The Middle Age Wanderer

by: Lisa Bundesen 

Ethical animal tourism is top of mind for many of us when we travel.  So how do we tell if an animal encounter is ethical?  I wanted to start by explaining why I believe I am in a position to talk about ethical animal encounters.  For almost ten years I sat on the board of one of the largest animal welfare organisations in the Southern Hemisphere.  The organisation provides assistance to over 50,000 animals (of which half are wildlife) every year, operates 10 shelters and a large wildlife hospital.

What Is Ethical?

First what do we mean by ethical?  The Cambridge Dictionary defines “ethical” as:

“Relating to beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.”

What is morally right and wrong will be different for different people.  What we consider to be right and wrong is influenced by many things such as our religious beliefs, culture, our upbringing and the environment we live in.  So just considering what is morally right and wrong, while a starting point, will not necessarily help us answer this question.

The Five Freedoms

So, my next consideration is the Five Freedoms.

The Five Freedoms are internationally accepted standards of care that affirm every living being’s right to humane treatment.  In 1965 a British parliamentary enquiry was held into the welfare of animals in intensive livestock production systems.  That enquiry focused on the need for all farmed animals to be able to do basic activities such as stand up, lie down, turn around, stretch limbs and groom all parts of their bodies.  

It wasn’t until 1979 that the mental needs of animals were considered.  Professor John Webster of the UK Farm Animal Advisory Committee extended the concept initially developed from the parliamentary enquiry to encompass both physical and mental needs of animals.  This included avoiding fear and distress as well as being able to express normal behaviour for their species.  From this, the Five Freedoms were developed.

While these standards were originally set for farm animals and later adapted for companion animals, they equally relate to wildlife that we may encounter while travelling.

What Are The Five Freedoms?

The Five Freedoms of animal welfare were developed to meet not just the physical needs of animals, but also the mental needs as well. The Five Freedoms are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst. Animals should have access to an appropriate diet to maintain their health and well being as well as access to fresh water.
  • Freedom from discomfort. Animals should have an appropriate environment in which to live.  This includes having appropriate shelter and places to rest / sleep.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease. Animals should be provided with appropriate preventative medications or there should be the ability to quickly diagnose and treat any illness or injury.  This includes monitoring animals’ physical health and vaccinating animals, as well as treating illness and injuries with appropriate care, medications and in an appropriate time frame.
  • Freedom to express normal behaviours. Animals need to be provided sufficient space and facilities to be able to express their normal behaviours.  It also means that animals should be able to have the company of others of the species to interact with or avoid members of their own species if that is normal behaviour.  Animals should be able to express the behaviour they would normally express if they were not in captivity / domesticated.
  • Freedom from fear and distress. Animals need conditions and treatment that avoids mental suffering.  Like with humans, mental health of animals is just as important as their physical health.  And just like with humans, mental / psychological distress can very quickly result in physical illness. 

Five Domains

In 1994, the Five Freedoms were tweaked by Professor David Mellor and Dr Cam Reid who reformulated them as Five Domains.  In simple form a comparison is as follows:

Five Freedoms Five Domains
1.  From hunger and thirst 1.  Nutrition
2.  From discomfort 2.  Environment
3.  From pain, injury and disease 3.  Health
4.  To express normal behaviour 4.  Behaviour
5.  From fear and distress 5.  Mental state

The two essentially have the same elements.  So how is it different.  RSPCA Australia explains it well:

“To help ensure animals have a ‘life worth living’ they must have the opportunity to have positive experiences, such as anticipation, satisfaction and satiation. To enable this, those responsible for the care of animals need to provide them with environments that not only allow, but encourage animals to express behaviours that are rewarding. This shift in understanding is the basis for the Five Domains model incorporating positive welfare states.”

The Five Domains extends the Five Freedoms putting much greater emphasis on animals being able to be exposed to or engage in activities that provide positive experiences and mental stimulation for the animals.

This concept of an animal being able to have a ‘life worth living’ has stayed with me since first discovering the Five Domains. 

Is An Animal Encounter Ethical?

So having the above knowledge how do we tell if an animal encounter is ethical?  As travellers, we send a strong message with how we spend our money.  The more people who visit ethical animal encounters rather than unethical encounters, the stronger the message sent to those in the tourism industry doing the wrong thing.

1. Try To Go Wild If You Can

By seeing animals in the wild, we see them in their natural habitat, expressing their natural instincts without interference from handlers, restrictions of pens or cages or the fear of being mistreated.  With this being said, you need to find a reputable and licensed tour operator.  These operators should ensure that all legal requirements such as distances you need to keep from the animals.  They should also be able to show that they maintain an ethical stance for the protection of the animals they are taking you to see.

You may also encounter wildlife when out on your own.  In this photo of the wombat, we were hiking Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, Australia.  We crouched down on the wooden walking trail (you can see me in the corner of the photo) and let the wombat come as close as it wanted to.  We made no attempt to touch it or make noise around it.  It happily walked almost up to us, gave us a perfect pose for some photos before wandering off.  You can see my wombat photo gallery here.

