peace.
Guatemala (Peten) Arcas Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association is an NGO that has been protecting, rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals in the North of Guatemala for the past 30 years. Many of them were confiscated from the black market. Some of the species you can find there include jaguars, spider monkeys, macaws and other exotic birds. Similar to the orangutan rehabilitation efforts mentioned above, releasing a spider monkey back into the wild can take many years. Arcas has been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries as having met the highest standard in humane animal care. Part of the money we raised to support our favorite charities when we got married was donated to Arcas. We believe in their work, as we saw first hand how well their animals were looked after.
Choose - Venues notice when tourist choose ethical activities. This sends them a powerful message which, if they’re smart enough, they will use to their advantage and come up with more humane options for visitors. Across Asia for example, as awareness has increased, many elephant trekking camps have stopped offering rides. Instead, they take tourists on walks with the elephants. This is also known as the “saddle off” initiative, embraced by many tourists and tour companies. Remember that you have the power to make ethical choices and not partake in activities that harm animals. Making conscious choices can have a ripple effect.
Bring - I can’t tell you how many times I was glad I brought snacks and fruits for the working animals. When I knew I was going to see horses, mules and donkeys or elephants I made sure I had apples, carrots, watermelon, green leaves or bananas with me. The animals really appreciated it. Other times, I’ve carried dog treats or have taken leftovers that I know are safe for animals to eat. In one occasion, the bread I had for my dinner ended up going to a wild boar that was tied to a sewage in the streets of Kathmandu. I couldn’t drive off and not help. Sometimes this is the only treat many animals will have all day, so having something with you could help them a great deal.
Promote & Tag - If your experience was positive and you would like more people to know about the great places you visited, promote them by writing reviews on TripAdvisor or Google and on your personal social media accounts. Tag their names and locations so that people can start following them and supporting their work more easily. Presumably most of these places will be on Instagram or Facebook, so you can also share their stories in those platforms. These are two travel accounts you can start following: Moving Animals and Vegan.Travel.
In the past decade, my travel preferences have shifted. Whenever possible, I try to make it a part of my trip to visit legitimate sanctuaries and animal rescue organizations. If you have any recommendations of places you’d like to feature or promote, please leave a message below. I’d love to hear about your experience.
As always, I thank you for being here.