I wanted to just write about my second trip to the land of smiles and fill it with lots of great photos of white sand, crystal waters, palm trees and sipping cocktails in a hammock but I realised I had more to say about a particular subject that seems to be throughout the country.
I won’t pretend I know all about anything, I will only put forward my personal experiences and tell you what I’ve learnt, that isn’t to say that I am right and I’ll always be open for a discussion about your own personal experiences and I also admit to making mistakes and I can be\have been fooled by the trade. I will not however change my mind that animal cruelty is wrong and knowing what I know now regret what I might have paid for.
We didn’t know Thailand was so big on animal exploitation back in 2013, but it didn’t take long to witness things that didn’t take a genius to work out was wrong. Our first night in Thailand was in Patong. The streets were packed with people, stalls, entertainers, ladyboys, reps and… slow lorises.
Yep, that’s right slow lorises. I had never seen one of these animals in my life, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see one, let alone many, in the middle of a busy, noisy street with thousands of people getting drunk. If you’ve never heard of one please don’t go searching for videos because that only adds to the demand of people wanting one. The fact is, if there’s any animal that belongs only in the wild and couldn’t survive being out of their natural habitat this was probably it.
We were asked multiple times, even INSIDE bars where the music was louder, the flashing lights more intense and where they were surrounded by even more drunk people. We didn’t need to be educated to know how cruel this was, we said no without hesitation. I even told one of the men that what he was doing was disgusting and look how terrified the animal was. He didn’t care, he just moved on to the next group of people asking for money for photos with the poor thing and the most annoying participants were the tourists buying into it! It made me so angry. At the time we were deflated to think that a country we had been looking forward to visiting and were planning on travelling all over, was supportive of such cruelty. Faith was restored when we found out it was illegal, I spotted a leaflet about it and posted it all over my Facebook to make sure anyone visiting knew it was illegal. Because we certainly wish we knew so that we could have reported them.
Silver lining – we managed to alert a police officer of slow loris trade in the area and they reacted very quickly to it. I don’t know what happened to the guy though.
Slow Lorises are taken from their natural habitat and their fangs are removed without any anaesthetic causing great pain and long term repercussions to its health. They have a very specific diet that cannot be met outside of their natural habitat and so their lifespan is severely shortened. They are nocturnal animals with very sensitive eyesight so the bright lights are very unnatural for them. These animals can’t display fear like most animals but I assure you they are terrified. Every time they are plonked on your shoulder for a photo or shoved in your face to allow you to see how cute they are and entice you in, you are contributing to their early death, the pain and suffering of more slow lorises and eventually the extinction of the species.
We’ve all heard of the Tiger “sanctuaries” in Thailand.
When I first visited Thailand in 2013 I really wanted to experience an encounter with a Tiger. I’m a cat lover and love all cats big or small. The adverts for Tiger Temple were everywhere, we knew about the place before we even got off the plane and I don’t even know why we knew about it. Good advertising probably. But we also knew how unethical it was, how poorly the tigers were treated. We had already seen animal cruelty in the streets first hand – first in Patong with the slow lorises and again in Bangkok with the gibbons – so we had to do some research first because seeing a Tiger chained and beaten was not what I wanted.
We asked a lot of tour reps a lot of questions. “Was it possible to see tigers without contributing to their exploitation?” and “Tiger Kingdom” in Chiang Man popped up a couple of times. Different to Tiger Temple and tour operators told us that the animals were well looked after there, the animals weren’t chained, beaten or drugged. They had their own enclosures to run around and swim in the pools and they also told us that a portion of the money spent at the park went towards the conservation of the big cats. They even told us that the tigers there were rescued tigers that had never lived in the wild so therefore couldn’t be released. We were sold. We were excited and we spent money on a train ticket to Chiang Mai. We spent the night on a train with beds to get there.
We hired a moped to get the rest of the way and when we arrived the entrance was beautiful! We were very hopeful. Walking inside there was a fountain in the middle of the room, serene music in the background, it was like walking into a spa. We were asked to choose which size tiger we’d like to have a photo with and that instantly got our backs up. “So the tigers have to pose for a photo?!” I asked. The lady was quite vague, she said “no, you only use your own camera or phone to take any photos, no cameras here” she said. “But which size tiger do you want to share an enclosure?” Realising that the tigers were separated according to size/age and we’d only be able to afford one enclosure to go inside we chose the biggest tigers. We also realised that the younger the tigers the more expensive the encounter but that’s not why we chose the big tigers, we just thought it would be the quietest enclosure.
I was pleasantly surprised at a couple of things;
- The enclosures were big enough for the tigers to run and play and each enclosure had their own swimming pool.
