"She’ll spend most of her life on a chain in a stall"
May 18, 2019 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Wildlife tourism isn’t new, but social media is setting the industry ablaze, turning encounters with exotic animals into photo-driven bucket-list toppers. Activities once publicized mostly in guidebooks now are shared instantly with multitudes of people by selfie-taking backpackers, tour-bus travelers, and social media “influencers” through a tap on their phone screens. […] Photographer Kirsten Luce and I set out to look behind the curtain of the thriving wildlife tourism industry, to see how animals at various attractions—including some that emphasize their humane care of animals—are treated once the selfie-taking crowds have gone. (Natasha Daly, National Geographic)
posted by Johnny Wallflower (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Damn. That was wrenching and helped me feel better about avoiding elephant tourism is Thailand when everyone I knew urged me to go (“ if the elephants weren’t being taken care of, the places would be be shut down!” was the usual argument).
posted by holyrood at 4:00 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

I read this earlier today, as if I needed anything more to undermine my faith in humanity, and this part also stood out to me:
EcoValley’s guest book is filled with praise from Australians, Danes, Americans—tourists who often shun elephant camps such as Maetaman because the rides and shows make them uneasy. Here, they can see unchained elephants and leave feeling good about supporting what they believe is an ethical establishment. What many don’t know is that EcoValley’s seemingly carefree elephants are brought here for the day from nearby Maetaman—and that the two attractions are actually a single business.

Meena was brought here once, but she tried to run into the forest. Another young elephant, Mei, comes sometimes, but today she’s at Maetaman, playing the harmonica in the shows. When she’s not doing that, or spending the day at EcoValley, she’s chained near Meena in one of Maetaman’s elephant stalls.
It takes a lot to make me cry, but this article brought tears to my eyes.
posted by Little Dawn at 4:31 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

Fuck all of this. Ugh. At the same time that circuses are being forced to stop using animals, this industry is booming. There’s just no stopping it. It just pops up somewhere else.
posted by greermahoney at 5:49 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

tl;dr: humans ruin everything.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:06 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]

I can't bear to read the article. Are they all like that?
posted by praemunire at 6:19 PM on May 18

Yes, they are all like that. The article made me cry. Shit like this makes me wish my species would fade into extinction, forthwith.
posted by zdravo at 6:28 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

You know how I'm really obnoxious and dead goat about pictures of people with wild animals and pet wild animals? This is why.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:37 PM on May 18 [21 favorites]

No, they are not all like that! The video includes heartbreaking scenes but shows one elephant sanctuary in Thailand where the elephants (rescued from other attractions, and unable to live in the wild) live in a big forested area and can choose to come to a special fenced area and get fed food by tourists once per day. But no contact between elephants and tourists (petting or touching or riding) is allowed.
posted by holyrood at 6:42 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I wish there might have been more about how to recognize these types of places and how to avoid them. Clearly there’s a booming business that’s unlikely to go away too soon. What’s the difference between breaking in a horse or an elephant? What are the limits? I genuinely don’t know and would have liked to learn more.

It would have also been cool to highlight excellent successful examples like Rwanda’s booming tourism industry from the mountain gorillas. So much money is brought in to conservation from it as well as money into the country.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:49 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I got as far as the traveling dolphin shows, then I was overwhelmed with despair. People who love animals are funding these atrocities by patronizing animal shows. Yo, people -- if animals don't want to interact with you in their natural state, then something unnatural is forcing them to do it at these places. Don't support that. Close encounters with some wild animals are possible. In most cases, they want nothing to do with you, and you should respect that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:12 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

*goes and watches 12 Monkeys again*
posted by snwod at 5:03 AM on May 19

Once, while sitting outside a cabin in Montana, I watched a mountain lion stalk a doe and fawn.

It was about 50 yards away, and it was dusk, so the mountain lion was just a shadow slipping along the edge of the clearing, not easily identified (my father-in-law initially thought it was another deer). The doe and dawn bounded out of the clearing and the shadowy cat quietly pursued them into the dark of the forest.

