Animals Abroad



Sometimes, what you don’t do on your holiday is almost as important as what you do. I got to Chiang Mai after a ten-year absence and found myself blown away by the heavy development and construction that has transformed the city. I came to Chiang Mai to spend a week volunteering with elephants at Elephant Nature Park, which operates a little like a retirement village for elephants (and an experience I highly recommend). There, elephants are treated with dignity and the project provides income for a number of families and locals. Before I started at the project, however, I had three days to hang around while I waited for my boyfriend to fly in and join me.   

Waiting for my pickup at the airport, something caught my eye. Prominently displayed throughout the arrivals hall were bright brochures with a picture of a girl cuddling a baby tiger. 

I wanna do that
 my inner dialogue screamed. I live for animal encounters, whether it be having a baby giraffe suck on my thumb in Namibia, walking with lions in Zimbabwe or working with elephants for a week in Thailand*.  The feeling of being so close to these animals is overwhelming, a special moment that leaves you on a natural high for days. It’s also a privilege. Of course I wanted to cuddle a baby tiger. I am a cat person. And those baby tigers were cute. 

But after that first urge to cuddle a tiger, something started to bother me. I looked closer at the brochure. This wasn’t a tiger conservation project. This was a business aimed at generating money. A small blurb on the back of the brochure explained the keepers jab the animals to wake them up so they wouldn’t look sleepy in photos. I was shocked they’d put that in writing.


I don’t like the idea of an animal being jabbed to smile for a photo. Remember when you had that annoying girlfriend who always used to make you take photos everywhere? Or the school pictures when everyone had to look and appear a certain way? Try going through that every day being a wild creature. A little digging online at my hotel revealed a slew of online criticism. There were multiple accusations of neglect, abuse, mishandling, and cruelty on Trip Advisor.


Thailand has an interesting relationship with animals and tourism. One of my first memories of arriving in Bangkok ten years ago was watching an elephant with a mahout cross twelve lanes of heavy traffic and walk past a 7-11. In the resort beaches you can find monkeys tied to ropes and brightly coloured lizards being offered to tourists to hold and photograph for a few baht. It makes for a great snapshot but the reality is that the animals are often mistreated, stressed and stolen from the wild.


When I was younger and a little more naive, I didn’t get it. Now that I’ve travelled across the world and seen more, I don’t like it. And I have a habit of speaking out against it. All these creatures don’t belong in bucket bars or on city streets- they belong in the wild.


Little is done to dissuade locals and tourists from doing this by either the government or the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I get that the demand from tourists for these encounters is high and Thailand is a poor country. But I also know that the only thing that can stop this sort of thing is the individual making a choice. I really wanted to cuddle a tiger cub in Chiang Mai. But the idea of tigers being breed into captivity for tourists to cuddle like dolls doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe I should have made up my own mind by going to this tiger zoo myself. But I’m glad I didn't, because sometimes what you don’t do on your travels is as important as what you do.


*Author’s note: all these animal encounters were at legitimate conservation, rehabilitation or rescue centres for wildlife