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29 July 2001 Issue
The Accidental Activist

by Jonathan Owen

from The Animals' Agenda - May/June 2001

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) receives hundreds of reports about animal cruelty from tourists each year. In almost every travel destination, one sector of the local economy will invariably find a way of extracting money from visitors by exploiting animals. Animals are abused in a variety of ways in the pursuit of the tourist dollar: horses, donkeys, and oxen are forced to carry passengers and luggage; endangered species are illegally killed and sold for souvenirs; and thousands of wild and domestic animals are confined in circuses, zoos, aquariums, and theme parks for entertainment. Many languish in deprived, pitiful conditions in small roadside exhibits, or are used as exotic "accessories" in stores and restaurants.

Other examples include cruel fiestas and bullfights in Spain and many Latin American countries; animal spectacles such as dancing bears in India or elephant shows in Thailand; and animals used as photographic props. If you have the slightest doubt about how an animal is being used, then don't participate in that activity. As a general rule, the more familiar you are with the local language, the more effective you can be when raising concerns about situations you might encounter. Sometimes animal exploitation is not immediately apparent, particularly with such eco-tourism activities as the chasing or harassment of wild species by some "photosafari" tour operators, "swim with dolphins" programs, and turtle hatcheries where tourists pay to return hatchlings to the wild (in daylight, which results in higher mortality than the turtles' natural evening journeys). Always ask if the operators have a seal of approval from a recognized, trusted international body such as a government agency or animal protection organization.

Wildlife habitats can be damaged by careless day-trippers or by the unmanaged development of tourist facilities. One example is the decline of turtle populations worldwide, with the 10,000-to-1 odds of hatchlings surviving into adulthood being lengthened by the tourist invasion of important nesting sites that are often situated on the beaches of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. In Acapulco, Mexico, overdevelopment has resulted in once-common turtle sightings becoming a thing of the past. Also in Mexico, the Rancho Nuevo beach is the only place where the highly endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle is known to nest. However, in the last few decades, the numbers of turtles coming to nest has fallen dramatically from tens of thousands to just a few hundred. In Turkey, a number of important turtle nesting beaches are at risk from tourism. The removal of sand from a large stretch of one such beach at the Belek resort to create a new golf course in 1996 was thought to have led to the deaths of at least 20 percent of all hatchlings.

One of the best things that people can do when faced with animal cruelty is to register a complaint in writing with the nearest animal welfare group, local authority, and/or tourism representative. Patrons should also inform their tour operator and WSPA upon returning home. Try to document what took place, with photographs and/or video if possible, making a note of the type of cruelty and animals involved, plus the location and date. Complaints really can make a difference, and in many cases, government have approached WSPA for help in dealing with animal cruelty issues that were brought to their attention by tourists.

Andrew Dickson, WSPA's chief executive, recognizes the important rule that tourists can play in fighting animal cruelty. "Tourists can be our eyes and ears in many situations, and the information that we receive from them is invaluable in helping us to protect animals around the world," he notes." For instance, the tip-offs that we received about dancing bears in Greece and Turkey helped us to undertake a series of dramatic bear rescues and successfully end this form of animal cruelty in these countries.

People can also vote with their wallets and refuse to attend any events that they know or suspect involve animal cruelty, such as bullfights and rodeos. Customers should also boycott products made from endangered species, many of which are illegal to bring home anyway. Although few people would consider an elephant-foot umbrella stand a suitable souvenir nowadays, many tourists are still unaware how souvenirs harm local wildlife and habitats. If in doubt, avoid buying anything you suspect may have been made at the expense of animals. Tourists should also remember that for every cute animal they may see for sale at a market, many others have likely died on the way. The best way to avoid food-related cruelties is to simply eat vegetarian or vegan meals. Many so-called "delicacies" come at great expense and suffering to the animals involved.

One of the single biggest animal welfare problems worldwide is that of stray dogs and cats. Around the Mediterranean and in many developing countries they are everywhere, often looking very scrawny and ill. WSPA advises people to resist the temptation to feed strays, as this can encourage them to become a nuisance. Feeding them does little to overcome the long-term problem of overbreeding, in fact, it may encourage them to reproduce, leading to more suffering when the tourist season is over, since many local authorities round up and destroy strays inhumanely by poisoning or electrocution. The real solution to the problem of stray animals is getting them neutered and vaccinated, then either placing them in homes or releasing them back to their territory.

Travelers needn't focus solely on the sites they visit elsewhere; as a citizen of your own country, be mindful of what concerned visitors might encounter in your region and work locally for the benefit of the animals nearest you as well.

* Jonathan Owen is head of media for the World Society for the Protection of animals.

Your Agenda - Before you go on vacation, find out iff there are any local animal welfare societies at your destination that might be able to give advice regarding local attractions, or provide assistance if you encounter abused animals. Details of WSPA member organizations are available at www.wspa.org.uk/aboutus

If you witness abuse, report the incident (including the date, time, location, type, and number of animals involved) to the local police, the local tourist office, a local animal welfare society, your tour operator, and to WSPA on your return. Always record what you have seen on film; photographs or videotape are invaluable evidence.

“Reprinted with permission from The Animals’ Agenda, P.O. Box 25881,

Baltimore, MD 21224; (410) 675-4566; www.animalsagenda.org.”

Email: office@animalsagenda.org

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