Summer can be a fabulous time of the year to experience new adventures and expand one’s horizons, but it can also be high season for people becoming carried away with getting close to wild animals. This two-part series explains why it’s so important to keep the good of the animals in mind when traveling. In this first installment, we focus on animals kept in captivity.

Now that the Big Cat Public Safety Act rules are being implemented, the United States is finally doing right by captive tigers, lions, cougars and other wild cats who have been mistreated for far too long as photo props for tourists. We’re on our way to creating a more humane society for animals, but there’s more to be done.

One only needs to glance at a social media feed, especially during vacation seasons, to see why: Photos of people interacting with captive animals at zoos and tourist attractions often gain likes and comments, which just perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable and normal way to relate to animals. What may seem like a harmless encounter causes the animals involved chronic stress and fear and endangers people’s safety. That’s why it’s so important to remind friends and family why attractions that offer such close encounters and photo-ops must be avoided.

It’s not a pretty picture

Even though big cat cub-petting is now illegal in the U.S., many animals are still subjected to being treated like objects at facilities, and some species appear to be increasingly popular for these encounters. More than 160 exotic animal petting zoos, roadside zoos and traveling zoos across 37 states offer up-close experiences with sloths, lemurs, otters, kangaroos and/or wallabies. These animals are either captured from the wild and taken from their parents at a young age or bred in captivity in often deplorable conditions. Operators use physical and mental abuse to keep these animals “tame” for handling. Exhibitors have relied on food deprivation, social isolation or painful mutilations, such as removing animals’ claws, teeth or scent glands to facilitate this activity.

A handler controls a lemur by pulling at his tail during one of several "VIP Encounters" the primate is forced to endure daily at Tiger Safari.

And it isn’t only the animals who are harmed in these encounters. Stressed wild animals may bite or scratch, risking transmission of bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal diseases. Lemurs, a kind of primate, can be especially unpredictable, and yet they are popular at roadside zoos or with traveling zoos, which exhibit leashed and sometimes diapered lemurs in libraries, day care centers and birthday party venues. Records show that 19 people, including a dozen children, have been injured during lemur encounters since 2005, not to speak of incidents never reported. Lemur experts warn that handling lemurs as if they are cuddly and cute playthings can skew perceptions of the animals’ endangered status and make them appear suitable as pets.

Otters are another popular species for public handling. These animals have sharp teeth and powerful jaws strong enough to crack open mollusks, and yet more than 50 facilities offer encounters with them. Since 2019, otters used for public handling have bitten at least 19 people.

Why a wildlife selfie is more than just a photo

The wildlife selfies that saturate social media harm conservation efforts and fuel the global market for both legally traded and trafficked undomesticated pets. Because they essentially provide free advertising for the exotic pet industry, they are stoking a terrible demand pattern: A recent study found that younger generations are more interested in keeping wild animals as pets than older generations.

In the humane world we are trying to build, human beings do not tear baby animals away from their mothers in order to use them for entertainment, nor do people endanger children or teach them that animals exist solely for our caprice.

A worldwide problem

Getting too close to exotic animals isn’t a problem confined to the U.S. Tourists in other countries may fall into traps that exploit wild animals, as well.

The craze for wildlife encounters is prevalent in Latin America, home to some of the most unusual wild animals in the world. As a partner on the Stop Animal Selfies campaign in Costa Rica, Humane Society International/Latin America works on initiatives to encourage tourists to support ethical tourism activities and to raise awareness of the negative impacts of direct contact with wild animals. More than 100 Costa Rican organizations, embassies, municipalities and tourist operators have pledged to take part in this campaign and its message has reached thousands of citizens and visitors.

Across Southeast Asia, wildlife cafes have recently become popular, offering customers an interactive dining experience with wild animals. Visitors hold, pet or take pictures with wild animals, such as otters, owls, slow lorises and pythons. These wild animals are forced to live in unnatural environments that do not meet their behavioral or dietary needs. As a result, they undergo constant stress from disturbed sleep schedules, handling, noise and lack of access to the outdoors. These cafes often feature wildlife whose populations are declining in the wild.

Pseudo-sanctuaries are on the rise in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand where approximately 200 facilities allow visitors to interact with Asian elephants. Many in-the-know tourists now stay clear of elephant-riding attractions, but there is still cruelty associated with other forms of public interactions with elephants. Any interaction with elephants—like riding them, bathing them or watching them produce paintings for spectacle—is almost always made possible because the elephants were separated from their mothers at a very young age, forced into confinement, deprived of food and water and inflicted with pain and fear, all to break their wild spirits so that they are obedient. We encourage tourists to avoid supporting such facilities.

How you can help

Both in the U.S. and internationally, we advocate for the passage of stronger laws prohibiting public contact with wild animals, but we need everyone to get involved with changing perceptions of these encounters, seeing these captive animals as what they are: stressed, scared and desperate for the comfort of their families and natural space.

You can be a humane traveler by helping to curb these trends by never visiting attractions that use wild animals as props. You can also help to raise awareness among your family and friends by explaining why these attractions are inhumane for animals.

Finally, you can help shape the kind of humane world we envision by never liking photos posted on social media of people handling wild animals. And if you come across social media content showing poor treatment of animals, make sure to report it to the social media platform.

Follow Kitty Block on Twitter@HSUSKittyBlock.