More than 220 travel companies have vowed to stop offering elephant rides.

Wildlife advocacy groups report that a rise in awareness about the inhumane conditions of captive animals has a growing number of travelers opting to skip the elephant rides and the marine life shows.

There has been a changing tide in the way travelers want to—or rather don’t want to—interact with animals. From a decline in demand for elephant rides in places like Southeast Asia to a recent ban in Canada on keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, travelers and travel companies are increasingly turning away from animal experiences.

“Demand for inhumane attractions is decreasing as travelers become more aware of the cruelty animals face,” said Brianna Grant, program assistant for Humane Society International’s wildlife protection department. Grant cited a 2017 poll conducted by data firm Kantar, which found that more than 80 percent of global travelers would prefer to see animals in their natural environment.

The trend arguably first started to pick up steam following the 2013 release of the CNN documentary Blackfish about the issue of orcas in captivity at SeaWorld. The resulting public outcry ultimately led SeaWorld to discontinue its orca breeding program and phase out its killer whale shows in 2016.

As pressure continued to mount from animal rights advocates, TripAdvisor in 2016 stopped selling hundreds of attractions in which tourists come into contact with captive wild animals, including riding elephants, petting tigers, and swimming with dolphins. (It still sells attractions involving domesticated animals, such as horseback riding, aquariums with touch pools, and voluntourism programs involving endangered species.)

One year later, Expedia followed suit and stopped selling tours and attractions that offered wildlife interactions.

And the momentum has continued to snowball.

In June, Canada passed legislation that bans keeping marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, and porpoises, in captivity for the purpose of entertainment. That followed a ban issued by the Greek government this past fall prohibiting anyone over 220 pounds from riding the donkeys in Santorini.

SeaWorld has discontinued its killer whale shows.

“We get many emails from travelers asking us about the suitability of certain types of attractions and receive many travelers’ accounts of wild animals kept in horrific conditions at zoos and other facilities around the world. People are conducting their own research before booking and questioning attractions rather than simply taking the word of the operators,” said Grant.

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The next generation of travelers wants change

According to the wildlife advocacy group World Animal Protection, younger travelers are more likely than their older counterparts to be concerned about issues regarding animals’ well-being. Consequently, they appear to be the ones paving the path toward change.

“There is a relationship between age and travel activity choice when it comes to animal welfare,” stated Jennifer Yellin, senior vice president at Northstar, a research firm that conducted a series of focus group studies for World Animal Protection last year. “People under 35 are more aware of animal cruelty issues. This age segment, more so than older travelers, voice greater interest in seeing animals in their natural habitats rather than forced interactions like swimming with dolphins.”

Groups like World Animal Protection, Humane Society International, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have applauded the recent progress that has been made in the travel industry. World Animal Protection has gotten more than 220 travel companies to commit to stop selling elephant rides and shows to their customers, including The Travel Corporation (which consists of the brands Trafalgar, Contiki, and Uniworld), G Adventures, and Intrepid Travel.

According to World Animal Protection, in order to get elephants to submit to rides and other human interactions, baby elephants are taken from their mothers aand forced into what the organization desribes as a horrific training practice known as ‘the crush.’ This process involves physical restraints, severe pain, and the withholding of food and water. By the time tourists come to ride an elephant, its spirit has been broken, reported World Animal Protection.

The animal advocacy group noted that when elephants are not performing or being used for rides, they are often chained and isolated.

Challenges remain

Despite all the gains in recent years, animal advocacy groups are also quick to note that their work is far from over in terms of raising awareness and ensuring the improved treatment of animals for the sheer amusement of tourists.

For instance, in the same Kantar poll mentioned above, more than half of the respondents said that they feel that swimming with dolphins is an acceptable activity. The Humane Society International, however, argues that dolphins are meant to swim freely in open water rather than be captured and contained in enclosed environments.

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The Humane Society International encourages travelers to research animal encounters, such as lion cub experiences in South Africa, before engaging with them.
According to the Humane Society’s Grant, operators are also getting savvy to the trend of travelers' growing awareness and are trying to “exploit travelers’ concerns about animal welfare by using terms such as ‘sanctuary’ or ‘refuge’ in their name, but this does not necessarily mean they are a humane attraction.” She noted that this is why it is critical that travelers conduct their own research before booking an animal attraction.

World Animal Protection has produced a list of what it has deemed to be the cruelest animal attractions, and also recently released an extensive report on the topic of zoos and aquariums. Another resource is Humane Conservation, a three-year-old organization that produces a list of humane-certified zoos, aquariums, and parks.

“If people feel unsure, they should skip the attraction altogether instead of risking supporting a cruel attraction,” advised Grant.

Grant said that while there has been a surge in awareness regarding elephant rides in Asia, for instance, there is less public knowledge about other inhumane attractions such as captive lion facilities in South Africa where travelers can take selfies with lion cubs and go on lion walks.

“The operations often market themselves as humane by claiming that the lions are orphaned and will be released back into the wild,” said Grant.

She said that her hope is that travelers will ultimately put the needs of animals ahead of their own desires to observe wildlife up-close and to snap a great photograph.

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