On social media, you can easily find tens of videos and photos of people, either individually or in groups, cuddling and stroking tigers, feeding lions with a baby bottle, or even sat astride the big cats. The theory has spread like wildfire across social media, including the zoo's TripAdvisor page.
“The lion by the entrance was seemingly drugged, probably, so visitors could hug him,” said one reviewer, Richard C, while another, Gustavo, said “an impressive collection of cats all of them in tiny cages, under medication, a very sad spectacle”. Photos taken by visitors show the big cats in a kind of stupor, almost asleep.
In light of the avalanche of online criticism, they were also investigated by the local government in Buenos Aires. However, despite the vast amounts of proof from people all over the world, the zoo was allowed to continue operating.
To continue to put pressure on the zoo, animal rights group Animalia Independent Argentina has launched a petition, demanding its closure. Although it is tempting to want to cuddle a majestic lion or a baby tiger, it is very important to remember that they are wild.
Enjoy your holidays with peace of mind, knowing your pet is in great hands (find a pet sitter near you) and spoil them with our monthly subscription box filled with yummy treats and toys (get your free box here). And on the whole, at an institutional level, zoos paint overly simplistic views of biodiversity and ecosystems by only promoting exotic animals that are well-known, and are often at the apex of their particular food chain.
Since 1995, zoos have turned to antidepressants, tranquilizers, and antipsychotic drugs to alleviate depression and aggression among zoo animals across America. And when captured, baby chimps experience unforgettable trauma since their mothers are shot to death in front of them.
The existence of surplus zoo animals perpetuates canned hunting ranches, which facilitate wealthy clients shooting drugged animals and having them stuffed as trophies. Serious conservation efforts begin with humans’ commitment to stop encroaching on and destroying wild animals habitats because we are pushing many species to extinction.
This report corroborates that the planet is undergoing its sixth mass extinction, which scientists warn will have grave consequences for humans. Because in a sense, we are playing God by keeping wild animals captive and forcing them to reproduce, in the hope that our children will be able to see them alive, in-person.
Granted, zoos, on occasion, have successfully reintroduced animal species into the wild, but this does not justify the grounds of their captivity. Their low survival rates have been attributed to their lacking fear toward humans and crucial hunting skills.
Visiting zoos doesn’t send the right message to children about wildlife conservation and animal ethics. Americans can learn more about wild animals from National Geographic than zoos, which often entertain children with playgrounds and videos anyway.
And the right to bodily integrity and dignity are both violated through zoos’ implementation of forced breeding programs and selling “surplus” animals to canned hunts. Another solution is international policy efforts to conscientiously end the encroachment and appropriation of these animals habitats in the wild.
Even if basic needs are met, zoos force wild animals to endure the psychological trauma of unnatural and stimulating confinement. In an environment completely determined by humans, e.g., community members, food, habitat, it’s no wonder zoo animals will never have a chance to thrive.
Just after dusk I’m in a car lumbering down a muddy road in the rain, past rows of shackled elephants, their trunks swaying. When the wooden fence post of the stall stops me short, I point my light down and follow a current of rainwater across the concrete floor until it washes up against three large, gray feet.
A fourth foot hovers above the surface, tethered tightly by a short chain and choked by a ring of metal spikes. Hammond Songhai, her mahout, or caretaker, told me earlier that Deena wears the spiked chain because she tends to kick.
Songhai has been responsible for Deena here at Batsman Elephant Adventure, near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, since she was 11 months old. People spill out of tour buses and clamber onto the trunks of elephants that, at the prodding of their mahouts’ billhooks (long poles with a sharp metal hook), hoist them in the air while cameras snap.
Deena’s life is set to follow the same trajectory as many of the roughly 3,800 captive elephants in Thailand and thousands more throughout Southeast Asia. Tourists will sit on a bench strapped to her back, and she’ll give several rides a day.
View ImagesMuzzled and chained, three performing bears face their trainer, Grant Ibrahim, after a rehearsal at the Bolshoi State St. Petersburg Circus, in Russia. To make bear cubs strong enough to walk on two legs, trainers may keep them in a standing position, tethered by their necks to the wall.
View ImagesGluay HOM, a four-year-old elephant trained to perform tricks for tourists, is chained to a pole in a stadium at Gamut Pagan Crocodile Farm and Zoo near Bangkok, Thailand. View ImagesTourists on the Rio Afro-American in Brazil swarm an Amazon dolphin lunging for a bait fish dangled by the tour operator.
Wildlife attractions such as Batsman lure people from around the world to be with animals like Deena, and they make up a lucrative segment of the booming global travel industry. Twice as many trips are being taken abroad as 15 years ago, a jump driven partly by Chinese tourists, who spend far more on international travel than any other nationality.
