COLUMN: Practice responsible tourism

On a tiny island in the Bahamas, there’s a small herd of wild pigs, now famous for their tendency to run into the ocean and swim alongside visitors. In the past year, “the swimming pigs” — a herd of approximately 20 wild pigs — have made quite a name for themselves on social media and TripAdvisor.

While this seems sweet, these wild pigs provide an illustrative example of the ways in which wildlife tourism is exploitative and dangerous to animals. The pigs show why a more responsible form of tourism is required.

Tourists flock to the island to play with and feed the friendly animals. But last week, seven of the pigs were found dead on the beach.

Veterinarians who inspected the pigs’ bodies found large amounts of sand in their stomachs and cited this as the cause of death. Humane Society representative Ventoi Bethune concluded that the pigs likely ingested the sand due to tourists throwing scraps of food on the beach. The pigs, lacking the fingers to pluck the food from the beach, would ingest mouthfuls of sand alongside tourist offerings.

At the moment, throwing food on the beach and interacting with the pigs is not only legal, but encouraged. Tour boats ferry guests to and from the island, and the tourist attraction of feeding the animals is so popular it was even featured as a date on IU alumnus Ben Higgins’ 2016 season of “The Bachelor.”

But with the death of a third of the beloved swimming pigs, the ethics of this tourist attraction have been called into question. The public is calling for increased regulations from the government — and rightfully so. But tourists must also be held accountable for their participation in 
harmful activities.

A 2015 study from a team of University of Oxford wildlife specialists claimed that between 20 and 40 percent of all global tourism falls under the category of wildlife tourism. This means that a huge portion of tourism worldwide is dependent upon making the lives of animals a spectator sport.

As an animal lover, I completely understand the appeal of interacting with swimming pigs or any wild animals. “Tarzan” is one of my favorite Disney movies, and I still haven’t completely shaken the childhood desire to live with a group of gorillas, Jane Goodall-style. But I’m not Jane Goodall, and my aggressive affection for wild animals without any real knowledge of their behavior would only do them harm.

The same has proven true for the swimming pigs and many other examples of 
wildlife tourism.

Of course, a few of these tourism experiences — such as visits to conservation facilities or nature preserves — are positive for the animals, but the vast majority of wildlife “experiences” are incredibly exploitative. Generally speaking, anything that allows you to cuddle, take a selfie with or ride an animal probably isn’t great for the animal itself.

Unfortunately, history has proven time and again that human desire for profit far outweighs questions of animal welfare. The industry of harmful wildlife tourism will continue so long as the demand for exploitative wildlife experiences exists. So it is tourists themselves who will be ultimately responsible for stopping the cycle by ceasing the demand.

So next time you’re on vacation, think deeply before you swim with dolphins in Hawaii, ride an elephant in Thailand or feed wild pigs in the Bahamas. Not participating in an activity might just express more love and respect for an animal than a forced 
interaction ever could.

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