As a traveler, I can be a huge buzzkill.
“Don’t ride the elephants”
“Don’t visit the tiger camps”
“Don’t hold that sloth”
“Don’t feed the orangutans!”
The last line I uttered at the Singapore Zoo, where I scuttled over to a woman throwing fruit she brought from home into the orangutan enclosure. She stopped throwing food, but shrugged at me, “It’s only a banana.” I exasperatedly pointed at the sign in front of her that implored visitors to not throw the primates food, or else they would get sick. It featured a crossed-out cartoon banana. Later, I did the same thing with a man throwing hot dogs in. “It’s only teasing,” he shyly said, but stopped. The orangutans, who had been waving their arms to get the forbidden treats, now glumly stared at us. I am not a popular person.
When it comes to encountering wildlife, captive or not, while traveling, ethical dilemmas know no bounds. We travel to have unique experiences and encounter things we would never see at home. For me, being around new, exotic creatures is always the highlight of my trips. But being an animal lover has also meant that I think a lot about the animals I am interacting with and what that encounter is like from their end. This means that if I know there is a place that offers a unique animal experience, I do a lot of research about them beforehand.
What are the conditions the animals are kept in?
Is this attraction depleting wild animals out of their natural habitat?
Is this attraction for the benefit of tourists or the animals? I.e., is it a mill that runs normally wild animals ragged with constant human interaction, or is it a sanctuary that is rehabilitating animals and responsibly using them as ambassadors for their species?
Usually, that research is seriously depressing. Usually, that research tells me that I cannot hug that animal I so deeply wish I could hug. It sucks.
So why should we care? Why not just hug all the animals and take all the jealousy-inducing pictures of us with amazing creatures to post on Facebook? Why not buy exotic pets that friends will marvel at? Why not feed hot dogs to orangutans who clearly want hot dogs?
Part of it for me is that I simply don’t want to be hugging an animal that can’t wait to get away from me. I don’t want to take a picture with a creature that’s terrified. I don’t want to make an animal sick because I think it’s fun to give it whatever food I have on hand. I don’t want to lounge on drugged out tigers that live a shadow of the life they could have, or ride on elephants that are in constant, terrible pain because hundreds of tourists are living out fantasies on top of them every day. That’s not loving animals.
The other, more important part of it is not about what I want at all. As a traveler, I have power, especially in developing countries whose economies rely on tourist dollars. This power is what I choose to spend my money on influences what that country and its people will care about and fund. Being a responsible traveler means researching what to put your money towards and what seemingly-benign activity will have a negative impact on the place you are visiting. If you visit places that abuse or exploit animals, you are guaranteeing that those animals will continue to be abused and exploited for a long time to come.
But you already know this. Many people already know this. The hard part is knowing when an animal is being negatively impacted by its exposure to the tourist trade. Many places don’t outwardly exhibit exotic animals that show signs of distress that we can easily recognize and without the proper knowledge beforehand, you can’t see the impact on the habitat the animal was taken from or what the animal’s life should look like. It’s hard to know all the animals you might see on your travels, or the unexpected way they might pop up in your life. Sometimes, it’s just chance.
‘Look, a monkey!’ My partner exclaimed. My head snapped up and my heart sank.
‘That’s not a monkey.’ We were standing on the sidewalk of a busy street in Karon Beach, Thailand. A man was approaching us with a small fuzzy animal on his arm. Huge eyes stared out from an impossibly cute face. It was a slow loris, an animal I had never before seen in person, but adored through pictures and videos. I love slow lorises! But I involuntarily recoiled from this one and the man holding it. He tried to hold it out to us for a picture.
‘No!’ I sharply told him, then turned away.
Slow lorises are nocturnal primates native to Southeast Asia. My first introduction to them was a YouTube video years ago, where a girl tickles one and it raises its arms in apparent glee, looking for all the world like the cutest living stuffed animal. It was obviously a pet, so curiosity peaked, I looked into how people obtained lorises. The answer was horrifying.
Like many exotic pets, slow lorises that end up in a private homes were captured from the wild. Lorises are illegally sold in many Asian markets and smuggled across country borders, despite being an endangered species. With nocturnal habits, a complex diet, and a need for large open spaces, they suffer under the average person’s care.
The most surprising fact is that lorises have a venomous bite, as well as venomous glands under their arms. Before being sold as pets or used on the streets, lorises have their teeth pulled out so they can’t bite. The loris in the tickling video was actually raising its arms in self defense. What looks like an adorable, quiet display of enjoyment is actually a suffering animal reacting in terror.
This is what hit me hardest about seeing the slow loris in person. Their defense mechanisms and displays of fear register as cute to the average person who doesn’t know anything about them. This nocturnal, stress-sensitive animal is maimed, then thrust into bright lights and the countless hands of strangers, his naturally slow movements and passive defense mechanisms interpreted as calmness and comfort. As I watched the loris in Karon Beach, the image that filled my mind was that of being awake under anesthetic; plunged into fear and pain and no one can tell you are screaming.
