When Sharon Young visited manatees in a warm spring off Florida’s Homosassa River in the late 1990s, she followed the guide’s instructions: Observe and don’t approach or get in the manatees’ way.

Like most of us, Young—who now works as the HSUS marine wildlife protection field director—is fascinated by animals. It’s this very fascination that inspires tourist attractions such as “swim-with” experiences, petting zoos, rides on exotic animals and more. Operators tout their attractions as places where the animals are happy. Travel-booking agencies and cruise ships advertise the activities as fun. But there’s invariably a dark side.

Young saw it that day at the spring. As more boats arrived, people began jumping into the water and chasing the manatees. “It was outrageous,” she says. “They desperately need warm water in winter to survive, so they will endure the harassment. They don’t have a choice.” The last image she saw as her boat left was the animals huddled together in a small area where people weren’t allowed.

Nowadays, Young only visits springs at which swimming with manatees is prohibited. It’s best that way, she says, because tourists and guides aren’t always responsible. These places typically have overlooks and boardwalks, which are more than sufficient for viewing animals in their natural environment.

For anyone thinking about visiting an animal-oriented tourist attraction, it’s good to first do some research, says Rebecca Regnery. In her travels as deputy director of wildlife for Humane Society International, she’s seen people snapping selfies with captive performing monkeys and grabbing endangered sea turtles out of overcrowded tanks. “There are a lot of good people doing these things who care about animals,” she says. “But they rely on the attraction for its expertise, thinking the people there know what they’re doing.”

That’s not always the case.

"Swim-with" attractions

These operations allow people to swim with wildlife such as stingrays, sharks, manatees, starfish, sea turtles and even sea lions. Sometimes the animals are captive, like the popular “swim with a dolphin” attractions around the U.S. and beyond.

Most countries use bottlenose dolphins captured from the wild, while U.S. attractions use captive-bred animals. The practice of taking them from the wild is unsustainable and cruel, says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with Animal Welfare Institute. Juveniles still socially dependent on their mothers are targeted because they’re the most adaptable. “They’re chased around with nets and boats, taken from everything they’ve known and put into a completely foreign environment,” Rose says.

Illustration showing swim-with attractions
Daniel Shaffer

Dolphins interact with and perform tricks for an assembly line of tourists several hours a day. When strangers aren’t hanging onto their fins for a swim, the animals—who swim long distances in the wild—are relegated to enclosures the size of a backyard pool. They may appear to be having fun, Rose says, but they’re merely doing a job. The tedium takes a toll. On bad days, dolphins have bitten, rammed and pushed people. Male dolphins have shown sexual aggression toward tourists. The constant contact with humans also facilitates the transmission of zoonotic diseases such as tuberculosis and the common cold.

People swim with dolphins because they want a magical experience, Rose says. Or they may believe they’re supporting conservation efforts. But for a real dolphin experience, she suggests swimming where dolphins live—like coastal waters in the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of Mexico. “If you go swimming somewhere and the dolphin approaches you … it’s pretty great.”

Swimming with other animals in the wild, such as sharks and sea lions, isn’t recommended. Intentional shark encounters typically use chum to attract sharks, pairing humans with food and placing sharks and humans at risk. Sea lions may bite, and bacteria in their mouths can lead to devastating infections.

Dolphins are chased around with nets and boats, taken from everything they’ve known and put into a completely foreign environment.
Naomi Rose, scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute

Other species also suffer at the hands of unwitting tourists. At the Cayman Turtle Centre, tourists can touch and hold endangered green sea turtles. What most people don’t know is that the facility began as a breeding farm for the sea turtle meat trade. It now releases a few turtles into the wild, touting itself as a conservation program, but the facility still sells turtles for consumption.

In the ocean, sea turtles are always on the move. The farmed turtles live in small tanks where people can toss in food. “When you’re feeding them, they crawl on top of each other,” says Regnery, who visited in 2012 to gather information for HSI. She saw open wounds and sores on the turtles’ backs and papilloma, a type of herpes. “It’s a symptom of stress and unsanitary living conditions.”

Humans are susceptible to bacteria that turtles carry, such as salmonella. Not long after Regnery reached into the water to photograph a turtle’s wound, she developed a respiratory infection. “Likely from the dirty water and everyone reaching inside,” she says. Conditions in the facility also bring into question the health of turtles slated for release, which could compromise their survival in the wild and harm wild populations.

Regnery says tourists are being misled that these types of attractions are good for the animals. Travel agents and cruise ship companies promote them, and well-meaning visitors arrive in droves to what in reality are assembly-line attractions that exploit animals.

Illustration showing elephant ride attractions
Daniel Shaffer

Exotic animal rides

It isn’t hard to find operators who sell rides on camels, elephants and even gigantic sulcata tortoises. Elephant rides are typical in places like India, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They’re also legal in many U.S. states, though you won’t find them in Rhode Island or after Dec. 31 in California because of statewide bans on the fireplace poker-shaped devices called bullhooks, which are used to prod, jab and hit elephants into compliance.

