Bringing it Home – Ethical Animal Encounters

In a very short space of time here in the beautiful South, and even as close to home as my own home town, there have been attacks and close encounters with apex predators both on land and sea. We know the stories, they have been well publicised or watched on YouTube repeatedly, from the death of the young American tourist at the Lion Park to the shark incident at the JBay Open surf contest this weekend past, from the old leopard being driven over repeatedly for grabbing a tourist’s arm to the two varsity students attacked by sharks in the space of two days here on the Garden Route. The rapid succession seems uncanny and, at the risk of anthropomorphising (and philosophising), I would say the king of the jungle and the great white of the seas seem angry, these predators at the top of the food chain appear to be in fight or flight mode, but have opted for fight, as any good predator would. The balance is out of kilter in their natural kingdom and it brings into question many things, but has really made me think how we as a country interact with our fellow wildlife, as well as the opportunities we create for tourists to interact with animals. After all, is that not one of the main reasons people come to South Africa? The land where wild animals roam free?

A rhino family roam free at Sibuya Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

A rhino family roam free at Sibuya Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

So then, what is a truly ethical animal encounter? We’ve had to face that very question in our home over the past few days with my nature loving son’s birthday on the horizon. He deeply wants a party with meaningful animal experiences but is super aware that many places will be out of bounds on principle. You see he has a tricky mom (that’s me) who won’t even let them get a hamster because it sets up the wrong relationship between child and animal from the outset, where the animal is constantly viewed behind bars, like that’s ok. And I don’t think it’s ok for animals to be behind bars, it objectifies and commodifies them and creates the false impression that we are different when in fact we are just one strand in this complex web of life. It also dulls our sense of empathy, the emotion at the crux of it all. The ideal way to have a meaningful experience is by viewing animals in their natural habitat from a respectful distance, in places where they are free to roam over large expanses and fulfill their natural rhythms. We are really lucky in South Africa because while it’s not always realistic to visit the last few places of true wilderness where animals are free and wild, there are many great reserves that are well managed and passionate about biodiversity, wildlife and the respect thereof. No matter how much we’d love to, we won’t be making it to one of those for my son’s birthday, so we have decided instead to take him to a  real raptor sanctuary.

An African Fish Eagle is released back into the wild by Dennis Robson of Radical Raptors.

A rehabilitated African Fish Eagle is released back into the wild by Dennis Robson of Radical Raptors.

Radical Raptors is for me a true animal sanctuary because they follow the principles of Rescue,  Rehabilitate and Release. They take in injured birds that have been hit by a car or broken a wing and facilitate their recovery in such a way that they can be successfully released back into the wild. Isn’t that beautiful and necessary? The birds that have been in captivity, or human imprinted or, for whatever reason, would not be  able to survive in the wild, are cared for with much love and their life journey is to instill a sense of wonder in the visitors who view their flight displays and are educated about these incredible birds of prey and the threats they face. Because if just one tourist from each group is touched by the beauty of these magnificent birds and inspired to not ever use rat poison again at home, that there is a meaningful animal encounter with long lived positive benefits for the birds of prey and wildlife back home, wherever home may be.


Children in awe of a magnificent eagle at Radical Raptors.

Children in awe of a magnificent eagle at Radical Raptors.

Eco Atlas does not support animal encounters which involve petting, riding, hunting or breeding of wild animals in captivity. Today (22 July 2015) sees the premiere of the documentary Blood Lions which aims to blow the lid on the canned lion hunting industry in South Africa and its links to cub petting facilities and the lion bone trade. Visit their site to find out how you can get involved.

Follow the hashtag #AnimalRightsInTourism to find other responsible tourism blogs posted on the topic today!


About Rhian

Rhian Berning is on a journey is to find and document ways of living that are gentle on the planet and beneficial to all people. She loves telling the stories of the incredible people and places that are actively building a future beautiful and created the online Eco Atlas platform to bridge the gap between active citizens and regenerative, socially just businesses so we can all be everyday changemakers and vote with our wallets.

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