Seeing the illegally owned loris on the street bothered me so much that we went back to our room and looked up ways we could report the tout. Our first try was at the local police station at Karon Beach, following online reports of previous raids. The police knew little English so it quickly turned into a game of charades as I tried to mimic holding a small animal on my arm. One officer finally understood we were talking about lorises, but then was concerned that I had been bit or scratched by one. I racked my brain for simple phrases and words to describe the concept of illegal wildlife trafficking. I knew they had some idea of the laws, since I read online this has been an ongoing issue in Karon Beach and other towns on Phucket Island. After several minutes, it clicked for the officer and he said “Oh, you want me to protect it?!” Yes! But much to my chagrin, the concern he had previously held for my well-being dissipated as he realized I just cared about the animal. He said he would look into it, but I could see the amusement on his face that he was barely trying to hold back. He headed into the station and I could imagine him laughing with other officers about the request.
The next try was on a larger level. In the US, there are animal abuse and trafficking hotlines, but in Thailand, these were harder to find. I enlisted the help of two local wildlife sanctuaries I found online that dealt with lorises. Local sanctuaries that truly care about endemic wildlife are a great resource because they understand all the facets of each issue and have practical, realistic solutions to confronting them. Donations are the most effective way to support them and the wildlife they protect.
The first sanctuary was the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. As its name suggests, it primarily helps gibbons who also suffer the same fate of being illegally trafficked and paraded around busy streets. But I read that they occasionally take in lorises as well and I messaged them.
NGOs like these collect reports of illegal trafficking from visitors and once they have enough to make a valid case, will present them to the government to instigate an official raid and rescue of the animals. It also helps to contact as many local government departments as possible and give reports yourself. As travelers, we drive trends and tourism practices in the places we visit, so the more complaints the government gets, the more they will crack down in order to appease the tourist dollar. To really make your complaint legit, you need to include photo evidence.
I went out the next night and took some shaky cell phone pictures of a tout, while trying to make sure she didn’t see me. They were poor quality, but showed her face and the loris she was holding. I then forwarded them to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project and followed their directions for further reporting.
I sent the same message and images to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, another great non-profit that rehabilitates a large variety of Thai wildlife. They confirmed they would also forward my report.
To be honest, although I wanted the loris to be rescued, part of me felt a pang for a different aspect of this complicated issue. In Karon, as the loris and its tout moved away from a group of tourists, I saw the tout softly kiss the top of the loris’ head. There was obvious care there, care for an animal he may not even known was suffering. If caught, touts with illegal wildlife may be jailed. I don’t visit other countries to put locals in prison, but I do believe it’s an important part of making this sort of trade unappealing for the black market. However, it is important to remember compassion for people in developing countries. Some poachers and wildlife smugglers are monsters. Some are just people who have no idea how else to make a living. I’m not saying that makes it right by any stretch but I do think it’s important to consider different levels of poverty and ignorance that leads to wildlife trafficking. With this understanding, we can support practices that foster different relationships between people and animals, like hiring would-be poachers to instead protect wildlife as rangers.
In addition to reporting the loris in Karon, I also donated to each sanctuary and would encourage any other visitors to the area to do the same if you care about helping these animals. My actions were the bare minimum of help for the lorises I saw, but I hope that if more and more tourists take these baby steps, we can actually make a difference in the long run.
What can you do when you see illegal wildlife on the streets of any developing country?
. Do not support the tout or pose for pictures with the animal. This is arguably the most important step. If no tourists supported this practice, it would be gone.
. Take a picture of the tout and animal for reporting later. I recommend doing this covertly. If the tout sees you taking a picture, they will probably ask you for money or approach you, which leads to…
. Do not confront the tout yourself. While it may be tempting to scold or lecture the tout, this could lead to aggressive confrontation and get yourself in a mess. The best people to handle these situations are those that understand the animals, local culture, and laws personally. The most confrontational I would suggest getting is letting other tourists know that the animal is illegally trafficked and that any interaction with it will lead to further exploitation. Don’t get upset at other tourists either…most people don’t want to contribute to animal abuse and exploitation, but are simply uninformed.
. Report to the local police. Even though the officers at the Karon station didn’t care, if local officials get more and more complaints, they will start to take notice and action.
. Google local sanctuaries, NGOs, and other wildlife welfare organizations. Send them the details of where and when you saw the wildlife and they can direct you to the best authorities and file reports for you.
. Donate to these organizations! The more resources they have, the more investigations they can be a part of, the more tourists they can inform, the more animals they can save. If you’re in town a while, you can also look into volunteering at these places.
. Spread the word. If you know someone going to a destination that features illegal and exploited wildlife, share the reality of what happens behind those fun encounters and cute pictures. I personally try not to shame people because that tends to shut down the conversation rather than make them interested in factual evidence and alternatives for responsible wildlife interactions.
. Enjoy yourself at legitimate sanctuaries! Sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to do anything in exotic places without ruining the planet. This doesn’t have to be true. So many amazing people around the world work hard at outreach and education and they run organizations where your presence is a boon to the natural world. I love seeing pictures of people having fun interacting with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park because I know they are donating money to a great cause and educating others on the right way to enjoy exotic animals.
Changing the way we treat animals will always be a slow-moving cultural education process. The more people know, the more they will care. Thank you for reading, spreading the word, and supporting those on the front lines of conservation.