So you want to take a selfie with a wild animal? Siobhan Speiran

At the age of six, with a confidence that belied my age, I saddled up to a goliath of a Siberian tiger and leaned my head resolutely on its shoulder. It barely acknowledged me, looking ahead, as if caught in a 70’s era family portrait, while I stared into the camera with a steady gaze, waiting for the click. Hard to believe today, but this magnificent beast was an animal attraction at a pet show, which was freely walked among the visitors when not posing for photos. I may not have been holding a camera, but this was essentially an early “selfie”.

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Even at that tender age, I was keenly interested in animals and was determined to become a zoologist when I grew up.  A year later, at my elementary school, I independently organized an elaborate coin drive with brightly decorated tin cans and an information brochure, listing animals from World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species list. In my childish enthusiasm, I informed my classmates that they could choose any animal from my brochure that they wanted to save from extinction and I would send the money to that animal’s caretaker. A young girl with rosy cheeks, who would become my best friend for nearly two decades (and counting), chose to save the unpopular axolotl, with its translucent pink skin and timid smile. She had decided that since it was the weirdest looking animal among the majestic, big-chested gorillas and tumbling panda bears in my booklet, that It would be overlooked. Astutely, especially for her age, she grasped some understanding of how and why people value certain creatures and ignore or malign others for few reasons beyond their appearance. “Charismatic animals,” or large megafauna such as elephants, big cats, and whales, tend to draw greater public interest and, as a result, more donations towards conservation efforts.

With the help of my animal-themed tins and colourful brochures, my fund raising was successful beyond my expectations. In hindsight, that success was attributable to the fact that the children (and their parents) wanted to visualize the lives of which animal they were helping as they dropped their pocket change into my tins. They chose animals they felt a connection to. In the same way, World Vision’s fundraising for their charities found much success once they began offering photos and profiles of individual children with their names and ages that one could sponsor. It would seem that if someone had the means to help a child– or some animal– in need, then they would look for something tangible in return, even if it was just their image. I think that’s just a part of human nature to gravitate to what appeals to us.

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That early experience cemented a visceral connection to wildlife which was to become my life’s passion. Now, fourteen years later I am working on my PhD at Queen’s University in environmental studies researching the lives of animals in ecotourism.

Wildlife tourism is an incredibly valuable way of engaging the public in improving the lives of individual animals and contributing to their species conservation—that is, when the tourism attraction is actually delivering on those goals. Recent studies from the WildCRU research group out of Oxford University[1] show that 3.6-6 million tourists visit 24 distinct types of wildlife attractions around the world each year (such as elephant riding, bear parks, civet coffee farms, dolphin swimming, etc.). Of these 24 types, most tout that they provide adequate animal care and contribute to conservation. In reality, however, only 6 types (accounting for 1.5k-13k animals) had net positive conservation and welfare outcomes. Meanwhile, 14 types of the 24 attractions (120k -340k animals) showed poor conservation outcomes and 18 (230k-550k animals) jeopardized the welfare of the animals involved.

There is a common thread among the 6 wildlife attractions that had net positive outcomes in support of the animals: five were sanctuaries, and one was gibbon watching. Typically, such attractions do not allow physical interactions with animals but rather observational encounters. With the wellbeing of approximately half a million individual animals at stake in global wildlife attractions, those who claim to care about the environment and its creatures cannot remain neutral. Animals have nearly no agency in poorly-managed attractions, and yet conditions are often so unbearable that individuals have begun asserting their frustration in ways which puts tourists at risk.

In 2016[2], a tourist in Thailand was thrown from the back of an elephant he was riding with his daughter. The man was trampled and gored by the elephant, marking one of a growing case file of elephants rejecting the tourists saddled to their backs. A year later[3], a Chinese tour guide in Thailand was trampled by an elephant who was angered by a poorly behaved tourist who had pulled its tail.

In the absence of global regulation of animal tourist attractions, most of the change will inevitably be driven by market forces­– otherwise known as “voting with your wallet.” While some tourists use forums such as TripAdvisor to post and review animal attractions which they find unethical, they are, unfortunately, in the minority with only about 7.8% of reviews recognizing poor welfare and conservation. Such feedback is not enough to turn the tide. Moorhouse et al. (2015) clearly recognized this lack and postulated that there was a need for “regulation, in the form of an accreditation or certification scheme, policy instruments […] or agencies to inspect and sanction [attractions] globally’. Until that time, however, tourist education is an important tool to drive market forces towards patronizing attractions with net positive outcomes for welfare and conservation.

