Walking alongside a lion in South Africa or feeding a baby tiger with a milk bottle at a roadside zoo stateside as you smile into the camera might seem like a novel idea, but it never has a good outcome for the animal. And increasingly, American travelers are beginning to realize this, according to a new study.

The survey of 2,000 Americans who have traveled outside of North America and the Caribbean in the last three years found that ethical travel is on the rise, and it also found that when reflecting on previous trips, a wide range of activities cause travelers to experience “travel guilt.” Twenty-one percent of respondents put posing for photographs with captive wildlife on their list of unethical activities they wouldn’t do again. Eighteen percent had regrets about riding on elephants, and 19 percent regretted swimming with dolphins.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they want tour companies to have responsible wildlife policies, according to the survey, done by OnePoll on behalf of Exodus Travels and reported by the New York Post.

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International have been raising awareness and pushing to end wildlife abuse in entertainment for decades, and findings like these, while no surprise to us, are gratifying. In the United States and around the world, captive wild animals suffer miserably for tourist entertainment. There are tens of thousands of enterprises worldwide that breed and/or use wild animals, often solely for the pleasure of tourists looking for a photo op or a misguided desire to "bond" with a wild animal who would prefer to be left alone. Travelers are generally unaware of the miserable lives the animals lead behind scenes, or their uncertain long-term prospects.

In 2015, HSUS investigations into two roadside zoos in Virginia and Oklahoma revealed horrifying abuse of tiger cubs bred for photo ops with tourists. The tired, overheated, thirsty, hungry or sick cubs were expected to sit still for a parade of paying customers – and were often physically disciplined to ensure that they did so. When the tigers get too big and dangerous for tourists, they are sent off to substandard roadside zoos or worse, they may end up being killed for their bones, used in traditional Asian medicine.

Our HSI/India team has been actively involved in ending the use of elephants for joyrides at the Amer Fort in the state of Rajasthan. Last year, at our urging, local authorities in India began an investigation into the abuse of the elephants who lead a dreary life, living in inadequate facilities with an insufficient diet and lack of medical care. The animals are often abused with bull hooks, and are beaten and kicked.

HSI has also been at the frontlines of ending the “snuggle scam” perpetrated by breeders in the South African captive lion trade, who keep captive-bred lions in tiny enclosures, sometimes without adequate food, hygiene and the ability to express their natural behaviors. Cubs are separated from their mothers at just a few days, and offered as living photo props or fake “orphans” for paying volunteers to hand-raise. In the wild, cubs remain with their mothers for 18 months before becoming fully independent and a female rests for at least a year between births. The removal of days-old cubs forces the female into a stressful life of exhausting and endless breeding. The cubs are exploited for tourist selfies and “walk with lions” activities. Still worse, once grown, they become targets for trophy hunters or are killed and their bones are exported for use in traditional medicines.

Some companies are recognizing the shift toward responsible tourism and taking steps to reduce the likelihood that they are advertising or enabling cruelty. In 2017 Instagram created an alert system to remove images with certain hashtags, to cut down on the wildlife selfies being shared on the social network. That same year, Expedia announced that they would no longer offer certain animal activities. They partnered with us and other groups to provide education on their site to visitors about the issues wild animals face, such as how to spot a phony animal sanctuary – the kind of facility that calls itself a “sanctuary” or “refuge,” but is more interested in profits than saving animals, and may actually be mistreating animals. Many tourists fall for the misleading claims of these fronts, and don’t realize that they are being deceived.

Recently, HSI joined a coalition of animal protection and conservation organizations to ask TripAdvisor to stop providing a platform for activities that harm animals, including elephant rides and swimming with dolphins.

Fifty-six percent of the respondents in the poll said they considered it an ethical practice to buy souvenirs from local merchants when traveling abroad. For our part, we warn tourists to watch out for products made of prohibited or imperiled wildlife species because some purchases could inadvertently encourage cruelty or animal exploitation. If you plan to travel this summer, be sure to check out our Don’t Buy Wild guide to learn what activities and articles to avoid when traveling abroad.

Travel is an enriching experience and encountering wildlife in a responsible way can be truly rewarding. In the end, however, there really is no equal to seeing a giraffe or a lion in the wild or a whale swimming in the ocean. Tourists today have before them many great options for celebrating their love of animals and many are willing to travel a great distance for an authentic wildlife-friendly experience. With a little research and forethought, they can avoid patronizing enterprises that profit from animals but don’t have their best interests at heart.