Wildlife tourism isn’t new, but social media is setting the industry ablaze, turning encounters with exotic animals into photo-driven bucket-list toppers. Activities once publicized mostly in guidebooks now are shared instantly with multitudes of people by selfie-taking backpackers, tour-bus travelers, and social media “influencers” through a tap on their phone screens.
We sit with Kalamapijit on a balcony outside her office, and she explains that when Westerners, especially Americans, stopped coming to Batsman, she eliminated one of the daily shows to allot time for visitors to watch elephants bathe in the river that runs through the camp. Our customers love to see it, and they don’t care about bathing at all.’ ” Providing separate options is good for business, Kalamapijit says.
In Thailand, we also saw American men bear-hug tigers in Chiang Mai and Chinese brides in wedding gowns ride young elephants in the aqua surf on the island of Phuket. We watched polar bears in wire muzzles' ballroom dancing across the ice under a big top in Russia and teenage boys on the Amazon River snapping selfies with baby sloths.
Or that the elephants give rides and perform tricks without harming people only because they’ve been “broken” as babies and taught to fear the billhook. View Images British family enjoys a photo shoot with juvenile elephants at Lucky Beach on the island of Phuket.
Many travelers, unaware of the training the elephants endure, view such picturesque experiences as the highlight of their trip. View Images young elephant performs for an audience at Sriracha Tiger Zoo, in Chen Burn, Thailand.
Elephants, highly intelligent mammals, are trained through fear with metal billhooks to catch hoops, hold balloons, and balance on stools. The industry’s economy depends largely on people believing that the animals they’re paying to watch or ride or feed are having fun too.
In December 2017, after a National Geographic investigative report on harmful wildlife tourism in Amazonian Brazil and Peru, Instagram introduced a feature : Users who click or search one of dozens of hashtags, such as #sloth selfie and #tigercubselfie, now get a pop-up warning that the content they’re viewing may be harmful to animals. View Images a platform in Puerto Algeria, a tiny Peruvian town on the banks of the Amazon River, tourists visit a one-stop wildlife menagerie.
This anteater, which was on a diet that included flavored yogurt, is one of dozens of animals caught illegally in the jungle for tourist photos. On a raw fall day, under a crown of golden birch leaves on a hill that overlooks a frigid lake, two-and-a-half-year-old Alexander Kevin, dressed in a hooded bumblebee sweater, timidly holds Stefan’s paw.
Another day in the same forest, Kirsten and I join 12 young women who have nearly identical Instagram accounts replete with dreamy photos of models caressing owls and wolves and foxes. Each has paid the Panteleenkos $760 to take identical shots of models with the ultimate prize: a bear in the woods.
A video on Svetlana Panteleenko’s Instagram account proclaims: “Love along with some great food can make anyone a teddy :-)” And just like that, social media takes a single instance of local animal tourism and broadcasts it to the world.
View Images In a forest outside Moscow, Stefan, a 26-year-old brown bear and social media star, sits between an angel-wing-clad model and his owner, Svetlana Panteleenko. When the documentary film Blackish was released in 2013, it drew a swift and decisive reaction from the American public.
Through the story of Cilium, a distressed killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, the film detailed the miserable life orcas can face in captivity. Regan, honeymooning in Hawaii with his wife, Katie, is from England, where the country’s last marine mammal park closed permanently in 1993.
I meet him at Dolphin Quest Oahu, an upscale swim-with-dolphins business on the grounds of the beachfront Kamala Hotel & Resort, just east of Honolulu. (The Walt Disney Company, National Geographic’s majority owner, offers dolphin encounters on some vacation excursions and at an attraction in Epcot, one of its Orlando parks.
Disney says it follows the animal welfare standards of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit that accredits more than 230 facilities worldwide.) It’s a vigorous debate: whether even places with high standards, veterinarians on staff, and features such as pools filled with filtered ocean water can be truly humane for marine mammals.
This helps explain why the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, announced in 2016 that its dolphins will be retired to a seaside sanctuary by 2020. In China, which has no national laws on captive-animal welfare, delphiniums with wild-caught animals are a booming business: There are now 78 marine mammal parks, and 26 more are under construction.
Not all wildlife tourism entails going to exotic destinations: Traveling shows bring marine animals to people in small cities throughout Russia. To have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare Black Sea dolphins, people in the landlocked town of Cayuga, a hundred miles from Moscow, don’t have to leave their city.
In the parking lot of the Tortoni Coastal shopping mall, next to a hardware store, is a white inflatable pop-up aquarium: the Moscow Traveling Delphinium. “My kids are jumping for joy,” says a woman named Anya, motioning toward her two giddy boys, bouncing in their seats.
In the middle of the jubilant atmosphere, in water that seems much too shallow and much too murky, two dolphins swim listlessly in circles. These traveling shows are aboveboard: Russia has no laws that regulate how marine mammals should be treated in captivity.
