I have two confessions to make. Firstly, I haven’t always been vegan. Secondly, I engaged in animal tourism during my travels when I wasn’t vegan. I rode an elephant in Thailand. I rode horses in the U.S. and attended a rodeo. I rode a donkey in Egypt and a camel in Jordan. I also visited zoos and SeaWorld right here in my own country.
You may be wondering how a traveller makes the jump to become vegan and refuse to partake in tourism involving animals. My reasons are long and convoluted, yet the core essence of my decisions stems from a strong desire to say ‘no’ to the use and exploitation of animals for human gain. I’m an all or nothing person, in the sense that once I decided to become vegan, my choice demanded that I cover all facets of my travelling life too – no longer supporting animal tourism. So for me, my contribution to animal welfare means not engaging in any animal use whatsoever.
Recently, I received an electronic newsletter from World Animal Protection; a worldwide animal protection no-profit that strives to inspire us all to change animals’ lives for the better and educate on how we can protect animals worldwide. In that email, subscribers like me were asked to pledge to be an ‘animal friendly traveller’. I had turned vegan about four and a half years ago, so taking the pledge was a natural, and right, thing to do; for me, for animals worldwide and for those who are yet to say ‘no’ themselves. In an age where we maintain a digital life as well as a face-to-face one, you may think that simply clicking a button to make this pledge may hold little weight or substance. Yet, just by clicking to pledge allows me to enact my values and feelings towards a world that engages in mass exploitation of animals and contributes to animal suffering on a daily scale, in addition to my time travelling.
It broke my heart to see elephants being used to transport tourists up the dusty walkways leading into Amber Fort in Agra, India. These elephants make multiple trips up and down steep, rock-hard and narrow walkways in searing temperatures for those tourists who are too hot and bothered to walk themselves. Or, they wanted to ‘experience’ a ride for themselves. The elephants’ feet are not designed to walk on hardened substrates and riders use a special hook and dagger-like instrument called an ankus to keep these elephants subdued and on course. The ankus is hidden from view by the rider so that tourists don’t see it. Yet, it’s not uncommon to see an elephant heaving by with tears streaming down his or her face.
My choice to say ‘no’ means I can contribute to reducing the demand for the use of animals as food, entertainment, tourism and transport. I understand that there are countries where poverty is rife and levels of education are low. I yearn to send the message that by saying ‘no’ means there must be a new way to offer local employment while reducing the needless suffering of animals in the process. These animals belong in the wild.
Local customs are stemmed from traditions, so I have received my fair share of strange looks – even scrutiny – from fellow travellers when I politely say ‘no’. I vividly remember staying with a local family in Southern India and our guide did not communicate thoroughly to the matriarch that my husband and I were observing a vegan diet. Our first breakfast included a paneer (or cheese) dish; our generous and gracious hostess believed that vegan was the same as lacto-ovo vegetarian (as observed by many vegetarian locals).
Staying in someone else’s home as a guest and having to explain my vegan dietary requirements was one of the most embarrassing and ungracious things I’ve had to do while on the road. Even another traveller staying with us became instantly cranky at the predicament, maybe because she thought I needed to exhibit more graciousness and acceptance? As a traveller, a guest in someone’s home, how do you crawl out of that one? I did my best to remedy the situation, even offering to help clear the table. I later discovered even that act of kindness is perceived offensive – guests never help, let along wander into a kitchen to stack plates! So, I guess there is a need – on both sides – to offer education where it may be needed at a local level. I was happy to spend time with our hostess to explain vegan and my reasons, all the while showering her with gratitude and appreciation for her generous hospitality. The next morning, she cooked us a gorgeous breakfast of idiyappam (rice flour noodles or ‘string hoppers’) and crushed nuts, while I did not offer to help clear up!
I have used some of my travel experiences from India in this post, yet I see animal exploitation everywhere I travel. There is a need for populations to come together and help in ensuring the welfare of animals everywhere. Bit by bit, we can reduce, even eliminate, animal exploitation. All it takes is making a conscious choice in the daily decisions we make, whether we’re travelling or not. Start locally and we can all make impact on a global scale.
Disclaimer: The themes explored in this post were at the discretion of Fire & Tea, and there is no underlying relationship between World Animal Protection and me other than my decision to independently sign up to World Animal Protection’s mailing list and opt into their Animal Friendly Traveller pledge.