Riding Elephants, Cuddling Tigers & Swimming with Dolphins…?

A percentage of you – perhaps the majority – who’ve clicked on this post might have been attracted by the headline referring to three cute activities. Maybe they’re ones you’ve already done. Maybe they’re what you’d like to do in the future, or even planning on it.

Another lot of you who clicked on this post (perhaps I’m being optimistic with how many clicks I’ll get…) might be coming on here to be angry with me for the headline advocating such activities.

Don’t worry, the latter. This is my way to get people here to be able to speak and inform about the reality of headlined activities. The former percentage – yes, I have got you here under completely false pretences. There will be a picture or two of these lovely animals, but the things I’ll say may not be what you want to hear.

Responsible tourism/travel: the phrase doesn’t exactly sing a fun tune, does it? (Believe it or not, that’s why I didn’t name this post “Responsible Tourism: why you should be paying attention) But here’s the kicker: we absolutely need to be aware of what we’re doing in the world when we travel.

So what have I got against riding elephants, cuddling tigers and swimming with dolphins? (Note: the latter is referring to Dolphinariums etc)

Riding elephants

It’s well known that elephants are poached for their tusks, but these gentle giants go through hell and back all for the tourism industry, and yet society generally turns a blind eye. You may think it’s ok to ride an elephant: that you love them, want to be close to them, and want the experience. That’s what I thought when I rode an elephant at Bali Zoo.

Bad, bad Kirsten

Bad, bad Kirsten

But here’s the thing: they’re wild animals. Wild. Wild means that they’re not domesticated, they’re not like a cat that you try to walk on its hind legs or a pug that you dress up (which, actually, I find creepy and completely warped, too). In order to get these elephants to allow humans on their backs (oh I’m sorry, did you think they’re willing for this to happen and accept it, no question..?), they have to be broken down – hit and starved – until they learn to let humans have their, what, 30 minutes to an hour of fun on their back.

Once I was more aware of this happening, I felt guilt ridden that I ever even contemplated riding an elephant. How selfish. How did I ever think that my 45 minutes of joy was genuinely worth the lifetime of pain that elephant has experienced? Well, in fact, I didn’t even think of the elephant. It was me, me, me, my photos I could take and boast about on Facebook, and me some more. It’s wrong, and pretty disgusting.

If you refuse to believe me, here’s a BBC article – showing how more elephants are being taken from the wild – from their mothers for the tourism industry. And I urge you to just search “elephants beaten for tourism” or similar and you’ll see for yourself.

Intrepid Travel are my absolute heroes in this story. They’re the first travel company to have banned elephant rides from their tours. Here’s their blog post explaining why.

The reason I started becoming more aware of this cruelty was actually because of the wonderful world of travel blogging I’m in. This is partly why I think blogging is so important – it conveys in such a relatable way, via ordinary people, what they’ve learnt and why. And they have a lot of power to reach a lot of people.

This is a post by Becki of Borders of Adventure (formerly Backpacker Becki) on visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand (this is basically the place I would love to volunteer at, as it genuinely cares for its elephants, who have been rescued from abusive lives in the tourism industry). Honestly, read it. She gives you all the facts you need to know, and her time at a wonderful establishment like Elephant Nature Park.

I can honestly say I’ll never ride an elephant again. I won’t put my desires before the health of an animal, and automatically think it’s ok to accept the domestic behaviour of a wild animal.

Cuddling Tigers

I’ve realised this post could sound increasingly angry, so bear with me!

Again, just like I had ridden an elephant, I also cuddled/stroked a tiger. Since, I’ve seen the errors of my ways – and now that I have, it seems so obvious to think the practice as wrong.

The chain makes this image so sad :(

The chain makes this image so sad :(

I’m going to jump straight to Tiger Kingdom in Thailand. And I’m straight away going to say that it’s the scum of the Earth (this wasn’t the place that I had contact with a tiger – I’ve luckily never been to Tiger Kingdom). You’ll probably know that the main criticism of the place is that it drugs its tigers. There’s a lot of debate around this, which I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of (because, essenitally, no one ‘officially’ knows) but from what I’ve read, my personal opinion is that they probably do. Using the ‘wild animal’ card again, these animals should pretty much strike out at you at any moment… but they (usually) don’t. Isn’t that a bit odd? And even though they’re still given “play time” and splash about, I think it’s incredibly naive to think that this proves they’re not drugged or subdued in some way.