- The tigers were able to go where they wanted and weren’t chained or forced to pose and there really wasn’t anyone asking for money for photos.
- They genuinely seemed happy, most of them were playing with each other, others were walking around and some were relaxing in the shade.
- I watched at the way the tigers acted around the keepers and the tigers treated the humans like family. Rubbing their faces on them and play fighting with them. They definitely weren’t afraid of people, nor were they aggressive towards people in any way.
I spotted this beautiful boy having a rest and the keeper encouraged me to sit with him. The keeper asked for my phone, took some photos and handed it back to me
However, I stayed wary throughout my visit, continued to ask questions and was skeptical still wanting reassurance;
- The enclosures were still enclosures, they were still wild animals with wild instincts (even domesticated house cats have all of their wild instincts) Not only that but the enclosures were surrounded by steel cage wire and most of the flooring was hard flooring.
- Although they weren’t forced to sit on a pedestal, they were guided or lured with food or toys every 5 minutes so that a tourist could get their photo. If they fell asleep they were often disturbed sooner or later. Let’s not forget these animals sleep a lot, especially during the day and that didn’t seem possible here.
- The keepers had sticks probably to protect themselves although I saw them mostly using them to, what I can only describe as taunting the tigers similar to playing with your house cat but it made me wonder what else they’d use the sticks for when no one was looking.
While wondering around the rest of the park where we could only watch from the outside of the enclosures now, we saw some playful baby tigers. Tourists would sit on the floor and it was exactly like watching someone play with a domesticated kitten so no immediate concerns there. We also spotted newborn tigers through a window which seemed like we weren’t supposed to be able to see them but luckily I have a good zoom. It was odd that there would be newborn tigers at a park that only has rescued tigers. It was obvious now that they were breeding.
More alarmingly we came across a LION. A lion asleep in a tiny cage out of the way of all the tourists. Why would a tiger conservation have a lion? I never found out.
Let’s not underestimate the power of photographs. They are the reason that Tiger Temple was investigated and shut down in 2016. You can read about it here; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36451512
I hope these photos help to raise awareness so that people can visit these countries with their mind made up already because when we went we were clueless. Ask questions and make good choices.
I visited Thailand again in 2017. I didn’t travel much this time as I was on holiday for 2 weeks staying in a beautiful hotel in Khao Lak.
I was more savvy than last time, I already knew there was no such thing as cruelty free when it came to elephant trekking but I did wonder about elephant bathing. It wasn’t easy to find but there was a tour in Khao Lak that were all about fighting against Elephant Trekking and bringing awareness to people. They claimed to be one of the first in Thailand and the only elephant tour in all of Khao Lak that wanted to change the minds of tourists about riding an elephant.
We were picked up and driven to an open field with 4 elephants ranging in size. The elephants came over to us straight away as they knew it was feeding time. Each elephant had its own trainer who stood next to them while we fed them, showing us the right way to hold the banana to make it easier for the elephant. Then It was time to take a bath. All 4 elephants went into the river first, led by their trainers and the group were then invited to get into the water. Everyone was given a scrubbing brush and that was it! Everyone got to work scrubbing the elephants, their skin is so tough I doubt they even knew were were scrubbing them!
Once again, I was observant. I noticed a couple of things that made me question everything all over again;
- The trainers each had a bull hook. These are used on elephants in methods to crush their spirit so that they can be submissive and trained to do what they want. I suppose they could also be used to keep the elephants in line by just holding them to intimidate them. I didn’t see them being used to hit them but it begs the question, Why do they need them if they’re not planning on using them?
- While in the water, one of the trainers climbed onto one of the elephants back and rode them and encouraged the elephant to spray water from its trunk by kicking it. This just tells me that the elephant is trained to do as it’s told so what training method did they use?
Bottom line, there’s no way to tell if a company is cruelty free or not. I think the best thing to do is go by the rule, if animals are involved don’t pay for it! Money is what fuels the trade and allows them to A. continue and B. expand.
Here’s a useful link if you’d like to keep reading about animal tourism in Thailand
Next time I visit Thailand I won’t be buying into anymore animal excursions because I had such high hopes for that elephant one but I left once again feeling like I’d just fuelled a trade that I wasn’t 100% sure about despite being told they had good morals. It’s like when someone lies to you and you want to give them another chance. So I’ve sadly stopped believing that any animal excursion is a good one.
The answer is in the title – DON’T pay a penny!
If you have any similar experiences or maybe you want to share some places you’ve visited that are ethical and preserve animal welfare I’d like to hear from you!
Thanks for reading!