Five Animal Adventures You Might Want to Rethink This Summer

Earlier this summer we traded ten hot days in Florida, where we live, for ten balmy days in Hawaii. Poor me, right? We surfed (a generous description of my attempts), paddled with the wildlife, rode horses in the upcountry, and ate a whole lot of local barbecue. It was a success! 

Along the way, however, we noted several disquieting similarities with our own backyard paradise. Tourism, it would seem, is the same all over. At least when it comes to animals. 

Not so surprisingly, animals are a big draw. Whether you’re a wide-eyed kid whose parents aim to please or a jaded adult looking for a rare thrill, animal venues and events still fit the bill. In a world of dwindling resources, animals are more popular than ever.

The irony, of course, is that animal adventures don’t always make use of animals in the kindest ways imaginable. Here’s a list of five of these you might want to consider carefully as you make your summer plans:

#1 Swim with the dolphins

While invariably pitched as eco-friendly, humane, animal welfare-certified (whatever that means), or described as a “sanctuary,” every single “swim-with-the-dolphins” facility in the world keeps dolphins contained in an environment considered threatening to both the dolphins and the humans who encounter them there. There are no exceptions to this rule: If they accept cash for human-dolphin encounters, dolphins suffer. (Here's a longer post on this.)

Though some countries have completely abolished this inhumane, exploitive practice (Costa Rica is a notable example), both Hawaii and the Florida Keys are littered with these attractions, all of which bill themselves as different from one another in a transparent bid to lull you into patronizing them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience the “magic” of an artificial encounter with stressed-out wildlife?

Note: Real-world, in-the-wild dolphin encounters are still to be had. No, wild dolphins won’t kiss you (sorry) but they will swim around you and even do some really cool acrobatics if you’re quiet. In my experience, all this requires is patience and a motor-free vessel (a kayak or paddleboard will do nicely). 

Here are some resources:

#2 Marine animal parks

They’re not all created equal. Some are better than others. Nonetheless, you can be sure that marine animal parks that house aquatic mammals will leave a great deal to be desired in the way of animal welfare. This is especially true of those who house the largest marine mammals in the world –– orcas, belugas, and other large aquatic mammals. 

As with many dolphin “swim-with” facilities that claim the term “sanctuary”  to describe themselves even some that bill themselves as “sanctuaries” aren’t always to be acting in the animals’ best interest. 

I suggest that you join me in protesting them –– or, at the very least, that you not patronize them. But feel free to make up your own mind. Read up on this issue here:

#3 Horseback riding

Domesticated animals are not immune from tourism-associated exploitation. I’ve seen some pretty sad equine facilities in my travels. In fact, questionably nourished, overtaxed animals seem to be the norm in most tourist destinations outside the US. Luckily, an educated consumer can easily spot the signs of neglect or abuse. Watch out for facilities with …

  • no weight limit for human riders
  • little concern for matching horse size to human size
  • open sores, particularly around the saddle or bridle
  • cranky animals (conversely, equine friendliness is a very good sign)
  • still-sweaty horses being re-saddled for new riders  

#4 Reef-related tours

Whether you’re touring the Galapagos in high style or snorkeling in the Keys, you’ll want to know what kind of mark you’re leaving behind. Even if you’re smart enough not to touch the reefs or (heaven forbid!) take something back with you, your vessel might be leaving an irreversible imprint on these fragile ecosystems. 

Don’t take anyone’s word for it; read up on your destination and arm yourself with a variety of points of view so you can make up your own mind about what’s best for the coral and fish that live in these extra-delicate habitats. And always let your tour guides know that you care how the reefs are managed for sustainability. 

Try to find tours that cater to people with animal-and eco-friendly sensibilities. But remember, it can be hard to know what you’re getting into once you’re there so educate yourself well before you go! Blogs and review sites are great ways to learn about these things. 

#5 Sport fishing

Sport fishing is perhaps the most overlooked area of animal-related tourism. That’s because those who engage in it tend to think rather more about the act of fishing itself and less about the animals themselves. This seems to be true across the board, whether trap-and-release techniques are employed or not. 

Luckily, it seems our culture is evolving somewhat on this issue: Humane catch-and-release techniques are finally catching on; shark tournaments, though still popular, are are getting far more eco-friendly now that biologists have been recruited to help tag hooked fish; and even “hookless” fly fishing is becoming a “thing.” 

To be honest, lots of this is easier said than done. But if you’re in the planning stages of a vacation, you’ll find it won’t be not too hard to re-route your activities to include the most animal-friendly options and keep the creepy ones from encroaching on your precious travel time. Aloha! 

Here are few animal-related tours I’d recommend:

#1 Kayaks and paddles over jet skis and ATVs

The latter are almost always implicated in habitat destruction. Skip them. They’re expensive, anyway. 

#2 Birding

You might know this sport as “birdwatching,” but serious aficionados call it “birding.” Buying a birding guide is a great way to enjoy all your travels. Whether you’re touring your state, the US or the whole world, getting to know the local bird-life is truly illuminating. But beware: This can become a habit bordering on addiction. (My father’s an avid birder so I happen to know this from personal experience.) Here’s a guide to getting started, courtesy of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.

#3 Hookless fly-fishing

Why not try it? It’s altogether a different sport, one that might just be worth the effort to learn. 

#4 Marine mammal watching

Whether you’re watching whales and seals in the northwest or dolphins in the southeast, be sure you find a good crew to take you out. In Hawaii, the dolphin outfits can actually receive “dolphin friendly” certification. These groups stay at least fifty feet away from pods of dolphins and try not to disturb their natural movements. 

#5 Snorkeling and diving

Again, be sure you find a company that knows its stuff. Hint: Anyone who doesn’t tell you to keep your hands to yourself and to never ever touch the reefs isn’t worth its salt.

Have any more ideas? I know we’re nearing summer’s end, but we’re all ears: