Airbnb, TripAdvisor announcements herald progress for wild animals trapped in tourism industry

Animals like elephants, whales and dolphins continue to be taken from the wild and coerced into cruel captivity in order to entertain tourists. In India, HSI has been working to end the use of elephants for joyrides at the Amer Fort in the state of Rajasthan. Photo by Ian Bottle/Alamy Stock Photo

Today, the New York Times reported on Airbnb’s new featured offering of “animal experiences,” which will have an ethical focus and will ban any direct contact with wild animals. The announcement comes on the heels of a decision by TripAdvisor, reported just yesterday, to stop ticket sales to all attractions that feature whales and dolphins.

With its new animal experiences, Airbnb appears eager to strike a balance between what it perceives as its customers wanting to “reconnect with animals” and “fulfilling that urge in a responsible way.” The organization will not feature or support operations that involve any direct contact with wild animals, including petting, feeding or riding them, with some exceptions for nonprofits conducting conservation research. Animals such as horses and camels, should they be involved, may carry no more than one rider and no more than 20 percent of their body weight. According to the Times, the rules also prohibit elephant interactions, including riding, bathing or feeding, as well as any experiences involving captive marine mammals.

These are promising developments and they show a growing recognition within the tourism industry – which all too often has tended to exploit animals, and particularly wild animals – of the suffering these creatures endure when forced to interact with humans. Travelers themselves are also increasingly realizing this. A survey released earlier this year found ethical travel is on the rise, and when reflecting on previous trips, a wide range of wildlife-related activities, like posing for photographs with captive wildlife, riding on elephants and swimming with dolphins, caused travelers to experience “travel guilt.”

While the announcements from TripAdvisor and Airbnb came within a day of each other, the industry has shown a slow but steady movement in the right direction of late. TripAdvisor’s announcement yesterday built upon its 2016 animal welfare policy, which ended sales of tickets to experiences where travelers have physical contact with captive wild animals, such as elephant riding and tiger petting. And in 2017, Expedia announced that it would no longer offer certain animal activities. The online travel agency partnered with us and other groups to provide education to visitors about the issues wild animals face, such as how to spot a phony animal sanctuary – the kind of facility that calls itself a “sanctuary” or “refuge,” but is more interested in profits than saving animals, and may actually be mistreating animals.

But we are also aware that this fight is far from over. The abuse of wildlife for entertainment is a major problem the world over. Animals like elephants, whales and dolphins continue to be taken from the wild and coerced into cruel captivity in order to entertain tourists, and the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International have been involved for a long time in efforts at the global level to stop such exploitation.

For instance, HSI/India has been working to end the use of elephants for joyrides at the Amer Fort in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Last year, at our urging, local authorities in India began an investigation into the abuse of the elephants who lead a dreary life in inadequate facilities with an insufficient diet and lack of medical care. The animals are often abused with bull hooks, and are beaten and kicked.

In South Africa, we are fighting to end the lion “snuggle scam” industry and today, on World Animal Day, Humane Society International/Africa and FOUR PAWS South Africa urged tourists, travel guides and tour operators to refuse to participate in this industry, which has an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 lions in captivity. The industry promotes human-lion interactions, such as cub bottle-feeding or petting and walking with lions. When the animals are too old for such interactions, they are offered to be shot as canned-hunting trophies or slaughtered to meet the demand of the international lion-bone trade. We are asking tourists to instead support ethical sanctuaries and wildlife game drives as natural and cruelty-free options to see lions roaming freely in their natural habitat.

Stateside, we are urging your support to end the problem of roadside zoos — which also offer up infant animals, like tiger cubs, for selfies and feeding, while starving and abusing the animals — by supporting the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Versions of the bill have been introduced in both chambers of Congress.

We know now that the instant gratification of an Instagram selfie with a captive tiger cub or dolphin is not worth the pain and abuse that the animal has to endure for a lifetime. Most people love animals, and, if given the information and the opportunity, would love to interact with them in ways that do not harm the animals, creating a better experience for everyone involved. We are gratified to see that businesses like Airbnb and TripAdvisor are increasingly recognizing this fact, and taking smart steps to prevent the suffering and neglect of animals while boosting their own standing in the eyes of consumers.

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