A sea change in public opinion and growing awareness of animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals is beginning to reshape the ways in which travel companies and travelers are interacting with the animal kingdom.
In the latest coup for the animal rights movement, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus earlier this month announced that it will remove elephants from its traveling circus performances, marking one of the oldest and most recognized travel and entertainment brands to date to take such a bold step -- and one that animal rights groups believe signifies a groundswell in action.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros., told the Associated Press this month when the company announced its decision about elephants. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
That mood shift is being felt across the entire travel industry.
Simon Pickup, sustainable tourism manager for the Association of British Travel Agents, said, "Over the last couple of years, there's been more attention than ever before to animal welfare in tourism, and this has raised awareness amongst a greater number of tourists." In 2013, the association published a sweeping Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism report.
The guidance is intended to serve as a best-practices manual for the suppliers of animal experiences and attractions within the international tourism industry, with the aim of encouraging animal protection and welfare. It was produced in partnership with the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity, and was developed through consultations with scientists, zoological associations, nongovernmental organizations and other groups.
With awareness, a new outlook
I quickly realized that in all my travels around the world I have engaged in many of the animal experiences that animal welfare custodians advise against. Read More
The report acknowledges that traditionally there has been a strong link between animal interactions and traveler satisfaction, which fueled a growing market for providing tourists with the opportunity to engage with animals while on vacation -- everything from photo opportunities with tamed wild animals to animals in entertainment acts, from riding elephants and donkeys to swimming with dolphins. But there are signs that the trend could be reversing.
Last year, the tour operator Intrepid Travel stopped offering elephant rides on its itineraries after sponsoring research conducted by World Animal Protection, an international animal welfare nonprofit, which concluded that few of the 118 wildlife tourism and animal rescue venues in Thailand that the organization evaluated had what World Animal Protection considered "commendable" animal welfare standards.
Animal attractions "are often marketed as having a strong conservation agenda," Intrepid wrote in a blog post on its website last year, titled "Why we no longer ride elephants."
The blog continued: "It does get you wondering as to how many orphaned lion cubs or elephants there really are that need 'rescuing,' about the value of captive breeding programs if there's no hope of reintroduction to the wild, and the appropriateness of allowing tourists at very close range to wild animals."
Elephants perform at a tourism facility in Thailand. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
The World Animal Protection findings prompted Intrepid to begin phasing out elephant rides. But Intrepid wanted to first find out whether removing the elephant rides would have a negative impact on bookings, before removing them completely.
"We found that it didn't actually impact the demand for any of our trips," said Intrepid's director and co-founder, Geoff Manchester. "While elephant riding is popular, it's not one of the main reasons why people choose our trips."
Travelers haven't been deterred from booking Intrepid trips, but Manchester did acknowledge that a percentage of travelers are disappointed when they find out there are no elephant rides included in the packaged tour -- at least until they receive some context.
According to Manchester, around 15% to 20% of travelers might be disappointed when they first hear that they will not be experiencing an elephant ride. But after they receive a proper explanation as to why Intrepid no longer offers the rides, he said that number drops to about 5%. And further, while Intrepid no longer offers the elephant rides, travelers are welcome to book them on their own free time.
That there are travelers and companies more conscientious and concerned about animal welfare is not a new phenomenon, but news such as the recent Ringling Bros. decision is putting the issue in the international spotlight.
"Ringling Bros. is a leader in the industry, so I hope that other circuses will follow their example," said Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife for Humane Society International.
Asked if she senses a growing wave of animal rights awareness among the general and traveling public that is increasingly putting pressure on companies such as Ringling to take action, Regnery said, "I do -- definitely in the U.S. but also in other countries. The public is speaking out."
The Blue Horizons show at SeaWorld San Diego.
In December, Mexico's congress passed a bill that would prohibit the use of animals in the circus. If signed into law, Mexico would become the 10th country with such a ban, joining Malta, Bolivia, Greece, Peru, Cyprus, Paraguay, Colombia, Slovenia and the Netherlands.
The shakeup in the circus world comes in the wake of a recent financial and management crisis at SeaWorld Entertainment, which has experienced declining attendance and revenue after a SeaWorld Orlando trainer was killed by an orca in 2010, inspiring the making of the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" about the issue of orcas in captivity. The documentary, in turn, has sparked protests at SeaWorld's San Diego park.
In response to the backlash, SeaWorld last year unveiled its Blue World Project, a plan to build larger environments at its three parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando for orcas, popularly known as killer whales, as well as a pledge to provide $10 million in matching funds for orca research and conservation projects.
Ringling said it will remove elephants from its acts altogether, with plans to relocate the 13 elephants currently traveling with the three Ringling Bros. circus units to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida by 2018. There they will join the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants, according to Feld Entertainment. The circus group will continue to feature other animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.
Feld Entertainment called the move an "unprecedented change" in its 145-year-old circus show that will enable the company to focus on its Asian elephant conservation programs, both in North America and in Sri Lanka. The company said it has also placed elephants at eight zoos, either on loan or through donations, and will continue to support the Smithsonian Institution's research lab working to find a cure for diseases that affect juvenile elephants.
