Monday, February 22, 2016

Did selfies kill the dolphin?

elephant wildlife ride cruelty
Photo opportunities with wildlife have been thrust into the spotlight following the alleged death of a dolphin.

It is alleged that the Fransiscana dolphin died of dehydration, heat stress or a combination when it was manhandled after being washed up (along with at least one other dolphin) on a beach in Argentina, although there are now claims that the dolphin was deceased when the alleged selfies were taken.

The truth is we don’t know the cause of death. It may have been that the dolphin came ashore because of pre-existing pathology – regardless, if you’re in a critical condition, being over-handled and subjected to stress is going to exacerbate stress. Let's entertain the hypothesis that the dolphin was killed by selfies for a moment.

It is absolutely understandable for people to be curious about animals, but this - if true - is a tragic example of people’s compassion and curiosity causing unintended suffering. The internet was full of moral outrage and disgust at humanity, but it’s likely that the people participating had no clue that they were being cruel, and probably identified as animal lovers. How can this be? 

We’re not taught to consider the situation from the animal’s perspective.

As Professor John Webster teaches, animal welfare is about two things: our perceptions relating to our treatment of animals, and THEIR perceptions of their own state. And these things are not necessarily the same.

Even science and veterinary students are warned of the dangers of unchecked anthropomorphism - which can make them feel uneasy about empathising with animals at all.

But if we consider what this experience was like for a small animal, without language and without any sense of when the handling would end, we start to get an idea that our curiosity, enthusiasm and affection for animals can look very different from their point of view.

The dolphin example is abhorrent to people because the suffering of the animal was acute, but many photo opportunities are associated with insidious, chronic suffering.

It is not the first time “selfies” have been implicated in animal harm. According to this report, black cats have been abandoned in droves, and others not adopted, because their features don’t show up as well in photos.

There’s also the wildlife tourism trade. I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of posing with a wild animal for a photo, unaware that the animal has probably been captured for that very purpose. Some years ago a friend and I travelled together and rode elephants and had our photos taken with lions and tigers. I asked keepers about the welfare of the animals and allowed myself to be convinced – but the queue of tourists in line waiting for a photo behind me told a different story.

When I came home some online research revealed that the places I’d visited were known for using techniques designed to “crush the spirit” of elephants.

The good news is that awareness of such welfare unfriendly practices is spreading.

World Animal Protection just teamed up with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to release its report, Checking Out of Cruelty. They found that globally, more than 550,000 animals are suffering through irresponsible tourist attractions. Welfare and conservation abuses are happening in 75% of tourist attractions included in the study, with some of the worst venues being elephant, bear and tiger parks, and a turtle farm.

Yet when they looked at reviews on Trip Advisor, 80 per cent of tourists left positive reviews – even though some observed that they had concerns about animal welfare. Some of these facilities even received a Trip Advisor “Certificate of Excellence” based on these reviews. Up to 4 million tourists per annum visit the attractions assessed in the study. The authors predict that up to 110 million people worldwide visit cruel attractions globally.

It isn’t because people don’t care. “We know that when people are told about the cruelty behind such activities, most decide not to go,” the report says. 

Cruelty may involve the animals being “broken in”, punishment, being kept in poor conditions (for example, chained up in an enclosure with concrete floors), barren cages, poor nutrition (for example caged civets are made to eat an unbalanced diet of coffee beans), body modification (for example, de-fanging venomous snakes) and the stress of handling. Apart from the latter, most of this happens behind-the-scenes. 

So how do you know? According to the report, an authentic wildlife tourism experiences will not allow contact or interactions between wild animals and tourists.

It suggests avoiding
  • Riding wild animals
  • Swimming with captive wild animals
  • Petting, holding or hugging wild animals
  • Washing wild animals
  • Keeping wild animals on a chain or leash
  • Watching wild animals dance, play sport, perform tricks, give massages or paint pictures

In short, “If you can ride it, hug it, or have a selfie with the wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue. Don’t go.”

You can download the report here.