I felt proud of myself that I had done my due diligence, researched the "right" sanctuary. I had confidently ruled out some other organizations that were not a sanctuary and felt good about my choice. This was a bucket list item for one of my guests, so I was happy that I was going to be able to provide this experience for them.
After an informative presentation with the guide, we went to the next area to wait for the arrival of these amazing animals. Our hearts were leaping with excitement and anticipation.
As they slowly walked down through the trees with a guide next to them, they took their "designated spots" in front of us, as they had so many times before. These animals now seemed 10 times larger in person. I happily snapped pictures and videos, with everyone squealing in delight at being able to touch the legs, trunk and then the grand finale.....a big suction cup kiss on the neck from the trunk of the elephant.
After a while, my excitement started to wane, and so did my enthusiasm and I felt a "sick" feeling in the pit of my stomach. The realization of these "trained" animals hit home. They graciously obliged and performed all that the guides asked of them, assisted occasionally with a tap of a stick or a stern voice. I wondered why they did not just crush us into oblivion? What was I thinking? We had arrived here under the pretense of a sanctuary. How were these animals ever going to be able to be released back into the wild, after this much training and human interaction?
The show continued, with "walking with the elephants", riding the elephants and then of course a further plea for donations. Later on the trip, my two brothers and I met at the lodge to discuss the current trip, past trips and future trips. We talked about our experience at this interaction, and my older and wiser brother said "Is this really what we want to be promoting?" My thoughts went back to the interactions of rolling around with lion cubs, flooding Facebook with our pictures, or our "Christmas picture" stroking a cheetah, and my immediate answer was a clear and firm ABSOLUTELY NOT!
Wild animals are steeped in myth and legend. They’re powerful, elusive, dangerous, and yet stunningly beautiful. So who wouldn’t want to seize the opportunity to see them up close, or even interact with them first hand?
Traditionally, this need has always been fulfilled by zoos, circuses and aquariums. But in recent years, there has been a proliferation of operations across the world that offer far more intimate interactions with dangerous wild animals. These include activities such as closeup “selfie” pictures with animals, cub petting, walking with big cats, riding of elephants, feeding of monkeys and birds, and a host of other similar interactions.
Many of these operations shroud themselves with a cloak of respectability by using emotive keywords such as “conservation”, “rehabilitation” and “education”, and in doing so garner themselves sympathetic donations and tourist dollars. But the reality is that wild animals and birds don’t naturally interact with humans, and in many cases are being forced to do so by using particularly brutal methods.
There are some of these organisations that truly do have the best interests of the animals at heart, and which subscribe to the strict principle of the “three Rs” – Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release. They can usually be identified by one simple rule – they don’t allow intimate interaction between humans and the animals in their care in any way or form.
There are a number of outright lies that are being constantly perpetuated by the more irresponsible side of the industry. For example, it is often claimed that young animals used for petting have been orphaned by poaching or hunting. This is patently untrue; in most cases, these animals have been bred in captivity, then ripped away from their mothers soon after birth. This induces the parent animal to come into season soon afterwards, creating an artificial situation almost akin to a production line, and providing a constant supply of cuddly baby animals to be fawned over by paying patrons.
Another common untruth is that the animals are released into the wild when they become older. This almost never happens, for many reasons. The animals are often genetically deficient because of inbreeding, they could carry diseases not usually present in the wild, and most of them would be unable to feed or care for themselves. The majority of them end up being sold into captive breeding programs, zoos, circuses or, most often, “canned” hunting operations.
In the case of elephants, the situation is even worse. Wild elephants will naturally flee from any perceived danger or, if cornered or threatened, will attempt to stomp their attacker into the equivalent of strawberry jam. The fact that captive elephants used in interactions such as touching, walking and riding don’t usually do this boils down to just one thing; pure, unadulterated fear. The exceptionally cruel methods used to “train” elephants, usually when they are very young, is enough to induce a lifelong submission to the unnatural activities which they are obliged to endure.
So think long and hard about this before you cuddle a lion cub or ride an elephant. By supporting activities such as those outlined above, you will be perpetuating the suffering and misery of the very animals that you profess to love and support. There are thousands of game and nature reserves throughout the world that provide an opportunity to see these magnificent creatures in a natural setting; an experience far more rewarding and satisfying than a quick pic with a drugged tiger or a baby cheetah.