Either way, that’s not even my main point. Many focus on the drug part, but I want to bring in the real issue: drugged or not, how is keeping hundreds of wild animals chained up and in tiny enclosures acceptable? With no room to run and chase and be free.

The tigers are fed chicken, which is ridiculous. They need the nutrients from red meat to best maintain their bodies. I mean, I like chicken, but for a tiger, that’s unsatisfying. The excuse is that Tiger Kingdom doesn’t have enough money to buy red meat… to which I say two things:

  1. Don’t keep tigers if you can’t give them proper care.
  2. What’s that big temple thing you seem to be building..? I believe a little something called money must be going into that, no? (Visitor donations are put into this, rather than to the care of the tigers)

I rest my case.

Cubs are taken from their mothers after 2 weeks to be overwhelmed by adoring tourists, keen to get their hands all over this little baby. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even like being around strangers when I was 5. Tigers usually leave their mum at the 2 year mark, so I find this pretty fucked up.

Also, funny thing… there are supposedly around 120 tigers at Tiger Temple. There are always 3-5 cubs, who stop being little and ultra-adorably small by about 4 months. Tiger Temple was founded in 1994. They say they don’t euthanise or interfere with breeding, meaning there should be a lot more tigers… so where are they?

A lot of this information was made aware to me by Turner of Around the World in 80 Jobs in this post about volunteering at Tiger Temple. He left early, so check out his posts on his thoughts and why. He also gives links to the claims that have been made, so definitely have a read.

For me, Tiger Temple is just the extreme. Tigers shouldn’t be used as circus acts for tourists – when I say this, people often ask me why zoos are any different. Some zoos are just as bad, is my answer, but some cater for the conservation of the animal, and educate. From what I read in Turner’s fair account, Tiger Temple doesn’t do this. When you’re just using these animals to play with humans and the rest of the time they’re chained up… just no. I honestly can’t see what’s right with that, and what makes people think “oh, yay, cute tigers to take pictures of!”

When you look at those pictures, the person is draped all over the animal looking ecstatic. How does that tiger look? How must that chain on him/her feel?

Swimming with dolphins

This includes a large number of things: dolphin shows where the “trainer” is swimming with dolphins as well as tourists paying to swim with dolphins in an enclosure. It also includes Orcas (or Killer Whales if you must call them that), because they’re actually dolphins, not whales (sorry if you already knew that!).

I would love to swim with dolphins, but only in the wild. Have you ever seen a dolphin swim in the waves beside a boat? That is a dolphin free. A dolphin in a tank can’t reach the speed or cover the miles it would in the wild.

Two documentaries opened my eyes to Orca and dolphin treatment: Blackfish (for Orcas), and The Cove (for dolphins).

Blackfish: Orcas were taken as calves from their family pods, and if you see the film, the recordings of this show the desperate squeals of the family and baby… it’s heartbreaking. They’re extremely intelligent creatures, and we don’t even know the half of their intelligence yet. (Maybe they’re clever enough to hide it from us, huh?)

When I was little, I saw my beautiful first cat have two litters of kittens, and I saw how she cared for them. I don’t think for a second that emotional instincts are just a human trait. A pet is nervous if it’s been treated badly, and often, as a result, doesn’t trust humans. Why isn’t an Orca the same if it’s been taken from it’s family from a young age – when it had miles upon miles of home – to suddenly be in a tub, forced to do tricks for food? Why is our capacity for emotion as humans still not strong enough to realise that this is wrong, that animals aren’t our playthings?

In captivity…

In captivitySource


In the wild…

In the wildSource

So if you’re this kidnapped, performing Orca… you probably would go a bit insane, wouldn’t you? And you’re a huge, wild animal – it’s not in your blood to listen to humans (and pffft, why the hell should you?). As sad as it is for the SeaWorld trainers who have been injured and killed by Orcas, I’m not surprised the animals have lashed out. In no way am I saying they deserved it: after watching Blackfish, I honestly think they loved what they did and did it for the love of Orcas – but didn’t step back enough to question SeaWorld. If you grow up seeing SeaWorld trainers, obviously you’re going to think that’s normal. But it’s time for that to stop, and let animals be.

