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Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur on Animals in Tourism

Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and activist from Canada who has traveled for the last decade across all seven continents to document the plight of animals. She is the founder of the We Animals project, which displays photographs depicting how animals live in our human environment.

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Photographs and stories from We Animals have been shot in over 40 countries and have contributed to over 100 campaigns to end the suffering and abuse of animals. Jo-Anne is also the subject and star of the thought-provoking documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

The film illustrates the lives of individual animals living within and rescued from the machine of our modern world through Jo-Anne’s heart and photographic lens. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do yourself a favour and watch it, it’s amazing. As someone that I look up to, I was thrilled when Jo-Anne agreed to conduct an interview with me about the place of animals in tourism.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
An elephant awaits performance night at the circus. (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

Many tourists who participate in excursions involving animals actually love animals. How could they be doing more harm than good?

We’re just not taught to see much beyond our own noses. For many of us, loving animals means we’ll take the opportunity to look at them when we can, but without regard for the animal itself. Which is interesting, isn’t it, because we often look without really seeing, or without really thinking through what’s going on.

Elephant rides are offered regularly in Southeast Asia, and that’s an unusual and exciting experience for people, but how does the elephant live? How was the elephant trained, and was she taken away from her family? There are so many questions we need to ask, but we might avoid those questions because we know the answers might be painful, and we also simply want the gratification of riding an elephant, or swimming with a dolphin.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Rescued elephant at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand along with a butterfly! (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

There is, of course, a great way to express our love for animals. We can help them and create better lives for them, if we’ve done our research and see that the lives of the animals in question aren’t great. We can visit sanctuaries instead, for example.

Using elephant as an example again, there’s a great sanctuary in Thailand called Elephant Nature Park, and the difference between this place and others is that the needs of the elephants are put first. Before profit, before human curiosity. When you’re putting money into an industry that uses animals for entertainment, it perpetuates the problem. With a little digging, there are always more animal-friendly places to visit.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Calgary Stampede, Canada. A cowboy has flipped a calf on its side and tied its legs together while spectators watch. (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

What are some red flags signifying that animals might be mistreated at a tourist destination?

If the animals are made to perform or give rides, they are likely doing something they had to be “broken” in order to do. Animals are also taken from the wild, or bred in captivity but taken away from their families and sold to other facilities. Some die in transport.

Some are in the areas where tourists can see them, but there are often other animals behind the scenes who are in small pens, cages or swimming tanks, too old, sick or blind to be used. You can always ask what your money is going towards, or do your research ahead of time. Some abuse of animals is considered cultural, or an art form, like rodeos and bullfights, where the animals are raced, roped, injured, beaten and, with bullfights, killed.

We often think “when in Rome”, and blindly take part simply because we’re in that country. Take those blinders off, and always ask yourself how animals are going to be treated at the places and events you’re visiting.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Bullfights in Spain (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

What are your views regarding zoos, aquariums, and dolphinariums?

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Kiska, an orca whale, lives in solitary confinement at Marineland (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

The difference between zoos and sanctuaries is that zoos are for profit, and for the curiosity of humans. The debate is that zoos are educational. I think that, for the most part, zoos teach us about bored animals on display, far away from how their lives should be.

They teach us that animals are for our use; that they are for us, reinforcing a speciesist framework which gives us the right to do with them what we want. I’ll love zoos again when they’re working only for the protection of animals and giving the best care, options and opportunities for each individual living in the zoo, but even at the “best” zoos in the world, that’s not the case.

There will always be a  need for places where animals can live safely in our care, so, in captivity (due to injury, inability to be released into the wild, danger due to poaching, or breeding programs with the goal of reintroduction into the wild, etc).

Sanctuaries are playing that role, and they need our support. If they are open to the public – many have visitor and volunteer days – they’re a great way to see animals and a great way to support those who help animals.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
The Pata Zoo, Bangkok (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

What kinds of activities involving animals would you recommend that people do while traveling?

Voluntourism! Volunteering your time at sanctuaries is one of the greatest ways to see the world, help animals and give back. It’s great to get immersed in a place and culture with like-minded people, who are there to give, care, and help.