“The elephants trudge around in circles all day with people on their back,” says Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for The HSUS, which is working to secure bans on the use of elephants in traveling shows in several states. Some animals live without the company of other elephants—like Nosey, a 34-year-old elephant who is hauled all over the country by Florida-based circus owner Hugo Liebel to give rides at festivals and fairs. She was brought to the U.S. from Africa as a baby, after her mother was killed. “She’s kept on a chain or stuck in a little pen and controlled with a bullhook,” Leahy says.

These animals are beaten into submission. Their every move is under the threat of punishment.
Debbie Leahy, The HSUS

Loneliness can lead to depression, loss of appetite, self-harm and behaviors such as swaying and rocking, Leahy says. Liebel has received more than 200 citations from the USDA for Animal Welfare Act violations, yet his business remains open.

Elephant close encounters are extremely dangerous for people. Elephants have run amok with kids clinging to their backs and killed handlers, facility employees and tourists. In 2014, the USDA fined Two Tails Ranch in Florida just $857 after an elephant severely injured a visitor. In 2004, Nosey sent a circus worker to the hospital with a head injury.

Leahy has seen the empty look in the eyes of elephants being ridden. “These animals are beaten into submission,” she says. “Their every move is under the threat of punishment.” She’s seen the signs of abuse: broken tails and scars behind the ears and under the trunk and chin. Handlers use gray powder called Wonder Dust to conceal bloody wounds.

Other animals face similar conditions. Camels are sometimes tethered on leads so short they can’t lie down all the way. They can also be very dangerous, Leahy says, especially when mistreated by their handlers. One 10-year-old girl in Virginia was hospitalized after a camel bit her arm at a roadside zoo.

Leahy cites weak federal laws and lack of enforcement as reasons why elephants, camels and other exotics aren’t confiscated and sent to sanctuary. The USDA usually issues only citations, she says, or occasionally charges a small fine. “They very rarely confiscate these animals or revoke someone’s license to have an animal.”

Roadside zoos and photo ops

These attractions are common in tourist destinations all over the world: monkeys in Morocco, lion cubs in Africa, iguanas and macaws in Central America. In the U.S., there are more than 80 facilities that offer close-up wildlife encounters, which include petting opportunities and having pictures taken with animals such as tigers and bears.

Operators promote themselves as animal experts and conservationists, and often list accreditations by various zoological associations. But the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), a professional accreditation organization that requires the highest standards of care, does not authorize such activity. Other associations allow members to make their own rules and police themselves. They’re completely bogus, Leahy says, and designed to contrive credibility for their roadside zoos and private menageries.

Lack of maternal love, nutrition and sleep (because they’re constantly awakened for photo ops) harm tiger cubs’ health.

Tiger cubs are prevalently used for photo ops in the U.S.—not only because they’re adorable, but because of a federal law prohibiting the public handling of juvenile and adult big cats. The good-intentioned statute has led to unregulated breeding for a steady supply of cubs, Leahy says, part of the reason why The HSUS is working on a federal ban on the public handling of cubs and all other dangerous exotic wildlife. The animals are taken from their mothers just days after birth and fed formula inferior to their mother’s milk. Lack of maternal love, nutrition and sleep (they’re constantly awakened for photo ops) harm the cubs’ health. Sometimes, they’re kept hungry to ensure they focus on their feeding bottle during photos.

Inadequate veterinary care and physical abuse also endanger the cubs. Two attractions investigated by The HSUS had tiger cubs sick with ringworm, which is contagious to humans. Another had cubs with a parasitic infection and no vet care. Investigators also witnessed cubs being punched, dragged, slapped and tossed around.

When cubs get too old for public handling, they’re often sold into the pet trade or to some other poorly run roadside zoo as a captive exhibit. Sometimes they’re kept for breeding, or they die from poor health. “These places really only care about keeping the cub alive for the first few months,” Leahy says.

Tourist trinkets

Depending on your destination, you could see products made with sea turtle shells, coral, feathers, shark teeth and ivory. If you’re not absolutely sure the product is synthetic, don’t buy it, Regnery says. The same goes for fancy shells. “If washed up shells are being collected in large quantities, removing that many shells could take away homes for other animals.”

How you can help

  • Research: Verify that any zoos or aquariums in your travel plans are accredited by the AZA; do a web search for reviews, customer complaints and violations. Or see our list of some wildlife-friendly destinations at humanesociety.org/vacations.
  • Speak out: Share your concerns with travel agencies and cruise ship companies who endorse attractions that endanger animals.
  • Sign the pledge: Go to hsi.org/dontbuywild and pledge to protect wild animals.

From our magazine

This story originally appeared in our award-winning magazine for members, All Animals. Get informative and inspiring content like this delivered right to your door.

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