Please Watch Responsibly: A View on Viewing Animals

Written From… The front seat of a Volkswagen Polo in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa

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“There!” It was practically a shout, but when you see your first African elephant in the wild, well, who can blame you for getting excited? There were actually three of them – one gigantic bull and two smaller females. They flapped their ears idly as they picked their way through the bush, pulling up whole trees with ease and crunching them in their mouths. And my mouth? It was also open wide.

I grew up in Oakland, California – a total city kid who can navigate any subway system with ease but who, to this day, still freaks out when I see a wild rabbit or deer. When I was around 8 years old, my mom signed me up for some sort of animal card collection. Every month, I would get a pack of different animal cards – a splashy picture on the front, and all of the genus, biological, and habitat stats on the back. I had a special box in which to file all of the cards: yellow for mammals, blue for reptiles, green for birds, purple for the insects, which I had to flip over before filing because the images of spiders and larvae grossed me out too much. I loved learning about the animals, turning their proper Latin names over and over on my tongue. Ursus arctos. Panthera tigris. Cervus Canadensis.

A lone elephant in a field of grass
Pilanesberg – Photo by Gabrielle Soria

But the only time I saw these animals, minus the ones I could spot in the U.S. National Parks where we camped some summers, was at the zoo. I grew up with access to two city zoos: the Oakland Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo. Trips to both left a huge impact on me – so much so that the first little story that I ever wrote was inspired by the lions in the San Francisco Zoo. When one of the tigers escaped in the early 2000’s and was subsequently shot, I cried for her loss like I would have a pet’s.

As I grew and moved around the world, I learned more about people, and more about animals. My freshman year of college, I made the mistake of saying how much I loved visiting the zoo as a child and was treated to a monologue about the cruelty and inhumanity of zookeeping from an animal-rights activist classmate. I realized that the awe and wonder I’d experienced as a child at the zoo had eclipsed the actual living, breathing animal. The idea – the symbol – of the lion had become more powerful than the one in front of me.

Two elephants in a zoo with a baby elephant walking behind them
Zoo Elephants – Photo by Gabrielle Soria [Feature image]

And as I read the news and saw more cities in different countries around the world, I saw for myself both the good and bad practices for keeping animals in captivity. My travels have taken me through a wide range of animal encounters, some by chance, and some by design. I’ve tried to expose myself to as many facets as possible, to see, experience, and draw my own conclusions – both about the animals and their environments.

I’ve visited animal refuges where wolves run free in their packs, strode the concrete paths of the National Zoo in D.C. in search of pandas, watched a zebra keep pace with our car on a dirt road in Namibia. I’ve talked to keepers and rangers to hear their perspectives. From one side, I heard of the importance of making the experience of encounter as nice as possible for the human guests, who provide the funding necessary to take care of the animals. From the other, I heard how important it is to keep focus on the animals, even if that means sacrificing some human comfort. And I learned the hard way that not every organization that looks clean at face value has good intentions – I was horrified to open the news one day and see that the Tiger Temple I’d visited near Bangkok was killing cubs for illegal sale. Afterwards, I made myself a promise that I would carefully vet places I would potentially give my tourism dollars to in the future – and advocate others to do the same.

As my partner and I traveled through South Africa and Namibia, we went on game drives, road trips, and guided safaris. We saw animals roaming free, animals in private reserves, and animals in sanctioned reserves. Sitting in our rental car in Pilanesberg National Park that afternoon, watching that trio of elephants munching in front of us, I came to a sad realization. At zoos, I’ve always seen elephants in large, packed dirt areas, with hopefully at least 3+ other elephants for company. But in Pilanesberg, I saw the way they lolled through their lush, jungle-like atmosphere. The way they enjoyed trees and bushes and grass and rocks – the full richness of their environment. It made me sad to think, then, about the elephants of my childhood, who had an annual treat of leftover pumpkins and Christmas trees to play with, but who otherwise spent the bulk of their time listlessly surrounded by drab brown walls and a gawking parade of well-intentioned guests.