2. Do Your Research

Many wild animals are in captivity.  Some of these animals are able to live in a sanctuary that cares for them enabling them to live a life as close as possible to what they would have in the wild.  But many of these animals don’t.  It is these encounters we need to avoid.

It’s important to research any animal encounter you intend to visit.  Just because an animal encounter rates highly on websites such as Trip Advisor or Google reviews don’t necessarily mean it is ethical and cares for its animals.  Reading the comments can help, especially those one and two star ratings (these will usually be where you find any comments on the unethical treatment of the animals).

Looking at photos from Google searches or on social media such as Instagram (check the geo tag location) provides you with visual information.  Do the photos of the animal encounter show that people, for example, are people able to ride or bath with the elephants, hold the chimpanzee or are the animals forced to do tricks.  Or do the photos show the animals being able to exhibit that natural instincts while human visitors keep their distance.  

3. Culture Does Not Excuse Animal Cruelty

Culture or tradition in no way is an excuse for animal cruelty.  Be aware of cultural or traditional events that may involve animal cruelty.  For example, these events can include the use of animals in bullfighting, cockfighting and rodeos.  PETA has written an article titled The 14 Worst ‘Festivals’ Still Taking Place Today (WARNING: this is distressing).

4. Be Aware Of What’s On The Menu

In many countries, you can eat animals that have either been cruelly treated while alive as well as during the slaughter process as well as wild and endangered animals.  For example, you can eat whale meat in a number of restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland. Most Icelandic people do not eat whale meat at it is in the restaurants for tourists.  We had a simple rule.  If whale meat was on the menu, we did not eat at that restaurant.  Other common menu items include blue fin tuna, shark fin soup and caribou.  Here is a list of ten endangered species that you can still eat.

5. Don’t Get Your Photo Taken With Wild Animals

Yes lots of wild animals are cute, but that doesn’t mean they are a prop for a photo.  What is happening to the animals mental and physical well being by being handled by tens if not hundreds of people, including children?  Younger children, in particular, do not necessarily understand how fragile an animal can be.  Camera noise and flashes can cause unnecessary distress to the animals.

Many of these wild animals, especially larger ones, such as tigers and larger primates, can be drugged to keep them quiet while the photos of being taken.  These animals can also be kept in small enclosures during these “photo sessions”, not allowing the animals the ability to move freely.

6. Avoid Entertainment With Animals

Neither wild nor domestic animals should be used for the entertainment of humans.  In most of these cases, animals are “trained” to do tricks that are not naturally part of their expressed behaviours.  An elephant does not naturally want to do a headstand, a dolphin does not want to jump onto a platform to give a tourist a kiss (let alone be in captivity) and a bear does not want to ride a bicycle.

7. Consider The Welfare Of Domestic Animals

We also regularly encounter domestic animals being used in tourist activities.  It might be a horse carriage ride through a city, a camel ride across the desert, horse riding through the countryside or dog or reindeer sledding in the snow.  Now firstly, I need to say that I have serious issues with horse carriage rides in cities.  The horses can be spooked by the traffic noise, can be involved in traffic accidents (and the horse rarely if ever comes out ok) and can fall on bitumen causing serious injury.  For these reasons I never take horse carriage rides in cities.

When it comes to other domestic animals encounters, your understanding of the Five Domains is important. Things to consider, and specifically ask about include:

  • Does the animal look malnourished?  Ask the operator what their feeding program is and question them if you have concerns about the animals health.
  • Does the operator allow an animal to carry a person too large for the animals size? (the donkeys of Santorini were a well publicised example of this with action being taken by the Greek government after public outcry)
  • How do they monitor the health and well being of their animals, including what is their policy on obtaining veterinary care?  For example, do they have an upper spend limit for veterinary care before euthanising their animals?
  • What is the operators breeding program?  If they don’t breed their own animals, do they obtain them from breeders that operate ethically?  If they do breed their own animals, how often do they allow their animals to breed and what do they do with the babies that are not useful to the operator? 
  • What happens to the animals after they are no longer able to work?  Ask the operator what their end of life program is for their animals and do they have a “no cull or kill” policy.  It’s a terrible fact that many animals are only wanted by tourist operators while they earn them money. Once an animal is no longer able to work, they are killed.  For example, in Finland, dog sled operators can shoot their animals after they are no longer useful to them.

8. Use A Reputable And Trusted Tour Operator

As noted in point 2 above, research is key.  Find a reputable and trusted tour operator that is known for ethical animal encounters.

9. Encourage Others To Visit The Reputable Encounters You Have Been To

We can all do our part to encourage others to visit reputable animal encounters we have experienced (and discourage visiting encounters that aren’t ethical).  For example, leave reviews and use your social media presence to encourage others to visit or.


This list is by no means exhaustive.  Have I missed something off this list?  Please let me know and I will update it.  

But I always go back to the concept of does the animal have a ‘life worth living’.  This and the Five Domains are the basis for me including each of these items on this list.  All animals, wild and domestic have the right to have a “life worth living”.