Eschew the zoo and aquarium, and visit a sanctuary. Skip the extremely expensive “swim with dolphins” industry and take a kayak or boat tour out into nearby waters to see animals where they are meant to be, in the wild.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
The “swim-with-the-dolphins” industry at Sea Life Park, Hawaii

How can we challenge or bring change in nations where their traditions or festivities involve harming animals?

We have to speak up to anyone visiting that country. We can have discussions about the treatment of animals. We have to be vocal, and get people thinking. We can also boycott the bullring, the rodeo, the zoos and the aquariums, and actively support the alternatives.

You can also let tours, tour guides and travel agencies know that you won’t book through them if they support those industries, or bring visitors there as part of the tour. People will change their minds if they start losing dollars.

Even while we’re not traveling, what are the best ways that we can help animals in our daily lives?

There is a long list of ways we can help animals in our daily lives. To name a few:

  • Lead by example, live compassionately.
  • Reduce and eliminate your consumption of animals.  With all the amazing and healthy alternatives to meat, there’s really no excuse!
  • Volunteer at your local animal shelter or sanctuary.
  • Spay and neuter your companion animals!  This will help reduce the number of unwanted and homeless animals around the globe.
  • Don’t attend circuses, rodeos and fairs that use animals for entertainment.  Speak up against such blatant and unnecessary forms of cruelty. Animals are not ours for entertainment.
  • Look for the cruelty free label. Buy products that have not been tested on animals.
  • Don’t wear animal products. It’s unnecessary, and sends a message that you support animal exploitation for clothing.
  • While travelling, don’t buy endangered animal products such as ivory or other body parts. Don’t eat the meat of endangered animals, such as gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa.  Further to that, let the vendors know that you don’t approve!
  • Don’t buy the body parts of animals as souvenirs. Animals are being driven to extinction by this carelessness!
  • Speak up.  If you see a situation of cruelty or abuse, talk to the perpetrator, or call the authorities.  We so often assume someone else will deal with the problem.  If we don’t speak up, who will?
Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Baboon in a small cage at a roadside zoo in Canada (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

What are some tips you have for traveling as a vegan when visiting places that aren’t vegan-friendly?

I used to worry about what I was going to eat while travelling. Some of us like me who are spoiled city vegans are used to lots of options. Take a deep breath. It’s not a huge deal if there are fewer options for a little while.

Don’t let fewer options ruin your good time and excitement for a new culture and new experience. It’s also an opportunity to let restaurants know that people want vegan options; you can always say as much if you’re at a place with few options, thus being part of the momentum towards more vegan options for future visitors.

You can bring supplements with you on your travels. I always bring Vega with me, so that I can get a boost of nutrition, if the day’s meals aren’t going to be balanced. When I’m travelling to remote places, I bring my powdered soymilk as well, for my morning tea or cereal.

I lived in the bush in Africa for 6 weeks, while volunteering at Ape Action Africa. This is one of the greatest places on earth to volunteer with primates; I highly recommend it. But you’re going to eat a lot of rice and beans. In situations like this, I just suggest loosening the grip and enjoying the ride.

Besides, this is how billions of people eat every day. If they can do it, you can too for a little while. It’s humbling, too, and gives you an appreciation for just how much we city folk have available to us.  I also enjoy bringing peanut butter with me. It’s the small pleasures, you know?

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Rachel and Shai at Ape Action Africa (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)
Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
One of Rachel’s juvenile gorillas, pre-move to the large forest enclosure. (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

My worst vegan eating experience was while travelling in Chile. My favourite story: I let the server know that I was vegan and he smiled broadly and said he knew exactly what to bring me! Well this was exciting; someone in small town Latin America who knew about veganism! My friends laughed, and so did I, when he brought our meals to the table.

Mine was mashed potatoes, with boiled, cubed potatoes next to them. Between the two were approximately three overcooked string beans. Maybe the effort was genuine, or maybe it was a “screw you, vegan!”, but the point is that it was one meal, and I wasn’t going to starve, and I didn’t let it ruin my trip.

Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

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