I don’t remember most details of my first visit to the zoo, apart from the fluttering of butterflies- not in the zoo, but in my stomach- when my friends shouted “Lion Cage is to the right! Let’s go there!”. I was intimidated and excited at the same time- my first sighting of the ‘King of the Jungle’. As we approached a miserably bored looking creature, panting heavily in the sweltering Delhi heat, my excitement swooshed out of me the way air gushes out of a deflating balloon. This was no jungle, and the forlorn looking creature was the antithesis of a ‘king’. Sadly, I instead found more interest in the passersby doing everything in their power to get the Lion to roar. If only fake human growls were as entertaining for the Lion as they were for me in that moment.
I was ignorant, like most others visiting the zoo that day. Little did I know then that Lions are pack animals. That they travel where their prey does. That they hunt ever so rarely, spending more time strategizing their hunt in ways to conserve their energy. I learnt all this on an African Safari where I saw first hand a group of lions blocking all the escape routes of their pray, communicating with each other from distances, laying the strategy better than any chess player ever could! I remember how, while filming that with my handycam, the sound of the zoom scared the s**t out of me. I remember the conundrum of deciding whether I was on the deer’s side or the lions’. I remember the adrenaline rush when one of the lions itched a scratch by rubbing himself against our car! This time, unlike the zoo, both the lions and I enjoyed! 🙂
Animals are now a part of the tourism industry, an interaction with them planned in almost every tourist’s itinerary. Whether is seeing Orca perform at Sea World, or swimming with Dolphins in ‘large lagoons’ in the Bahamas, or riding the elephants in Kerala, India or petting baby tigers in Thailand. I have seen many people argue that the Orcas are well taken care of, well fed, the Dolphins have large spaces to swim and seemed genuinely happy, the Elephants are revered and not treated cruelly and that the tigers are conserved and would be poached in the wild. When you look for evidence on Google, I can guarantee you will find an ocean of positive reviews. But dig deeper- look for the facts and not the opinions of tourist, most of who tend to defend their visit to these places. Of course you will enjoy the play, but go behind the curtains to see the innocent artists bare, without the makeup- reality will paint an honest picture for you. Go behind the curtains to see Not all zoos are bad – for instance the Smithsonian Zoo in DC has been responsible for saving some endangered species of animals- but 99% zoos are. Not all circuses are cruel- for instance this list by PETA has some cruelty free circuses- but most are. Ditch popular travel sites and look for information by animal welfare teams and trust you me, you’ll be appalled at the cruelty meted out to these animals.
Does that mean there is no way to enjoy observing and interacting with the wild, without harming them in anyway? Of course not! Below is a list of countries we visited and the cruelty free blissful ways in which we interacted with the wild:
-Whale Watching in Iceland, Seattle- Whale watching is now a popular activity in most sea hugging destinations. Our experience in Iceland was every bit as breathtaking as it was promised to be. We saw a group of 5 humpback whales (it is super rare to see these whales in groups) beginning their 25,000 km+ migratory journey to warmer waters, as winter began to embrace Iceland. Seeing them communicate with each other and eagerly anticipating their next rise to the surface was an experience no zoo could have matched.
-Shark Cage Diving in South Africa- Oh nothing- I repeat nothing- can cause the adrenaline rush than this activity does! Rickety cage, shark infested murky waters, and ice cold, unforgiving Atlantic ocean- this is straight from ‘Jaws’ the movie.
-Dolphin Watching and Feeding- Dolphins, by God’s design, look like happy animals. But don’t let the faces of captive dolphins and the words of their trainers fool you. A number of sunset Dolphin tours are available in beach cities- pick those over visiting Dolphins in lagoons which are never large enough for them
-Safari Tour, Kruger National Park, South Africa- While nothing beats an African safari, there are multiple national parks and safaries in many countries that you can visit. I wouldn’t give 2 cents about a tortoise in a zoo, but couldn’t get enough clicks of a small tortoise crawling across the road, causing a traffic jam along the way- possibly the most unique traffic jam where no one seemed to mind stalling in their journey to their destination! 🙂
-Big Cat Rescue, Florida– Amazing work being done by this organization in the conservation and rehabilitation of rescued big cats. The horror stories are depressing, but its heart rendering to know that the rescued animals have a retirement home where they are miles from harm’s way. Some of the tigers here were used as cubs for photographs and pictures by tourists. They have been psychologically maimed for life and get anxious each time they see a large group of people- because of which visitors can’t visit them. Such are the repercussions of us meddling with the wild.
-Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand– You wouldn’t believe the cruelty metted out to these gentle giants, mostly through the elephant rides in India and Thailand. Infact what got me researching about this topic in the first place was when on a drive trough a remote Forrest area in Thailand I saw a baby elephant tied with chains, crying his heart out, struggling to break the chain, for the entire 2 hours that we were there. If you do want to visit them, do so in one of the multiple elephant sanctuaries where volunteers and activists are working to rescue them
–Turtle Hospital, Florida Keys– Who would think a Turtle Hospital would be so much fun! Situated in middle keys, this place rescues and treats injured turtles and lets you interact with them and even feed them! Lots to learn about this endangered species too! Another great way to interact with Turtles is during the breeding season in places like the Caribbeans- known for Leatherback Turtles
–Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, Underwater Walks are other fantastic ways to interact with the wild.
–Butterfly Museum, Smithsonian Museum-Washington DC and Key West- Florida
-Jackass Penguins- Cape Town
–Otters, Seals, Starfish, Jellyfish etc- Monterey Bay Aquarium
In all honesty, I too have visited some of these infamous places in Thailand and India. And something never seemed right. I questioned the caregivers of the animals and they seemed to have a ready answer for all of my questions. But I went with my gut and put in research to understand the facts. I hope you do too.