I don’t have a picture of the moment and I don’t want one, either.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 6:30 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

"At the same time that circuses are being forced to stop using animals, this industry is booming. "

What kills me is, I have a friend who was (is) a prominent circus animal activist -- specifically to force circuses to stop using elephants. She adores elephants. She is extremely anti-zoo because it's still holding animals in confinement for human entertainment and she considers it cruel. And she went to one of these tourist-focused elephant encounter places in Thailand. And I was really giving the whole thing the side-eye when she went, not because I knew anything about animal tourism and how awful it is, but because the whole schtick of the place she went was that you get to interact with and "help care for" the elephants. And I do know something about zoos, and they don't let randos interact with the large mammals! They're DANGEROUS, and there's a shit-ton of protocols for how you interact with them to keep the animals safe, the keepers safe, and to prevent them developing bad habits/strange fears/etc. So a place that was like "pay us lots of money to come "care for" our elephants!" did not seem on the up-and-up.

And I felt like part of it -- and I expect this is part of what drives western tourism to these places -- was, like a "noble savage" attitude. (I feel like there's a more precise term but I can't pull it out of my brain.) Like she was like, "Animals in American zoos are vicitims of capitalist exploitation by a Western society that has a fucked up relationship with nature and only looks for ways to make money off suffering," but her attitude towards the Thai elephant sanctuary was "... but the Thai people understand their elephants and truly know them and want them to live free and protected and naturally in the forests." And it seemed to be very much about a romanticizing and exoticizing narrative of people in Asia and Africa (in particular) as primitive and "in touch with nature" that reminded me very much of James Fenimore Cooper's treatment of Native Americans in his novels. And like, Thailand is a rapidly-urbanizing country with a high literacy rate and low birth rate and rapidly-climbing life expectancy, but in her mind it seemed to be this pastoral and primitive rural paradise. I'm guessing, based on the advertisements for these animal tourism places, that a looooooooooot of what they're selling is pandering to that kind of attitude in Western tourists.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 AM on May 19 [13 favorites]

I don't know how anyone with two brain cells to rub together can patronize these businesses without realizing what this means for the animals, but clearly... I have a coworker who is an "animal lover" but to her every animal is "so cuuuute" and anything remotely bad happening to any animal is "so saaaad." I don't know how one would go about doing this kind of education, but we simultaneously need to give animals more credit than they are given while acknowledging that they are animals, and not props or fricking symbols for our spirit animals/patronuses/daemons/what have you.
posted by Rora at 9:16 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing, based on the advertisements for these animal tourism places, that a looooooooooot of what they're selling is pandering to that kind of attitude in Western tourists.

Me personally, I would just like to see some in an appropriate setting (I've never seen megafauna outside of the terrible zoo of my childhood) and, if at all possible as a side effect, help support the care of those who have been abused by humans. I don't need to interact with them beyond what is both safe and natural. And safaris seem so exploitative of the people involved.

I think many people in the West are so remote from wild nature that they genuinely don't understand how dangerous and alien it is. In all honesty, I myself have been learning a surprising amount from following the adventures of Crouton the rescued calf, and he's a freaking domesticated cow!
posted by praemunire at 10:43 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

This was slightly heartening...
There has been some recognition of social media’s role in the problem. In December 2017, after a National Geographic investigative report on harmful wildlife tourism in Amazonian Brazil and Peru, Instagram introduced a feature: Users who click or search one of dozens of hashtags, such as #slothselfie and #tigercubselfie, now get a pop-up warning that the content they’re viewing may be harmful to animal
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:23 PM on May 19

I would say, look really, really skeptically at and probably don't go or give money to any place that offers you the opportunity to get up close and personal with, touch, or take selfies with animals that should be wild, unless it is accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:15 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

It's really nice to see National Geographic doing some of what it's supposed to be doing -- investigating the world and educating people about it.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:10 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

You know that Rupert Murdoch largely owns NatGeo, right? I let my subscription die after he took it over and they started what seemed to be All Jesus All the Time. What you think it's supposed to be doing probably doesn't resemble what Murdoch thinks it should be doing.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:14 PM on May 20

Outside of Chang Mai I visited a sanctuary for elephants rescued from the tourist trade, logging operations or stepped on a mine leftover from war. It was a bit of small joy in an otherwise terrible industry.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 6:49 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

What’s the difference between breaking in a horse or an elephant? What are the limits? I genuinely don’t know and would have liked to learn more.
posted by raccoon409

Well, to start with, horses are truly domesticated animals. Domestication does a lot of the work for you, you're not starting at zero when you gentle a horse or train it for riding (can you tell I hate the term "breaking"). Elephants, though they have been used for a long time by humans, aren't domesticated, they are still wild.

I haven't worked with elephants at all but I have worked with several horses and those who have been treated well tend to want to please you. Elephants, I imagine, just want to get free and do elephant things.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:01 PM on May 21

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