A follow up study[4] by the same researcher group at WildCRU found that the development of a “green market” for tourism relies on tourists’ ability to differentiate beneficial from detrimental wildlife tourism. This can occur through some combination of their “priming” on welfare and conservation issues, and also increased transparency on booking sites such as TripAdvisor to avoid “greenwashing” unethical tours. In fact, the study presented respondents with 10 fake webpages which advertised different animal tourist attractions. Respondents who were primed on the likely impacts of animal tourism were 4.1 times more likely not to choose a “bad” tourist attraction to attend. Thus, with even some information about the impact of tourism on wild animals, tourists can make informed, ethical decisions about where to spend their vacation.

In 2016, TripAdvisor announced that they are adopting a policy in which they would no longer sell tickets to attractions where tourists can have physical encounters with wild or captive animals. This includes tiger selfies, elephant rides, and any number of harmful tours that can be found listed within the World Animal Protection website.[1] Following suit, environmentally-conscious travel companies such as STA Travel and Intrepid, have banned attractions featuring elephant rides or dolphinariums from their organized tours. Furthermore, TripAdvisor is developing an educational module for tourists to be “primed” on welfare and conservation issues to spot when selecting an animal attraction.

Beyond learning about what makes or breaks an ethical animal tourist attraction[2], how else can we be a more responsible, and sustainable, tourist? One way is in pledging to refrain from taking selfies with wild animals while they are held, restrained, baited with food, or are a predator species that may harm you. We can feel free to take a photo with animals that are a safe distance away in their natural home and are at liberty to move about. Pledge to the Wildlife Selfie Code organized by World Animal Protection[3] here.

I’ve come a long way from my innocence at age 6 when the photo was taken of me leaning on one of nature’s fiercest predators. Now, armed with the knowledge from studies that have revealed the untold abuse that tourist attraction animals suffer, it will come as no surprise that I am an advocate for promoting a no-wildlife-selfie M. O.  Large predators such as tigers are often sedated during human encounters in which they are held or touched.  One of the grisliest exposés of tiger tourism took place at a popular Thailand Tiger Temple[4] run by Theravada Buddhist monks, which has since been shut down. A Google image search of the temple reveals photos of tourists crouching next to sleepy-eyed tigers that are chained at the neck, some wearing hats, and reclined on a rocky floor. A 2016 raid of the Tiger Temple removed the 137 tigers used for encounters and uncovered the bodies of 40 frozen dead tiger cubs, the latter of which confirmed previous accusations that the temple had been involved in illegal breeding and smuggling of animal parts. Some of the parts were sold on site as tiger skin amulets, tiger pelts and fangs.

In 2010, 66-year old Norman Buwalda was killed by his 650lb Siberian tiger which he kept in captivity at his home in Southwold, Ontario. The tiger was one of five other big cats he kept at his home. Six years prior, a ten-year old boy was mauled by a Siberian tiger on Buwalda’s property. In 2000, I took a photo with a “tame” tiger at a pet fair in Hamilton, Ontario. Of course, there is no way for me to be sure it is the same tiger as belonging to Bulwada, nor does it really matter. The point is that there is a common misconception that wild animals, such as big cats, can be tamed and domesticated, but in fact true domestication takes millennia. Common domesticated species such as dogs, cats, and horses have been domesticated for thousands of years.

For much of my life, encountering that tiger was a big “moment” for me. Now that I’ve grown to understand the broader, more sinister implications of “tiger cuddling,” my retrospective on that moment is of a different kind. It stands in stark contrast to other wildlife encounters I’d have later in my life, such as on a primate field course with DANTA[1] in the OSA rainforest of Costa Rica; staring up at a howler monkey through my binoculars, hearing it bellow, a terrifying, other-worldly rumble like a belch from Hades himself; or, watching a troupe of squirrel monkeys descend upon our camp, so close of their own volition that I could capture a photo of one’s pensive face as it surveyed for possible food sources.

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These are the valuable, foundational animal-encounter memories that have supplanted my earlier-in-life experiences with captive wildlife. Those who have experienced animal encounters such as these—on the animal’s own terms in their natural habitat—can attest to the fact that it is an entirely more meaningful and valued experience because you are a guest in the animal’s terrain. It breeds respect for nature and investment in its conservation.

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Looking back, I think of a moment spent with a Siberian tiger that lead me to my studies in animal welfare. By signing the wildlife selfie code and making humane choices in all future encounters with wildlife, I will keep my promise to do no harm. I choose to remember and marvel at the sheer size and majesty of that creature, and with humility, understand that we must do better in sharing this planet.

Siobhan Isa, PhD student, Queen’s University,  Department of Environmental Science







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