I will be the first to admit that being a responsible traveler is HARD and there are a lot of tempting harmful tourist attractions out there! It takes a lot of research, planning, preparing and discipline to be ethical while traveling. Whether it is slow travel, ethical tours, volunteering responsibly or even just reducing your plastic use and waste, it is definitely worth it and there is always room for improvement even in the most savvy of eco-travelers. While these are not hard and fast rules, mostly they are just my opinion, they will give you something to think about the next time you book that animal encounter or volunteer trip!
Giving Pens and Candy to Local Children
Sure, they are cute and you are big-hearted but giving candy, pens and money to kids on the streets has turned into a frequent destructive habit of travelers from all over. There are way too many scenarios to consider but here are two examples to get your thought process on the right track when it comes to giving treats to kids.
Giving Candy to Kids along the Inca Trail in Peru – These children will love you for it but take into consideration that access to dental care in the Peruvian highlands can be limited if there is any at all. So when your sugary treats decay their teeth, who will be there to treat them? If you have ever had a toothache I can bet you wouldn’t want to be caught without a dentist you can get to quickly! Not to mention, untreated tooth decay in baby teeth can quickly turn into an abscess (infection of the bone) which in children can be harmful to their health and, in extreme cases, lead to death.
Giving Pens to Kids in India – These children have been conditioned to run up to any foreigners and quickly demand pens or money. This common act of giving them pens or other treats may seem harmless but it encourages begging which can lead to dropping out of school and taking to the streets and becoming scam-artists. And apparently “begging mafias” are a thing. Read more about it in this eye opening article from Alex at Lost With Purpose where she details not only the harm but also gives suggestions of alternative ways to give back!
Swimming With Dolphins
This has come under fire a lot in the last 10 years and for good reason. Animals are not meant to be kept in cages away from their natural environments. The only exception to this rule are dogs, and that is because over hundreds of years they have been breed to be domesticated and truly love us (even cats are questionable, am I right? haha). I have seen and swam with dolphins in their natural habitat and they cover A LOT of ground, so how can we feel good about keeping them in the tiny pools of water they get at tourism establishments. I have seen spinner dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sea and the ones who are locked up and sentenced to life as a “trick pony” don’t have that same spark. Don’t let the natural shape of their mouth fool you, they aren’t smiling.
Posing With Large Jungle Cats
Have you ever seen a wild lion or tiger come up and pose with anyone for a selfie? No, you haven’t. Any time you can sit for a picture with an animal who you would be afraid of if you came across them in the wild is a bad idea. Those animals are drugged, chained up, and a whole myriad of abuses behind the scene I can’t even begin to imagine. Imaging having a whole line of tourists line up to take pictures with you after waking up from anesthesia, sounds horrific to me. According to the video by National Geographic below, the famous Tiger Temple in Thailand may be involved in the black market trade of illegal exotic animals as well.
Bull Fighting in Spain
Ok, I realize that this is deeply ingrained in the historical culture of Spain so this might be controversial but I cannot get behind an event that causes pain and misery. This entertainment is nothing but animal cruelty with a little flare. The bull is repeatedly stabbed by 3+ humans, not in order to kill it quickly and humanely, but to anger it so that the show is more interesting for spectators. It cannot even be considered a fight since the bull is greatly outnumbered and out-weaponed (it’s a word now) and then it is killed in a very slow, painful, and aggravating fashion. It’s sick.
Volunteering in 3rd World Countries for a Few Days and Then Leaving
This might be where I lose some people. Yes, it is very honorable to want to go to another country that does not have the same infrastructure as your home country to help out but we have to be very careful about how we approach these things. Volunteering abroad is a noble venture and you should absolutely do it but find the right organization and take these things into consideration.
- Are volunteers trained to have the necessary skills to do what is expected? Often times building end up having to be rebuilt by local craftsmen who have a much better skill level essentially wasting time and materials.
- Volunteers and free labor may be taking away paying jobs from people in the community. Why pay someone a fair wage when you can have altruistic travelers come in and do it for free?
