Being vegan is about more than just what you choose to eat. It’s a lifestyle choice that is reflected in the decisions you make on a daily basis. It’s what you wear. It’s what you use. It’s what you participate in.
A recent trip to India got me thinking about the way animals are used in tourism, and how we seem to be able to exploit animals in nearly every aspect of life. From dolphin shows in aquariums to elephant rides in Asia, animals are used to lure tourists into spending money for an experience and a Facebook photo. We don’t seem happy with the opportunity to see animals in their natural environment just being animals. We want them to perform tricks, cart us about, pose with us. Animals are forced to behave in unnatural ways all for the sake of our entertainment.
We were lucky enough to see one wild elephant while in India but we also saw numerous others on the sides of the roads with chains around their legs waiting to take their next round of tourists on a ride. And it’s obviously the norm because we were met with confused gazes and protests when we declined offers of taking a ride for ourselves. It’s the expected thing to do.
I think many of us are fascinated by animals and enjoy being around them. We’re particularly interested in animals that are seen as exotic and perhaps not native to our own countries. The thing is, it’s perfectly possible to experience seeing these animals in a respectful way, without the cruelty that often comes with so many tourist activities. You can head out on a boat to see dolphins and whales in the wild. You can go on ethical safaris. You can volunteer your time, and work with rescued animals. There are so many ways we can experience being around animals without subjecting them to a life in chains, cages, and tanks.
We spent the last week of our holiday in India volunteering at Wildlife SOS in Agra. We were originally looking at visiting for the day but when we realised you can help out as a volunteer we booked ourselves in for the week. We had the most wonderful experience with the rescued elephants and sloth bears, and felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to work so closely with such beautiful animals.
In a world where it sadly still seems normal to watch animals perform in the circus, see dolphins in an aquarium, and ride elephants for fun, it was incredibly refreshing to see the amazing work Wildlife SOS are doing to rescue animals from cruelty. Elephants are saved from lives of abuse where they’re treated cruelly and forced to live in conditions completely unsuitable for them. The elephants at Wildlife SOS are damaged. Some are blind. Nearly all of them have ripped ears from the use of bullhooks. Others have problems with their feet and legs from constantly standing on concrete and being given no rest. They’re damaged but now they’re safe and being properly cared for. These elephants will probably never be able to go back to the wild but they’re in a place where their injuries are cared for, they’re properly looked after, and loved. These beautiful, gentle creatures are not on this Earth for our entertainment or gain. They deserve to be loved, and they deserve our respect.
As well as rescuing elephants, Wildlife SOS have done major work to wipe out the dancing bear trade in India. For hundreds of years, sloth bears were poached from the wild before being forced to dance for tourists. This hideous industry involved driving a red hot poker through the bear’s snout (without anaesthesia), before inserting a rope through the tender hole. The rope would then be tugged to make the bear “dance”. In 1996 there were thought to be around 1200 dancing bears across the country. Wildlife SOS were able to rescue over 600 of these bears, and the industry is now pretty much a thing of the past.
Part of Wildlife SOS’s efforts to end the dancing bear trade involved working with the Kalandar people who typically used sloth bears to earn an income for their families. Bear “owners” were encouraged to hand in their bears in exchange for a payment that would allow them to use the money to set themselves up with another trade. They would also sign an agreement forbidding them from using any wild animal in the future. By addressing one of the root causes of the problem, Wildlife SOS were able to rescue animals while helping a needy community end a tradition of cruelty. The rescued sloth bears are injured and mentally scarred but, like the elephants, they’re now able to live in a safe and caring environment.
We love animals but we treat them so harshly. I believe that part of the issue is education, or a lack thereof. People believe the lies that are sold to them about animals being happy performing or living in captivity. They see majestic elephants appear willing to give people rides without realising the cruel training that goes on behind the scenes. Animals are not here to entertain us. It’s not natural, and it’s not right.
There are numerous issues that need to be addressed when it comes to animal cruelty but as tourists and consumers one of the best things we can do is stop the demand for this kind of “entertainment.” We need to stop the demand, and help others understand why seemingly harmless activities such as an elephant ride are actually incredibly cruel. Don’t buy tickets to the aquarium, don’t go to circuses that feature animals, don’t ride an elephant, don’t have your photo taken with a tiger. There are ways to see and appreciate animals in the wild, and if there aren’t then so be it. It’s not your right to see an animal when you want to.
Whether you’re in your home country or overseas, please make the decision to be an ethical traveller. There’s a lot of money in tourism and we can choose whether or not to fuel animal cruelty. It’s as simple as not buying a ticket.