Finding your dream wildlife experience is incredibly easy, but knowing if it’s ethical or not can be much more difficult.

You might build a trip around animal experiences, or you might stumble upon an opportunity as you travel. Either way, before you do it, ask yourself: is the experience actually benefitting the animal? If you took your money out of the equation would those animals still benefit from your presence? Sadly, there is a dark side to animal tourism that is difficult to avoid.

As a British zoo keeper with six years in the animal and tourism industries, I’ve made animals the focus of my world travels. Here’s how to make sure you choose an ethical animal experience.

What to look out for

Firstly, if you can cuddle or ride the animals, avoid the organisation. Even having your photo taken with animals can be a warning sign – there’s a clear difference between somebody taking an off the cuff photo of you with an animal while you’re mucking out its enclosure or administering medicine, and an animal being used as a photo prop.

A selfie with a photo prop animal might appear harmless, but the animal has no choice in the matter, and might be wheeled out hour-after-hour, day-after-day, which is stressful and potentially bad for their health.

Many experiences offer the chance to cuddle big cat cubs, but as soon as they grow up these animals are often used for canned hunting. I’ve been on horse treks where the animals clearly weren’t happy, and riding elephants forces them to carry loads over the weakest point of their spine, causing it to flatten over time. They can also be hideously overworked.

Ethical elephant experiences

If a tour offers a ‘close encounter’, this might mean harassment of the wildlife in question. It might not sound as exciting, but observing wildlife from a respectful distance through a good pair of binoculars is much safer, and you’ll be rewarded with natural behaviours to observe.

Years ago I worked on a whale watching boat. The company had a strict code of conduct in the best interest of the wildlife we were seeing. We never got closer than 100m and switched off the engines to allow the whales to come closer if they wanted. If your experience provider follows similar rules it is much more likely to be both ethical and enjoyable.

What you should expect to do

If you want to help animals on your trip, consider volunteering with an organisation that needs you to clean out enclosures, take care of the animals’ daily needs, or partake in research. These are much more likely to be legitimate, and you can check if a company is Global Federation of Animals Sanctuaries (GFAS) approved or recommended by WASP international.

Ethical bear experiences

Expect to get down and dirty in doing the work of a real animal keeper – yes, this means cleaning up a lot of poo. But you will also get the chance to be close to these incredible animals.

While in Cambodia I volunteered for three weeks with Free the Bears, an organisation that rescues bears from the bile and pet trades. I never had any physical contact with a bear, instead cleaning out enclosures, chopping their food, and creating new toys for them to enjoy. It was a fantastic experience, and I enjoyed it safe in the knowledge that I was actually helping to fund more rescues of bears.

In contrast, let’s look at the recently closed Tiger Temple. This tourist attraction, claiming to be run by monks, let visitors meet apparently happy and healthy tigers. It was exposed as a hotbed for illegal trafficking, selling wildlife on the black market, and depriving the tigers of basic needs. So many animal lovers flocked there, and must have been mortified when they discovered the truth.

Contact an organisation and ask questions to learn about the animals and what you’ll be doing. If they refuse to answer questions or only give vague answers, it might be best to avoid.

How to get up close and personal

If you really want close contact, I would recommend a work stay with domesticated animals. They may not be as exotic, but that doesn’t make them any less fun. Within three minutes of arriving in New Zealand I was cuddling a lamb while it received medication. I looked after two husky dogs in Spain that quickly became my best friends. Work stays like this will also save you heaps of money.

Feeding a lamb

Overall, you need to balance what you want out of an experience with animal welfare. Don’t fall for the first charity that claims to help conservation. Do your research, speak to others who have been, and expect to be a keeper rather than a cuddler – you will have the most incredible time and you’ll have helped animals, funded conservation, and truly made a difference.

It is this kind of experience that will leave you with lasting memories. You’ll forever remember a particular animal you bonded with and how it got excited when you brought it food, the way it greeted you in the mornings, or maybe just that fleeting glimpse before it melted back into the jungle.