An Elephant raising it's trunk in a field of grass
Elephant Raising Its Trunk in Pilanesberg – Photo by Gabrielle Soria

I understand the point of view of my college classmate – that animals don’t belong (and certainly struggle to thrive) in captivity. I’ve come to appreciate the work of sanctuaries and animal reserves, where the animals aren’t limited to a single enclosed space or to interacting with only one species. But I also understand the intention of zoo facilities: to bring awareness and appreciation for these animals, to study them closely and better understand their needs, to breed them and rehabilitate them. And I know from my own personal experience that I care much more about animals in general because I saw their representatives in my zoo.

Building a rapport with one captive animal got me invested in the entire species – and made me much more inclined to pour attention and funding into conservation and environmental efforts. So what is the right way – the best way – for humans and animals to interact? How can we make sure that even low-income residents with little resources for seeing animals in the wild still grow up with access to and appreciation for these animals? Can zoos be a way to responsibly promote animal viewing experiences?

I don’t claim to have the answers – I still have a lot to see and learn. But I will share you with the question that has refused to leave my mind since I saw those elephants in Pilanesberg. If one animal suffering a lower quality of life means one thousand people could become more invested in taking better care of our world, is the trade-off worth making?

Gabrielle Soria is the founder of Up and Gone, a travel and expat lifestyle blog. An American ad creative who’s been on the move since she was 17, she loves deep conversations on culture, frequenting cocktail bars, and reading the books other left behind at the hostel. She currently lives and works in Berlin.

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23 thoughts on “Please Watch Responsibly: A View on Viewing Animals

  • March 20, 2018 at 11:46 am
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    I agree with you! Travelling south east Asia I came across so many elephant ride camps. It makes me sad!

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    • March 22, 2018 at 9:17 am
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      Agreed. There are some rehabilitation centers for abused elephants throughout Southeast Asia, though. If you want to have an elephant experience, I’ve heard that can be a powerful one. 🙂

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  • March 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm
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    I completely agree with the rhoughts you have expressed in your post. Thanks for sharing.

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  • March 20, 2018 at 7:40 pm
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    Hey Grabriella, I love the perspective! I’m an animal lover and traveler too. From your research, what are the animal friendly places you can recommend that either keep animals in the wild or treat them humanely?

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    • March 22, 2018 at 9:21 am
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      Hey Carlos! Thanks for the comment. It’s a tough one to answer, haha. I think it all depends on what part of the world you’re visiting. On my blog, I go into detail about some of the places I particularly liked in South Africa (ChaZen Private Game Reserve comes immediately to mind), and Pilanesberg. Oatland Island, in Georgia in the US, is another one of my favorites. It bills itself as a zoo-like preserve.

      Basically, I look for places that recreate or provide natural habitats for the animals they have, and who have a primary focus on what’s good for the animals, rather than making a spectacle for the human visitors.

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  • March 21, 2018 at 8:44 am
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    I cried the first time I saw an elephant wandering about in Kenya.. and Giraffes as well. So spectacular. It is a hard topic, but the only way we find answers is by thinking critically and I think you are doing that! Happy travels

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    • March 22, 2018 at 9:22 am
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      I agree—in some ways, it’s almost surprising how much seeing these animals can affect you. I was so intensely humbled by that experience. Thanks for reading!

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  • March 22, 2018 at 7:18 am
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    I love the way you started this post! But I wonder if you weren’t scared to be so up and close to the herd of elephants. They look gigantic. I have a personal liking for elephants, but you cannot deny their size can scare the hell out of anyone. I agree about the zoo matter. But most of us aren’t fortunate enough to be born in Africa. Whether we love them or not zoo is our only source to spot wild animals about whom we only read. Liked reading about your experience and can’t wait to explore this place on my own one day!