"This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995," Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, said in a statement. "This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers."
A film clip from the documentary "Blackfish."
With high-profile cases like Ringling and SeaWorld, as well as what has been cited as a growing awareness and interest in animal rights issues, travelers are often asking more questions about the animal encounters being offered to them. That trend goes hand in hand with the growing desire for more authentic offerings. The increasing savvy of travelers applies as much to the animal world as it does to the local culture and heritage.
The challenge with animal welfare is that even animal rights groups don't always agree on what is acceptable engagement and what is not. Ultimately travelers often have to decide for themselves what they feel most comfortable with.
For travelers who want to be as vigilant as possible when it comes to animal welfare, animal rights constituents do offer some advice on what they believe are red flags when it comes to animal tourism experiences.
A whale-watching excursion in Costa Rica.
"I think the No. 1 thing to be on the lookout for is whether or not an animal is engaging in its natural behavior," said Elizabeth Hogan, U.S. oceans and wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection. "Wild animals belong in the wild, period. If they're in a situation where they're in a cage or box, you need to ask yourself why that is."
She added: "If it's an animal in the wild that would never let you approach it, that's probably something you shouldn't be doing, or to touch it in any way or to bottle-feed it. Picking up a sea turtle isn't something you would do in that animal's natural environment."
According to animal rights groups, captive environments are generally not the best animal-viewing environments, and physical interactions of any kind -- riding, touching, feeding or swimming alongside animals -- simply are not in line with their ethos, best articulated in their golden rule: If it's not something that the animals would do in their natural environment, then it's not something that adheres to the highest standards of animal welfare.
But the Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism report, for example, is less stringent in terms of what is acceptable and what is not.
The report does not altogether rule out animals in captivity or being ridden but rather offers advice for the best possible care for animals in those scenarios, whether it is zoo facilities with holding areas that are large enough to suit the animals' needs, that are hygienic and that are the appropriate temperature, or proper care and monitoring of animals that are made available for tourists to ride, including weight limits and adequate rest.
"Zoos and aquariums remain popular choices with many consumers, despite what's been happening over the last couple of years," Pickup said, alluding to animal rights consciousness among travelers. "It's essential, however, that zoos and aquariums operate with animal-welfare best practices in mind."
Pickup advises consumers to look to organizations such as the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (Ammpa) to perhaps offer insight into which facilities they would prefer to visit. Ammpa is an international association that represents marine life parks, aquariums, zoos, research facilities and professional organizations, offering membership only to those that adhere to exacting standards of care and conservation for marine mammals.
A rendering of Blue World Project at SeaWorld, which will offer larger environments for orcas at its three theme parks.
Even the staunchest animal rights supporters don't rule out animal encounters altogether. Animal rights activists condone rehabilitation facilities that care for sick or hurt animals, as long as those facilities are true to their mission -- something that can be difficult to discern.
"Unfortunately, you can't really know for sure," said the Humane Society's Regnery. She advised travelers to research animal facilities online and to look into what kind of conservation efforts they help fund in order to get a better sense of whether or not they are legitimate organizations.
In the end, Regnery said, "The best thing to do is look at the animals in the world." Observing animals in their natural environments, for example on safaris and on whale-watching expeditions, she said, is the least intrusive way of doing so.
But she offers the caveat that even those encounters can have drawbacks for the animals if not executed properly, such as when wildlife parks get overcrowded, when vehicles go off the marked roads or when whale-watching boats get too close to the whales, putting them in harm's way.
Another best-practices tip offered by Regnery and other animal rights custodians is to be wary of souvenirs that are made from animals, including turtle shells, ivory and coral.
"The people who are selling them usually tell you that the animal died naturally," Regnery said. "It's best to just avoid these products altogether."
Spotting a lion on a safari in Kenya. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
As a segment of travelers is increasingly concerned about animal welfare, travel companies are having to take a closer look at how they market animal encounters, and they must decide whether marketing more conscientious animal interactions actually makes better business sense.
"If tourists see animals suffering or in distress, this has damaging consequences," Pickup said. "Tourists who see poor welfare standards are less likely to want to visit a destination again."
The end goal
It isn't clear if the current animals rights momentum is just a passing fad or has more lasting potential. What also remains unclear is just how much travelers will be willing to sacrifice for greater animal freedoms.
A photo provided by World Animal Protection showing a tiger cub used for photos with tourists in Bangkok.
While certain travelers appear ready and willing to forgo animal encounters for the wellbeing of those species, there is still plenty of demand for animal interactions, often from emerging source markets, according to World Animal Protection's Hogan.
When asked if she envisions a time when people would be willing to skip animal encounters altogether, Hogan said, "I think that time is unfortunately, sadly, very far down the road."
Nevertheless, the recent changes have fueled hope for animal advocates, many of whom have said they never would have thought they'd see the day when Ringling Bros. would relinquish its elephant performers. They agree that their primary goals remain ongoing education and further legislation in countries around the world that allows for better policing of animal rights.
"I think there's still a long way to go," said Intrepid's Manchester. "We're a tiny part of the industry. ... While the demand is there, the supply will always be there."