This post is for my friend Julia who would like nothing more than a pet monkey.
While I claim to love sustainable travel, I am far from perfect or even good at living and traveling very sustainable. Some days I try, but even when I am staying at an eco resort, chances are you will see me loading my pizza with parma ham. Chances are I have also added a few thousand miles in the air to my carbon footprint in order to get to the resort in the first place. So really, I have much to learn. With that in mind, I usually tend to think of my own (bad) habits first before lecturing other people about theirs.
I like animals as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t consider myself a crazy animal lover. Yes, I had a Dalmatian and a cat growing up and loved them, but then again I also loved my Barbies. While I think puppies are cute, I don’t tend to cry over them (and neither over babies for that fact). I did cry when a giraffe transport in South Africa went horribly wrong as she smacked her head into a bridge. However, giraffes ain’t regular animals, but more a really cool alien-like species. When people say that you should judge a culture by how they treat their animals, I shrug my shoulders. Maybe, but what does it say about certain western cultures where dogs get dressed up and pampered like royalty and eat better food than most people in the world?
That said, the one thing I feel really strongly about is that animals should not be (ab)used for human entertainment. I went on many trips last year that centered around wildlife and I absolutely loved it. From my first underwater steps, seeing little Nemo and a whale shark to finding pygmy elephants and orangutans in Borneo as well as my usual cuddle sessions with some Moroccan kittens I really have a newfound appreciation for animals. *By the way, does it count as human entertainment when I grab a kitten that is not mine and cuddle with it??* I love seeing marine- and wildlife in their natural habitat, I do not like to see them exploited.
Ever since first coming to Thailand I have researched the topic of elephant riding, ultimately deciding against it and being very outspoken why it is a horrid practice. Whenever I encounter similar scenarios I try to do as much research as possible (check out this wonderful post on the notion) and when in doubt go with my gut feeling, usually staying clear of animal related activities. A few years ago on a trip to Zambia with Greenpop, we had the opportunity to go on a lion walk with Lion Alert, an activity I immensely enjoyed. However, in hindsight, I am not so sure about it. While I don’t think that people being there harms the lions and obviously brings money to the program and thus to lion conservation, now it feels a bit off to me. Unlike street kittens, lions are not meant to be cuddled.
Yesterday I came across an awesome/horrible post on Hand Luggage Only about snake charming. Having been to Marrakech many times I always make a big detour around the snakes and monkeys on the Jemaa el Fna. The monkeys are held on a chain leash and wear a diaper, looking miserable and nothing like their happy friends from the forest. Whether the snakes look miserable I couldn’t tell as their faces lack expression and I don’t dare to go very close. Snake charmers there are known to go into the crowd decorating you with a snake around your shoulder for picture purposes. Needless to say, one is supposed to pay for the pictures. How they get the snakes to ‘cooperate’? Read the article and there can be no doubt in your mind that such practice cannot be supported whether you love or loathe snakes.
I had a similar epiphany when I was on an Intrepid trip in Thailand where we visited the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre. I am not a big club goer and avoid party central places like Phuket, so I never knew that there is a huge industry around photo sessions with monkeys in various bars and clubs. What may seem innocent enough, after all, doesn’t the little monkey look all happy and excited, is basically monkey slavery as we learned at the centre. Monkey mothers are shot from the trees and will usually drop their little ones while falling. The babies are then captured and taken away to become tourist entertainment. Of course, baby gibbons being insanely cute mean good business for their new parents. Like all babies though they have a mind of their own and may or may not want to hug tourists and say Cheese for a photo op. When a little one gets hyper active a bit of sedation goes a long way and they get a pick-me-up when a baby is too sleepy to perform. But that’s basically like giving your child sweets once in a while, isn’t it? Who doesn’t do that? And who cares? Monkey business is big business.
Matters get worse once the gibbon reaches puberty, because just like real teenagers they get incredibly moody. That means not only more drugs, usually to calm them down, but also removal of their canines so they don’t bite the precious tourists instead of giving them a hug. Once they are all grown up, not as cute anymore, they get discarded and a new little one will take over their place.
At the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, those discarded gibbons find a new home where they learn necessary skills again to one day go back into the jungle. Swinging from tree to tree, socializing, and finding their own food are tasks they need to learn from scratch. Some gibbons will eventually return into the wild, but some stay, being so traumatised that a return to life as they knew it as a baby is never possible.
Do you have tears in your eyes yet? I do… As I said in a previous post, I really believe there are very few things that make you a bad traveler. However, knowingly supporting such a practise just so you can impress your Facebook ‘friends’ with a picture of you and a monkey does make you one.
I know, sometimes things are not as clear-cut, sometimes one just doesn’t know any better. I often didn’t know any better either. However, I have vowed to rather be overly cautious and research before signing up for any animal related experience.
So how to do it? Certain animal activities are deeply ingrained in a countries culture and history. That doesn’t make it right. It may make it difficult though to get objective answers from locals on whether an animal is being mistreated. Same goes for tour groups who claim to be experts in an area. Remember that words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘eco’ sell and so do animal activities. Even Intrepid, a company I love and trust, only fully abolished elephant riding in 2014.
I find blogs that deal with veganism a good place to start as are independent companies like World Animal Protection if you are not sure. Still in doubt? Don’t do it! Rather go and watch David Attenborough and marvel at the wonders of this world while padding your kitten at home.
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