Occasionally in my travels, I’m forced to confront my attitudes towards animal welfare and tourism. Until a recent trip to Morocco, it had been relatively easy. I simply avoided riding or handling any animal I perceived to be exploited for the benefit of tourists.
Marrakech challenged my thinking. Some decisions were easy, such as not hiring one of the calèches lined up on the outskirts of Jamaâ El Fna Square. Hitched to each calèche were two horses standing on pavement in 42-degree heat. Each was competing for the tiny patch of shade provided by the carriage in front.
Or avoiding the macaque monkeys with a chain around their necks, wearing dirty diapers to protect tourists as they clambered over people’s heads and shoulders. The camels tethered to concrete blocks on short ropes waiting in the hot sun for tourists seemed totally out of their element, so bypassing them also wasn’t difficult.
However, the snake charmers and their snakes were another story. This was the first time coming across the practice so I was curious, to say the least. The thing about Marrakech compared to most other places is that simply taking a photograph will cost you. Looking was free. My hostel roommate from Germany was caught surreptitiously snapping a picture.
Her required donation gave her access to more.
I must admit, I couldn’t bear to look at the monkeys shackled at the neck, and gave them a wide berth. I had the same reaction to the horses standing in the oppressive heat. They were plagued by scores of flies buzzing about their heads. It was saddening. The camels? They appeared to be well fed but I walked past them with a furtive glance and covert photograph.
But those snake charmers. There was something about them and their snakes that brought me back to Jamaâ El Fna Square time and time again. On a conscious level, I knew the hot pavement of the square wasn’t a suitable habitat for any species in the animal kingdom. But perhaps on another level, I placed snakes on a different rung on the hierarchy. My discomfort wasn’t as intense as what I felt for the horses, camels and monkeys. However, I figured if I didn’t take any photographs, I wasn’t supporting the fact that as wild animals, they didn’t belong there, performing for tourists. Hypocritical? Probably. I was supporting their treatment by being a curious and engaged bystander.
My discomfort at seeing the variety of ways people use animals to eke out a living in Marrakech challenged me to think more about my own attitudes to animal welfare and tourism.
It prompted questions for which I didn’t have answers. What’s appropriate? If a practice is rooted in tradition, is it appropriate for tourists to condemn it based on their own cultural values? If an animal appears to be healthy and treated well, is it acceptable to support the operator? If we suspect an animal’s welfare is at risk, what are our responsibilities as travellers?
For answers, I looked to Leyla Giray Alyanak who blogs at Women on the Road. Leyla writes compelling, thought-provoking articles on social issues for travellers. Her article, Rules for Animal-Friendly Tourism was just what I was looking for. It included a list of questions to assess whether or not an activity is animal-friendly, and I especially appreciated the 9 steps to responsible tourism – a list of concrete actions for travellers interested in promoting animal-friendly travel experiences.
Responsible Travel was just as helpful. That organization helped answer my question about whether or not it was acceptable to support an operator with animals that appeared to be healthy and well fed. While that criterion is important, it falls short of the five freedoms included in their basic level of acceptable animal welfare standards. When it came to the “freedom to express normal behaviour,” none of the animals I observed in Marrakech met that test.
Now it’s over to you. Please add your thoughts in the comments.