Wildlife Tourism and Instagram


Often if I feel like doing a little bit of Internet scrolling and I want a lift, I head over to National Geographic. I love the images, I love the stories, and I love learning about new animals, new places in the world, and new environmental initiatives.  I almost always come away filled with wonder and gratitude at the world’s beauty and diversity.

But, of course, that is not all that National Geographic catalogs; they chronicle the ugliness as well, and the cover story in last month’s issue is one of the ugliest, and has really stayed with me. I have found it hard to shake.  You can find the story here:  Wildlife Tourism and Animal Suffering

The topic was wildlife tourism, and this is not the environmental friendly/eco-positive tourism that we sometimes think of (which has its own problems), but tourism that is driven by Instagram, and the desire to take a likes-generating selfie with wild animals in very unnatural settings where they have been broken, chained, and otherwise abused.  The pictures are horrific, and should make you pause, next time you are somewhere exotic and are tempted by an elephant or a camel ride, or a swim with dolphins, or a roadside attraction with a monkey or a sloth.  They should make us all pause, as we think about how animals are kept for circus attractions, zoos, theme parks and aquariums.  [I thought it was interesting that the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced in 2016 that its dolphins will be retired to a seaside sanctuary by 2020.]

All of this reminded me of Sallie McFague’s great description of the “arrogant eye” [which she contrasts with the “loving eye”], which is a lens of power and subjugation that humans use when we look at animals and creation itself as objects for our own use and purposes.  It is a gaze devoid of true I-Thou relationship, and devoid of love.

Some people argue that captive animals have a better life than those in the wild–I guess it depends on what you mean when you say, “better.”  John and I were just watching the David Attenborough (I want his job, by the way) documentary on Africa last night, and I’m telling you, it was pretty brutal in places–particularly watching the extra shoebill chick get pecked practically to death by its stronger sibling and then just stepped over by its mother, who only has the resources to raise one chick to adulthood.  Since the first one survived the second one will not. Life in the wild is no picnic, for any animal, really–and climate change is making it all harder in so many ways.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that there is a vast gulf separating the kind of suffering an animal experiences being part of a larger ecosystem characterized by predation and volatility and the kind of suffering that is degrading, soul-killing, exploitative, and deliberately cruel.  The kind of suffering that humans have decided is “worth it,” just for a good picture, just for Instagram.  That suffering is sinful, and needs to be stopped.

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