The shows are the domestic arm of a brisk Russian global trade in dolphins and small whales. Russia now allows only a dozen or so orcas to be caught each year for scientific and educational purposes, and since April 2018, the government has cracked down on exporting them.
Captive orcas, which can grow to 20 feet long and more than 10,000 pounds, are too big for the traveling shows that typically feature dolphins and belugas. When I contacted the owners of the Moscow Traveling Delphinium and another operation, the White Whale Show, in separate telephone calls to ask where their dolphins and belugas come from, both men, Sergey Kuznets and Oleg Belesikov, hung up on me.
View ImagesBehind netting, a polar bear dances at the Circus on Ice in Kazan, Russia. Russia’s dozen or so traveling oceanariums are touted as a way to bring native wild animals to people who might never see the ocean.
Owners and operators of wildlife tourism attractions, from high-end facilities such as Dolphin Quest in Hawaii to low-end monkey shows in Thailand, say their animals live longer in captivity than wild counterparts because they’re safe from predators and environmental hazards. I look at my animals and want to cry,” says Azovtseva, who drives a red van with dolphins airbrushed on the side.
At the moment, she’s training pilot whales to perform tricks at Moscow’s Moskvarium, one of Europe’s largest aquariums (not connected to the traveling dolphin shows). She says she fell in love with dolphins in the late 1980s when she read a book by John Lilly, the American neuroscientist who broke open our understanding of the animals intelligence.
“Once they see an opportunity, they exploit.” She says she can’t go on doing her work in the industry and that she’s decided to speak out because she wants people to know the truth about the origins and treatment of many of the marine mammals they love watching. View Images brown bear trained to walk on two legs exits the ring during a performance at the Bolshoi State St. Petersburg Circus.
I'm sitting on the edge of an infinity pool on the hilly Thai side of Thailand’s border with Myanmar, at a resort where rooms average more than a thousand dollars a night. That is, someone who has a large enough following to attract sponsors to underwrite posts and, in turn, travel, wardrobes, and bank accounts.
This time, in a fairly standard influencer-brand arrangement, she’ll have a picnic with elephants and post about it to her growing legion of more than 25,000 Instagram followers. At Alcántara the fields are green, and during the day at least, many of the resort’s 22 elephants are tethered on ropes more than a hundred feet long, so they can move around and socialize.
She includes a long caption, summing it up as “my love story with this incredible creature,” and the hashtag #stopelephantriding. As tourist demand for ethical experiences with animals has grown, affordable establishments, often calling themselves “sanctuaries,” have cropped up purporting to offer humane, up-close elephant encounters.
But elephants getting baths, like those that give rides and do tricks, will have been broken to some extent to make them obedient. And as long as bathing remains popular, places that offer it will need obedient elephants to keep their businesses going.
View Images In Ban Ta Slang, Thailand, a trainer directs a young elephant to practice a handstand. Animals are bred and trained here before being sold to camps around the country to begin a new life of work and close confinement.
Once trained, Ban Ta Slang’s elephants may be sold to tourism outfitters or hired out for local events. In Ban Ta Slang, a tiny town in eastern Thailand, modest homes dot the crimson earth.
Ban Ta Slang and the surrounding area, part of Turin Province, claim to be the source of more than half of Thailand’s 3,800 captive elephants. Long before the flood of tourists, it was the center of the elephant trade; the animals were caught in the wild and tamed for use transporting logs.
Now, every November, hundreds of elephants from here are displayed, bought, and sold in the province’s main town, Turin. About half the people in Ban Ta Slang who care for elephants, including Communal, don’t own them.
They’re paid a modest salary by a rich owner to breed and train baby elephants for entertainment. As night falls, thousands of termites swarm us, attracted to the single bulb hanging above the bamboo platform.
It has long been used in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia to tame wild elephants, which still account for many of the country’s captives. Under foreign, elephants are bound with ropes, confined in tight wooden structures, starved, and beaten repeatedly with billhooks, nails, and hammers until their will is crushed.
Since 2012, the government has been cracking down on the illegal import of elephants taken from the forests of neighboring Myanmar, Thailand’s main source of wild-caught animals. As recently as a decade ago, scientists had collected more evidence that fish feel pain than they had for neonatal infants.
They lived in the same facility, Gamut Pagan Crocodile Farm and Zoo, about 15 miles south of Bangkok. The aging tiger, Khan Them, 22, spent his days on a short chain in a photo studio.
Both had irrefutable signs of suffering: The emaciated elephant had a bent, swollen leg hanging in the air and a large, bleeding sore at his temple. Six months after Kirsten and I returned from Thailand, we asked Run Jirenuwat, our Bangkok-based Thai interpreter, to check on Gluey HOM and Khan Them.
He just stays in his dark corner, Jirenuwat texted, and when he hears people coming, he twists on his chain and turns his back to them. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at national geographic.org.