The elephant. It’s intelligence, social complexities, and sheer size alone capture our wonder. They are magnificent creatures! And sadly, highly endangered. With the increase in eco-tourism outfits, it begs the question: when is a ‘sanctuary’ really a sanctuary? How can we assess sanctuaries to determine quality of animal care and long-term sustainability for the species and the greater environment? I ask myself this question, because it can be so hard to know what’s really happening.
Having lived in Asia for a few years, I developed an affinity for the Asian Elephant, and visited elephant ‘sanctuaries’ in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. Unfortunately, not all of those visits were positive. And I still look back with regret and sadness over the plight of those sentient creatures I met and the conditions under which they lived.
But fortunately, it helped me refine and strengthen the resolve to become more informed. And I have since discovered that there are truly spectacular folks out there who do run sanctuaries with a single-minded purpose in seeing these elephants not just survive, but thrive. Our support, either through philanthropic donations, volunteer service, or paid tour visits, help drive this mission further. These are the moments when our travel can be a win-win-win for all sides.
Although this post is primarily highlighting elephants, we can use the same process to help evaluate the conditions of other animal-tourism outfits out there, adjusted for specific creature needs. For starters, the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare provide a great baseline for evaluation:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort (shelter)
- Freedom from pain, injury, and disease (medical care)
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
Providing food/water, shelter and medical care ~ yeah, those are pretty straightforward. It’s the last two on this list, #4 and #5, that really deserve a more critical look, because they are arguably more subjective than the first three freedoms and can inspire heated debate.
Take, for example, elephant riding. Is it normal behavior for an elephant to carry people on it’s back? Are their skeletal structures appropriately built for this? How much painful training are they forced to endure to become complacent? How does any of this even come close to ensuring at least 3 of the above welfare freedoms?
All sanctuaries exist within very real resource constraints – money, available land space, staffing, etc. However, the core tenants of their mission and how they operate will tell us what we want to know. Here are some key questions to ask/be alert to when researching animal sanctuaries you wish to support:
- How well does the facility provide sufficient food/water, shelter? Is there careful, regular management by behavior and veterinary specialists?
- Do the animals have enough space to more around freely? Are they provided with enough social interaction, and have the ability to move away if they feel distressed?
- If I’m visiting with the animals, do they have the ability to get away from me? Just because I’m enjoying our interaction, doesn’t mean they are.
- What is the animal’s story? Find out where they came from, and how the sanctuary is providing rehab for those who have come from potentially traumatic or abusive situations.
- How is the sanctuary working to help both captive and wild elephant populations?
- How do they spend their money and what are their conservation goals?
- Do they have a non-profit charity platform which goes to conserving wild habitat/populations, or supporting local communities?
- How do they treat their staff? Staff who have healthcare benefits and feel respected are more likely to extend the same care to the animals.
After thorough research prior to travelling, my kids and I visited an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia called the Elephant Valley Project. We stayed for a 2-day volunteer program, during which I had the opportunity to talk at length with the Co-founder, Jack Highwood. What I heard, saw, and experienced on those days confirmed the integrity of their mission, vision and ethos. The EVP website does a wonderful job of highlighting the importance of responsible elephant care and conservation, and you should definitely check them out for further reading! And to make great news even better?…….a new elephant sanctuary, modeled after EVP in Cambodia, has opened in Chiang RaiThailand!
Here’s a sweet story of a family’s visit to a sanctuary outside Chiang Mai, Thailand ~ great due diligence in your pre-trip planning Five Family Adventurers!
Please share your sights of good people doing good work for animals too ~ spread the love!