- Are “teachers” really qualified to do so? Is it a revolving door of educators? Having a new teacher every week can be completely distracting to children so much so that very little educating is actually being done. In addition to that, are these teachers actually educators or just someone on their spring break trying to gain a sense of fulfillment? Would it make more sense to train and educate the adults in the community to act as leaders and teachers instead?
- Be mindful of the attachment that kids can form to you. If you spend 2 weeks in Haiti and become close to one particular child, how are they going to feel when you are ripped from their lives so that you can go back to your comfy job and your comfy bed in your comfy house? It is not fair to them to constantly have people disappear on them.
- Is this a lasting effort? So many volunteerism projects get “finished” and then are left without any sustainable plan for the project to continue working after the volunteers go home. So make sure there is some follow up for the work you are doing and that it wasn’t a wasted effort leaving an eyesore for the community.
- Creating new problems rather than solving what the community needs. Be sure that the community members were consulted before the organization decided which problems needed to be fixed. We may not be able to see what the real needs are because they are not our own.
- This isn’t a social media post opportunity. If that is your main reason for volunteering then just don’t. These are peoples lives and they don’t deserve to have their misfortune exploited for likes and shares. It is GREAT to bring awareness to causes but make sure your intentions are honorable.
There are SO many more things to consider and I certainly don’t have all the answers but I encourage everyone to do some research and form your own opinions based off of real world experiences, not just the feel good stuff you see on Facebook. I whole-heartedly believe that we should always look for ways to leave places we visit better than when we came, so you should absolutely volunteer, I highly encourage it. Just make sure you are choosing the right way to go about it. Now, if I have scared you away from humanitarian efforts, every corner of the earth can use some help keeping the damage to a minimum. So pick up trash, volunteer with animals, do something to get out and make the world a better place!
Cage Diving With Sharks
There are differing opinions on this so to be clear, these are my opinions alone and everyone should research to form their own.
- Its unnatural and inauthentic. I would rather see these beautiful creatures in their natural state of calm rather than in a frenzy because they have been lured to the cages by chum. Sharks are curious but cautious creatures and do not typically have any interest in humans and I personally would rather it stay that way. The better alternative solutions would be a pelagic dive outside of a cage to observe them naturally.
- Throwing chum into the water seems like it would associate humans with feeding time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be involved in ANY animals feeding habits. Also, its seems like such a tease to the sharks to have the chum in the water and a decoy seal but then there is no food. It feels cruel.
- The chumming could perpetuate stereotypes for some tourists who don’t know much about the animals. They see them coming at them baring their teeth because they are trying to eat but that is not typical of a shark encounter outside of cage diving.
I am sure there is more that goes into this than what meets the eye but my opinion is that humans should do as little as possible to disrupt the natural behavior of sharks in order to keep the fragile eco-system working as it should. Whether that means not throwing chum, abstaining from destroying seal habitats, and most especially NOT partaking in the shark fin soup market, there are many things we can do to ensure that sharks lives are protected and in turn we can protect our own.
DON’T DO IT, DON’T DO IT, DON’T DO IT!
I have mentioned many things in this post that could definitely be argued against but this is one sentiment that all the bleeding-heart, ethical travelers are able to come together on. Do NOT under any circumstance place your body weight on an elephant. Even at their massive size, elephants leg joints and spines are quite fragile and not made to support much weight. This is extremely harmful to their health and well-being. In addition, elephants are docile and sensitive creatures who have been beaten into submission until their spirit is broken. Even just as little babies, they are tied up and beaten so that all they know from humans is abuse and fear. I know for certain that if I ever come into contact with an animal, I don’t want them to fear me but rather regard me as an ally. Otherwise I would be happy to observe them from afar.
The main takeaway is that we should all be responsible for doing our own extensive research and educating ourselves so that we can do a little harm to the places we visit as possible. There are endless articles and blog posts on the internet that go much deeper into the issues I have highlighted and I encourage you to seek them out. With that being said, go out and explore and make the world a better, brighter place!