At some point in our lives, the majority of us are likely to have contributed to the growth of animal tourism, and as a result, to animal cruelty too. Perhaps it’s been unconsciously – but we’ve contributed nevertheless. It’s a controversial topic, one might argue that it often provides a sustainable income for residents of poorer countries; however, another might argue that it is miserable, cruel and dark industry for the animals involved, and that in the majority of instances, there is a lot more to it than what meets the eye.

Having your photograph taken with an exotic animal, watching a dolphin show, or riding an elephant, seems harmless enough. If anything, we are often tricked into thinking our custom is helping to provide a better standard of living for that animal (or animals), but as Philip Mansbridge, CEO of international charity Care For The Wild says: “It’s five minutes of fun for you, and a lifetime of misery for the animal.” Although this isn’t the case for all animals involved in tourist attractions, it is safe to say that it is true of many – they’re viewed as nothing more than a spectacle, a money-making scheme. For the best of them, this involves long working hours, minimal care and often the removal from parents or offspring. All this, for our entertainment.

It is true, that in poorer countries, animal tourism is one of the few options available to generate some sort of income. But it’s similar to the issue of poaching – some defend poachers in less economically developed regions, by claiming it is a method of income, the only way they can feed their families. Still, is it acceptable to justify such horrific acts with the excuse of economic benefit?  Can we truly defend brutally murdering an elephant for its tusks? Animals have a right to life too, and who are we to infringe that right?

The sad reality is that often, animal tourism is portrayed in a much more positive light than the truth that lurks behind it. When people are abroad and see the word ‘sanctuary’ – it immediately brings to mind a peaceful place for animals, one where they will be well looked after. That’s entirely understandable, seen as the word supposedly represents a place of refuge. ‘Tiger Temple’ in Thailand, fits this perception perfectly. However, this is a trap that is easy to fall into.

In recent years, ‘sanctuaries’ have become increasingly popular. They are places that offer the opportunity to interact with wild animals – whether that involve posing for a photograph with a tiger, or strolling with a pack of lions. Surely the fact that these are, or rather, were, wild animals – top predators of the food chain, should be indicative that they have been somewhat altered. Mike Barker, chief executive of World Animal Protection raises this point precisely: “If an animal is doing something it wouldn’t do in the wild, then it’s probably not right, and something has gone wrong to make them behave that way.” The beautiful creatures found in these attractions, are often victims of abuse and torture. They have been stolen from their mothers as cubs, and thrown into a life of beatings and rigorous training. They are forced to endure long hours in the heat, where they are constantly pushed to interact with tourists, and often with no shade from the unbearable sun. Some are even drugged to make them more docile and compliant. Such images are worlds apart from the supposedly tranquil portrayal that these places give, or at least – strive to give.

Arguments concerning the topic of animal captivity have been in the public eye a lot over the last year or so. SeaWorld, famous for its crowd-pleasing killer whales, continues to suffer from huge economic losses and a significant drop in ticket sales, after the release of the psychological, eye-opening and highly controversial documentary-film Blackfish in 2013. Blackfish focuses on the tale of Tilikum, an orca who performed at SeaWorld, and who was also involved in the killings of three people. It explores the exploitation of animals in the entertainment industry and highlights the consequences of keeping a wild animal in captivity. It raises the issue of taking a killer whale from the ocean, and confining it to a tank that will never come close to comparing in size. It would be like a human being imprisoned in a bathtub for the rest of their life – the psychological impact would be immeasurable, needless to mention the public disapproval of such a situation. This makes me feel inclined to pose the question: why should it be any different for an animal?

The response to Blackfish, and the reaction to animal cruelty stories in general, never fail to highlight the fact that there are a great deal of people out there who do care. However, it seems that animals involved in the tourism and entertainment industry are often overlooked, because they don’t always show symptoms of physical pain. Emotional torture is rarely detectable to the human eye – it’s not always easy to notice a person suffering from depression, or anxiety – and the same applies to animals.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that if you truly care about animal welfare, you won’t approve of their captivity, in any form. There are sustainable sources of animal tourism out there – such as safari holidays and whale-watching boat trips, which offer opportunities to see wild creatures in their natural habitats. Not only do these these types of projects provide jobs and a source of income for locals, they also mean that you can walk away knowing that the animals won’t be led back into a cage,beaten or drugged once the spectators have departed.

The reality of the situation is, that while we continue to fuel these businesses – no matter how big or small, we are contributing to their funds, and thereby promoting their growth. By handing over our money, we are supporting animal cruelty, whether we oppose it or not. In order for this to stop, the demand for such an industry must be taken away.

It is easy to confuse cruelty with culture when abroad, but it is important to put things into perspective, to view the bigger picture, and to refuse to be blinded by the lies.

Watch the trailer for ‘Blackfish’ below: