animal abuse, animal behaviour, animal rescue, animal welfare, animals as photo props, conservation, elephants, photo prop animals, poaching, primates, Thailand, WFFT, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
I’m very excited to say I’ve got another journey planned for a few months this year (thanks to work for giving me the time off to get stuck into overseas wildlife rescue again). The first leg of the trip will begin in Thailand; I truly didn’t get enough of that rural countryside and will be heading back to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s rescue centre. When people find out I am passionate about animals and that I’ve been to Thailand or that I’m going back they generally pipe up and say either: “Oh I love the elephants! I rode one while I was there!” or “Yeah I’ve been to Thailand! The animals are amazing, they’re so friendly and you can get so close to them.”
Of course, people thinking of the ‘friendly animals’ are referring to the ones you find in packed tourist areas on the street with a handler. Animals are thrust in tourists’ faces: pay a small fee and get a photograph with this cute or impressive exotic animal. Someone showed me a photograph on Facebook of them in Asia sitting on the street next to an orang-utan who was crossing her arms, and they were copying her pose. The picture itself had so many Facebook ‘likes’, but of course I was heartbroken. I worked with orang-utans back when I was zoo-keeping, and I know how devastated their populations have been by palm oil plantations, pet trafficking and the like. Without getting too fired up about the issue I will just say it makes me utterly sick that people actually support any of this. The palm oil thing is more difficult for people to not support because it can sometimes be hard to tell what products contain it, but come on – orang-utans on the street is a pretty easy thing to not give in to! It overwhelms me how thoughtless people can be. A traveler sees a big orang-utan on the sidewalk with a handler and what, just thinks “Oh let’s go get a photo taken with him!”? How can people be so utterly incomprehensive?
One of the most popular Photo Prop animals you’ll find in Thailand and Southeast Asia in general is the slow loris. These little guys are super cute, and having one wrapped around your arm for a photograph would make anyone think they are the most chilled out creature in the world. You know what I’m about to say though, and you’re right – their apparently relaxed demeanour couldn’t be further from the truth. Slow lorises are nocturnal by nature and carry the name “slow” for a reason – they are extremely careful, quiet creatures that travel very slowly and cautiously. Bright lights, loud noise or any kind of big surprise can cause them to freeze instinctively. They actually have the ability to secrete a type of venom from certain glands and mix it with their saliva, and coupled with a bite this can cause a toxic reaction in their victim. This doesn’t really make them sound like appropriate candidates for use on the streets as cute photo props, does it? As always, though, humans get around this inconvenience: when a slow loris is taken in as a pet or for use as a photo prop its teeth are removed to prevent bites. Of course, this also means that if the creature is rescued, any rehabilitation would be impossible – without teeth they are completely unable to survive in the wild on their own.
Slow lorises have a very low reproductive rate and live in low population densities. Most loris species are listed as VULNERABLE on the IUCN Red List. Their biggest threats are the wildlife trade, use in traditional medicines and habitat destruction. Who supports this? We do.
WFFT went and investigated the use of endangered wild animals on the streets of Phuket, as this is technically an illegal act in certain areas and not meant to be “tolerated” by local law enforcers. However, their footage shows it is far from monitored and is still as popular as ever.
When I went to the Phuket Fantasea show I was disgusted at the use of elephant calves, tiger cubs and other animals as photo props, and people would eagerly step up and pay for a quick snap with an exotic creature. Does anyone stop and think, “Is this normal for the animal?”
You can’t tell me that any amount of breeding is going to turn a generation of tigers absolutely docile. The reality is that many of these animals are drugged to keep them subdued for visitors. They are beaten into learning poses that make visitors laugh, smile and feel entertained. Nocturnal animals like slow lorises are surrounded by bright neon lights, camera flashes, and are kept in a heightened state of anxiety and innate frozen fear – hence they appear tame. (NB: In my opinion you cannot ‘tame’ any wild animal.)
The physical and mental strain on these animals takes its toll, and eventually an animal becomes unsuitable for use as a street photo prop. Perhaps it stops behaving in the way the handler wants it to. Perhaps its body condition becomes so obviously unhealthy that even unfamiliar tourists begin to notice. Perhaps it stops looking or acting as cute as it needs to in order to earn its handler money. When this happens and the animal is deemed useless, it is disposed of. Another is then obtained to take its place.
Animals are easily poached from the wild in certain areas. It has been estimated that in order for one street animal to be obtained, up to fifty others are killed in the process. When a young animal is targeted, often its parents and/or family group are killed out of necessity. Then comes the preparation for working life: teeth removal, claw removal (which can lead to infection and death, remembering that these procedures are not going to be carried out at a sterile clinic under anaesthetic), and the brutal ‘training’ process (for example, Phajaan in elephants).
Awareness is spreading, slowly. When Rihanna snapped herself with a slow loris in Asia there was an outcry. But it is not enough. People still take the ‘opportunity’ to have their photo taken with an exotic animal, and many don’t look past the cute or impressive factor. The family in the above picture with the chimp talk about how cute the animals are on their travel blog, whereas I look at that photo and it makes me want to cry. A young chimpanzee dressed in human clothes, smiling for the camera. Yes, so cute. But where did she come from? What of her parents? Her very close family group? What happens when she gets too old and big to be ‘cute’ enough for photographs? If there is one thing you can do when you travel, it is to ask yourself these sorts of questions before supporting any kind of venture like this.
When I was last in Thailand I saw a few photo prop animals. A leopard cub. The tigers at the Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple. At WFFT lorises are very commonly brought in, either as rescues or because their ‘owners’ no longer wish to have them around. It is sad to know they will not be able to be reintegrated back into the wild due to the physical mutilation they had to go through in order to become someone’s pet, but at least at the Centre they have large, immersive enclosures that mimic their natural habitats. They have food, shelter, veterinary care and will never have to work again.
Something I urge for anyone traveling to countries where animal use for entertainment is high: before you make the conscious decision to support something, think about what it is you are endorsing. Ask yourself: is this natural for this animal? Where did it come from (captive bred, or poached from the wild and its family killed)? What mental and physical changes was this animal put through before it could be used in this way? And ask yourself: is this animal suffering for my entertainment? It’s simple: if you support the use of animals as photo props, you support abuse and wildlife poaching. It can stop, but only when we let it.
Photos taken from Google and edited.