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    • March 22, 2018 at 9:25 am
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      Well, we didn’t start out scared. 😉 They were pretty far away at first. And then as they wandered closer, we realized how large they were. It wasn’t until that big bull was literally 2 meters from the front of our car that it first occurred to me—uh, hey, maybe you should be concerned. But for their size, these guys were really calm and much more focused on the bushes than the cars—though the rangers later told me that it’s always important to exercise caution and good sense when getting close to them. Thanks for reading!

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  • March 22, 2018 at 10:28 am
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    I liked your perspective. I have spotted elephants in zoo only as we cant’t afford to see them otherwise. But someday, want to see them in the wilderness with my own eyes. Thanks for sharing

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  • March 22, 2018 at 2:13 pm
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    Totally agree with you. I have never been to a ride camp during my travels in SEA for 7 months. Thanks for sharing

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  • March 22, 2018 at 7:38 pm
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    I completely agree with you about the meaning of Zoo parks, some species wouldn’t be alive without help, sad as it is … But I feel many people who go to the Zoo just don’t connect the dots, they still take it as a fun time and completely forget about the horrid truth behind it, that many animals don’t have their natural places to live anymore … I like to see animals in natural reserves more, watching them behind bars is heartbreaking 🙁

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    • March 29, 2018 at 7:41 am
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      Connecting the dots is a great way to put it. You’re right—the bars institute a layer of reserve, like a screen or a pane of glass. Makes it feel more like entertainment and less like reality. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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  • March 23, 2018 at 7:50 am
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    I was just like you when I was younger – I loved the zoo, but I also realize more and more that the zoo is not where those animals belong. Thank you for bringing up this subject!

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  • March 23, 2018 at 2:50 pm
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    Thank you so much for exploring both perspectives on these topics with zoos and sanctuaries! It’s hard to critically think about what the best course of action is for protecting animals, educating the public, and raising awareness, while keeping the well being of the animal in mind

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  • March 24, 2018 at 4:58 pm
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    wow..thanks for sharing this useful and unique post..i couldnt agree with u more..thats y i always try to avoid any animal ride..it makes me so so sad..

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  • March 24, 2018 at 6:06 pm
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    This is such a well written and engaging post that really makes you think. I loved zoos as a child, so exotic and special. As an adult I have mixed views. I recently took my daughter to the Wellington zoo here in NZ and noticed a huge difference from it as the zoo from my childhood. Lots of conservation signs about how the zoo is helping those in the wild and what we can do, the enclosures are much more natural but still, they are enclosures. There seems to be more awareness now than there used to be

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    • March 29, 2018 at 7:46 am
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      That’s great to hear. Hopefully, as we all grow up and/or grow in consciousness, we can continue to influence this evolution.

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  • March 27, 2018 at 12:39 am
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    This is truly a lovely post. I can really sense your big heart to the animals and their environment. Just like you, I always in awe whenever I visited animal zoo when I was a kiddo, but after visiting different places and learned a lot through my travels, I realized that animals should enjoy their freedom while ambling around their comfort zone and innate state.

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  • March 27, 2018 at 3:56 pm
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    I absolutely agree with you! I love elephants and will never be able to understand how some people can’t be more considerate when it comes to treating them well and travel responsibly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  • March 28, 2018 at 2:52 pm
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    Is always so hard to find the balance in this world, right? This is such a delicate subject and we always try to look from all perspectives and keep our minds open to the issue. As vegan, ethical and sustainable souls and animal rights defenders, we don’t agree with all those camps just to exploit the animals and making a fortune out of tourism. Is such a shame to see all those amazing creatures, that are here to live fully as they should, being held under poor circumstances and to make a contribution to it, we simply have to cut on this activities and don’t give money to them. But there is always some magical places and animal sanctuaries that nurture an experience where us, human beings can be in total harmony with the animals and here resides the true beauty of this. Is always hard to find a balance as we said in the beginning and that is why we have to find it within ourselves, always questioning and see the world by other people’s and animals eyes. Somewhere in this world there is always a bright side 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your perspective,
    xx

    Patricia & Miguel
    http://www.freeoversea.com/blog/our-first-workaway-experience

    Reply

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