The Cove shows the daily slaughter of dolphins in the cove of Taiji in Japan. They’re trapped in this cove to be killed for meat (that they masquerade as whale meat), and babies are taken away. The Cove is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever set my eyes on and I’m in awe and have such respect for the people who were part of it – they risked a lot to get the footage and raise awareness. I’m eagerly awaiting (and simultaneously dreading) their new film, 6, about more of the underground markets and the animals killed and exploited (including Whale Sharks, which are honestly so beautiful and harmless, I can’t even express it).

So what? It doesn’t affect me directly, why should I be a responsible traveller?

Because what gives us the right to traipse around doing what we like? The world is a lot bigger than us and we’re  just one fraction of what’s out there. We should use our “superior intelligence” to help and preserve everything around us. Money is our invention – animals have no part in it, so why are we forcing them to become our slaves and circus acts to get more in the bank?

We’re used to turning a blind eye because we know things are wrong and we think we can’t help (I include myself in this). But if enough people realise that riding elephants, cuddling tigers and so much more animal cruelty is wrong, more tour companies will stop offering them, and eventually break down the need. We created the trend, we can stop it too.

I don’t think that I’ll be able to persuade everyone who may read this, but what I hope is that people might be more aware while they travel that it’s not just about us. If you travel, a responsibility to look out for where you’re going and those within that place (human or animal) is automatically bestowed on you. I find it a bit of a disrespect to the notion of travel to ignore what you’re affecting.

Travel is fun and you should experience as much as you can – I’m not saying don’t touch a thing: but research what you’re contributing towards and perhaps unknowingly supporting. It will make the world of difference.

(Both images found on Pinterest)


  • Ayla says:

    Really well written Kirsten and I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I also did some of these things when I was little and had no idea about how the animals were actually effected or treated. As much as I love swimming with dolphins and as much as anyone really wants to pat a tiger cub or watch an elephant paint a picture, everyone really needs to think about what they’re doing beforehand.

    The Tiger Kingdom is Thailand is the one place that I never even considered visited. I have worked with big cats at a sanctuary in Africa and tigers are nothing like the docile, friendly animals you can cuddle, pat and take for walks there. Lions can learn to be tamed to some extent but tigers are so unpredictable and strong – we couldn’t even go near the 5 month old cubs as you’d get huge bruises from them just jumping up on your legs trying to play! I don’t understand why this place hasn’t been shut down already.

    I’ve heard so much about Blackfish but I can’t bring myself to watch it as these things just make me cry and dislike people even more!

    I have such a huge love for animals and I try to do everything I can to look after them and protect them but I feel like I’m constantly signing petitions and arguing with ignorant people about these topics! It’s nice to know that there are other people out there though who feel the same and do actually care about wildlife and our planet.

    Sorry, slight rant from me there haha! But great write up on an important subject :)

    • Exactly, sadly loving animals and expressing that doesn’t mean how close we can get to them – sometimes it’s respecting them and leaving them be!

      Yeah I’ve always heard that tigers are far more aggressively ‘wild’ than lions – I wonder if that’s because they’re mainly solitary animals too. Believe me, I so wish Tiger Kingdom was shut down – it’s a massive tourist trap that isn’t serious about tiger conservation or education.

      Ohh but you so should watch Blackfish! You will definitely cry but it’s worth it! (If you haven’t seen The Cove, that’s actually a lot worse!)

      I always love your animal posts on your blog because I know you do care and find out about the place beforehand.

      Haha I welcome the rant!! It’s good to know you feel the same way :)

  • I volunteered at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket Thailand a few years ago and learned there the destruction of gibbon families in the wild in order to have a “monkey to take a picture with” for the tourists. These babies are drugged and malnourished and develop diseases, twisted limbs and antisocial behaviour by being used for tourism. The project works hard to confiscate the gibbons from people and hopefully rehabilitate them into the wild if they are not too damaged and they willingly mate (which can take just as long as it does for us humans). If I hadn’t volunteered there, I probably never would have questioned how the monkey I most probably would have taken a picture with got to being there. Knowledge is power, education is key.

    • Aww that’s so sad that’s happening :( It’s things like these that we need to be more aware of and that there are places like this to volunteer at!

      Completely agree with you, knowledge is power. And education is absolutely the best way towards that. I wouldn’t have known a lot of the things I do now if I hadn’t just sat down to learn about them. Your time at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project sounds really inspiring.

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