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What are the welfare risks of animal tourist attractions and selfies with animals?

There are many overseas animal encounters promoted as ‘must do’ or ‘must see’ for tourists, such as circuses, elephant riding, bull fights, petting and taking selfies with tigers, dancing bears, and other animals; but at what cost is this to the animals? These experiences pose significant animal welfare risks and raise important questions about how we define acceptable use of animals for human entertainment and profit. RSPCA Australia is opposed to the use of animals for any kind of entertainment, exhibition or performance where injury, pain, suffering or distress is likely to be caused.

Tourists Whale Watching
Wildlife encounters allowing animals to remain in their natural environment allow people to view with little disturbance. Image courtesy of Aboriginal Land Trust.

What are the risks to animals used in tourist attractions?

The ways in which animals are used for tourist attractions will, in most cases, not meet their physical or behavioural needs. They are often kept under inappropriate conditions, denied basic necessities (e.g. appropriate food, water and shelter) and/or are subjected to inhumane handling and training [1]. Captive wild animals can develop physical and psychological disorders [2]. Many countries, especially those which offer many animal interactions, have minimal or in some cases no animal welfare standards.

Specific examples highlighting the inhumane treatment include:

  • Elephants are often taken from the wild when they are young with punishment being used to train them to perform (for circus tricks or to be ridden) [3]
  • Tigers are often drugged so that tourists can take ‘selfies’ with them
  • Lions are often bred constantly and their cubs taken away from them from an early age to be used for petting, bottle-feeding and photo opportunities by tourists. When they are older, they are then used for lion walking, and then canned hunting when they are too big or dangerous for human interaction. After being hunted, their bones are often sold as ingredients in Southeast Asia for medicinal purposes.

These types of activities are unnatural to exotic animal species causing them significant harm and distress [1].

What are the risks to animals used in ‘selfies’?

With the popularity of social media, taking ‘selfies’ with animals has become a significant tourist activity. However, this contributes to the illegal trade of animals so that they can be used for this purpose [4], with many not being appropriately treated or cared for. Some tourists who have captured wild animals from their natural environment to take ‘selfies’ have caused them significant distress and sometimes death, as has been reported to have occurred with animals such as dolphins and sharks. Significant welfare issues from taking ‘selfies’ with exotic animals include being:

  • Taken from the wild, especially young animals who are often removed from their mothers at an early age [4,5]
  • Subjected to poor husbandry and unnatural environments. For example, small, barren cages with limited access to water, inadequate veterinary care, no enrichment and they may be chained to one area [4,5]
  • Trained using punishment based methods causing fear and pain to stop aggressive/unwanted behaviour [5]
  • Forced to interact with humans for long hours and are often also handled inappropriately. This can cause significant fear, distress and potentially injury to the animals, and may lead to disease and even death [4]
  • Constrained in a way which prevents them expressing normal behaviours. For example, sloths are often left on the ground when not being ‘used’ when normally they would climb trees [4], and tigers are kept confined to small areas and are unable to roam freely for many kilometres as they would in the wild [5].

As a result of their poor conditions and handling, many of these animals will show stress behaviours not seen in the wild, e.g. high levels of vigilance and limb stretching in sloths [4], and tail biting and pacing in tigers [5].

Examples of animal attractions which pose the greatest risks to animal welfare include (but are not limited to):

  • Entertainment – circuses with exotic animals, bear fighting, dancing bears, animals on display at restaurants; performing captive dolphins at marine parks
  • Riding exotic species or non-domesticated animals, e.g. elephants, ostriches
  • Contact with wild animals – petting wild animals including young animals (e.g. tigers, lions etc.), using animals as inappropriate photography props (handling animals to take photos with them), human initiated physical interaction with wild animals (forcing animals to interact with humans, which is unnatural and distressing)
  • Canned hunting – this involves the captive breeding of animals such as lions, who are then held in an enclosed area for people to hunt. This means they have no way to escape, and some are also drugged to increase the hunter’s chance of a kill.
  • Unlicensed zoos – in many countries, zoos are required to be licensed by their countries zoological association. This is to ensure the highest standards of care and these zoos are constantly undergoing review. However, many countries do not have these standards and so there are no regulations in place to ensure the welfare of animals, thus animals are often exploited and kept in unacceptable conditions
  • Other events and attractions that involve domesticated animals but that still result in significant animal welfare compromise, including bullfighting, cockfighting, dog fighting and rodeos.

