Animal Abuse and Tourism: Where do we Draw the Line?

elephants tourism travel animal abuse
Not so picturesque

Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowing on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution?

Elephant animal abuse India temple Kerala
Is this worth it?

According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.

As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time with science), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s house and take it.  This means that it is likely that bear will someday die because of something it eats or because it

IMG_3052On our seventh official day of the Kerala Blog Express, we got to take a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not Guaranteed.)  This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I’ve seen in India with zero trash.  The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance.  To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way, and in controlled numbers (of humans.)

We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.  We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous.  I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals’) well-being.  To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word ‘no.’  There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals’ well being.

Elephants wild Wayanad Kerala India
In Wayanad

As much as we love the magic and intensity (and let’s not forget the profile pics and blog posts) of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn’t natural.  They aren’t meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around.  They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money more than sketchy places that drug or otherwise abuse the animals do.  It’s not satisfying and it won’t boost my page views, but participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what’s best for those animals.  Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to retroactively atone for our participation.  Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.

baby elephant india kerala wayanad wild
A little one in the wild of Wayanad

Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose.  As fellow member of the Kerala Blog Express Daniel said on Instagram, seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets.  It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.

I hope that governments and tourists alike will help make it easier for letting animals be wild to be an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business.  I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly.  I hope elephants and other, less PR-friendly animals are still around in the wild for generations to come.

Periyar Tiger Reserve wild elephants elephant travel tourism india kerala
Doesn’t this look better than chains and decorations? In the Periyar Tiger Reserve

Want to learn more about how to help animals and make humane decisions?  Try some of these resources below.

Disclaimer: I was in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  They gave no input on my posts or their subject.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail

6 thoughts on “Animal Abuse and Tourism: Where do we Draw the Line?”

  1. Delia, It should make all very sad to see these animals imprisoned. Instead of taking pictures, and visiting these places, let’s put the people in charge in chains, and have the elephants take a picture of them. After all, aren’t the animals more intelligent than the people in charge??? I think so!!! Great awareness writing. Joe O.


  2. I have a lot of similar thoughts. If you let animals be, there’s no guarantee that you will spot them in the wild, but that’s okay. I think zoos and marine parks are a huge root of the problem with the way people try to interact with animals. A lot of people get the idea at an early age that animals are simply here for our entertainment and that humans are entitled to interact with them in forced ways. I think that if you truly love wild animals, you let them be wild.


  3. Congratulations on blog of the week at Wanderlust! You have an interesting blog. I could not find a contact form, so please forgive me for getting in touch this way.

    I write for Wanderlust in print and online, as well as Sailing Today magazine. I am editor of the Itinerant Writers Club. Next month we will be launching an online magazine for travel writers, and I’m looking for contributors. Here’s the blurb:

    New literary travel magazine, ‘The Itinerant’, is open for submissions from new and established writers, photographers and artists. The online magazine will have a literary slant, so introspective, opinion and mood pieces will have a better chance of selection than the “top-10-places-to-lose-your-knickers”. We will publish writing that is fresh, incisive, with its own voice. We are looking for non-fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, fiction, features, notes, poems, photos, drawings, in short anything that is thought-provoking and travel related.

    Deadline Saturday 31st May

    If you would like to become a contributor please email your submission.

    I will consider submissions up to 1000 words in length. It does not matter if your piece is published elsewhere as long as you have ownership. Where appropriate I will link to the original piece and your blog.
    Please submit one image and a mini bio of up to 100 words along with any social media links.

    Please submit a maximum of two pieces, and attach around 100 words about the image.
    Include a mini bio of up to 100 words along with social media links.

    No fees (yet), I’m afraid, as this is a non-commercial venture designed to encourage and showcase good writing.

    I’d love to hear from you.

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