Buying souvenirs and exotic products

Be cautious when buying souvenirs; many places may sell items made from exotic and endangered animals such as ivory, tortoiseshells, fur and reptile skin. Purchasing these products further endangers vulnerable species, and the import of products made from endangered species is illegal and punishable by fines or prison time (as bound by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty). Food or medicinal products such as civet coffee, shark fin soup, rhino horn, lion bones or bear bile that are considered exotic ‘delicacies’ and ‘medicines’ should be avoided for the same reasons.

  • Animal sanctuaries – facilities that provide refuge, rescue and rehabilitate injured, orphaned, confiscated or abandoned animals. There is no commercial exploitation of the animals and human contact is kept to a minimum and on the animal terms. Beware of places posing as sanctuaries but which are actually exploiting animals. A genuine sanctuary:
    • does not use animals for entertainment such as riding, touching or taking selfies
    • has minimal human-animal interaction, such as limiting numbers of people through the sanctuary and restricting public viewing
    • does not take animals from the wild, unless they are injured or orphaned with the aim for them to be rehabilitated
    • complies with animal welfare standards and is accredited by an independent professional association, such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)
    • has an educational component about welfare, conservation and how the sanctuary runs.
  • Wildlife viewing – safaris, birdwatching, whale-watching, reef-diving etc. Ensure that you do your research and select companies that are ethical, in terms of:
    • respecting local regulations, and indigenous people and their land
    • not allowing tourists to get too close to wildlife, entice wildlife (such as by feeding) or have direct contact with the animals
    • being actively involved in genuine conservation and education.
  • Riding of domesticated animals – horses, donkeys and camels. Ensure to match your size to that of the animal you are riding and avoid riding if you are concerned about the animal’s welfare (such as if they are in poor body condition, have injuries, handled inappropriately by staff, appear exhausted, or have inadequate access to shade and water).
  • Licensed and welfare accredited zoos. A good zoo is one that is:
    • Licensed by an accredited body. For example, a legitimate Australian zoo is one that is accredited by the Zoo & Aquarium Association which grants accreditation to those that have demonstrated commitment to welfare and conservation (please see the World Association of Zoos & Aquariums for more information for zoos in different countries)
    • Not-for-profit, and has a mission, vision, education programs and current projects in conservation and welfare
    • Has adequate enclosures and welfare – view their website, photos and reviews, or if you are already on their premises, check that the enclosures seem to mimic natural habitats with opportunities for the animals to hide from the public, if there is adequate and appropriate enrichment for the animals and that the animals have adequate space, food and water.

It is important to do your research before deciding to partake in any animal-related activities. Always respect wild animals and their environment. In cases where animals are neglected, abused or suffering, reports should be made to local authorities or globally based animal protection groups such as World Animal Protection.

Publications are available to assist tourists to identify appropriate animal encounters including:


[1] Fennell A (2013) Tourism and Animal Welfare. Tourism Recreation Research 38:325-340. doi:10.1080/02508281.2013.11081757

[2] World Animal Protection (2018) Wildlife Abusement Parks

[3] World Animal Protection (2010) Taken for a Ride: The Conditions for Elephants Used in Tourism in Asia

[4] Carder G et al (2018) The Impact of ‘Selfie’ Tourism on the Behaviour and Welfare of Brown-Throated Three-Toed Sloths. Animals (Basel) 8:216. doi: 10.3390/ani8110216

[5] World Animal Protection (2016) Tiger selfies exposed: A portrait of Thailand’s tiger entertainment industry

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Updated on January 20, 2020
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