The Best Ethical Animal Encounters in the World

If you’re an animal lover, chances are you’ve experienced some kind of animal encounter before. Whether it’s a petting zoo, swimming with stingrays, or riding an elephant, there are tons of popular experiences that are sold to tourists and travelers as day-excursions designed to bring them in closer contact with local wildlife.

Even though it’s exhilarating to encounter these animals up close, many animal rights organizations are now making it clear that experiences like these are only possible when the animals cooperate. Unfortunately, many companies that are supposed to be championing animal rights are doing very questionable things to make their encounter animals docile and compliant.

If you still want to experience unique animals, but also want to make sure that you’re not supporting unethical practices, check out some of these animal encounters around the world.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – Sukhothai, Thailand

Many animal rights organizations have been fighting for years against the practice of riding elephants. Although the animals are large, their backs are not particularly strong. In fact, their backs are not meant to support the weight of multiple humans on top of a howdah seating platform.

Instead, if you want to come in close contact with elephants, head to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in northern Thailand, which has been the home of many abused and mistreated elephants since its foundation in 2007. If you want to help out for yourself, you can pay around $180 USD per night to stay overnight at their facility. You’ll be responsible for helping bathe and feed the elephants and will get to spend as much time as you want to observe these magnificent animals.

The Donkey Sanctuary – Sidmouth, England

Donkeys are one of the largest remaining groups of working animals, who serve some of the poorest communities in the world. Their welfare is rarely considered, even by the most aggressive animal rights organizations.

If you’re passionate about the welfare of even the most ordinary of animals, head to The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, England. Although they have locations throughout the UK and Ireland, the Sidmouth farm is their largest by far. You can visit for the day, explore the trails around the farm, and visit with the hundreds of donkeys on-site. Entry is free, and they have plenty of amenities like a restaurant and gift shop on-site.

Deep Sea Divers Den – Queensland, Australia

If you’re interested in seeing whales up close but don’t want to pay money to organizations that keep whales in captivity, you’ll love the minke whale experience organized by Australian adventure company Deep Sea Divers Den.

Instead of forcing whales to interact with humans against their will, they organize five-day-long excursions on their ship OceanQuest During these excursions, spend your days taking part in up to 16 dives designed to bring you in close contact with these gentle giants. The staff onboard are extremely knowledgeable and well-versed in current conservation best practices.

Sunny Safaris – Arusha, Tanzania

Although there are many companies that run safaris through the national parks and conservation areas of eastern Africa, there are several whose practices are dubious, like driving off the roads and through the bush to get closer to the animals. If you’re interested in going on a safari, look for a company, like Sunny Safaris of Tanzania, who are committed to respecting the space of the wild animals while they’re in their home.

Sunny Safaris offers tons of options. This ranges from traditional safaris through the more popular areas of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to water taxi expeditions through Gombe Stream National Park.

Hetta Huskies – Hetta, Finland

One of the most quintessentially Finnish experiences for tourists is a dogsled safari. These trips range anywhere from a single day to eight days where the main mode of transportation is a sled pulled by four to six massive, shaggy huskies. Being able to sleep in a traditional farmstead, see the Aurora, or hunt by dogsled are all popular activities on these outings.

However, not every dogsled company is created equally. Unfortunately, many treat their dogs like chattel rather than hard workers.

Hetta Huskies is currently the industry leader for their treatment and handling of their huskies. They work hard to ensure their huskies get the best food and care. Hetta staff also adopt out unsuitable pups, where other organizations find it simpler to cull them.

Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary – Bethlehem, South Africa

Although it’s almost impossible to get close to a lion while on safari, there are some places you can go where you’re brought in close contact with these big cats.

The Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in Bethlehem, South Africa rescues lions, leopards, tigers, and many other big cats from zoos, circuses, and other situations where they’ve been kept in small enclosures or trained for performance. They’re given ample space to run around.

Visitors can stay at their nearby lodge and take part in activities with conservation staff. Popular outdoor activities include hiking and quad drives.

Jaguar Rescue Center – Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Although it’s called the Jaguar Rescue Center, there are tons of injured or orphaned animals who have been rescued and brought to their new home at this facility in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. At the Jaguar Rescue Center, they’re given medical care and, if possible, eventually reintroduced to their native habitat.

Medical and conservation staff offer public tours of their facilities, as well as day trips to their release station in La Ceiba. If you’re interested in supporting their work, you can volunteer at the center or intern longer-term as long as you’re part of a related educational program.

The most popular inhabitants by far are the sloths, who get lots of attention from visitors and volunteers alike.

Libearty Bear Sanctuary – Zarnesti, Romania

Although they inspire fear in many people, we can all agree that bears are not meant to be kept in cages.

The Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Romania is a safe home for bears who’ve been kept in cruel captivity — many of whom come from entertainment. Many bears who come here have never experienced any natural habitat. So, they have to be slowly reintroduced to the environment and other bears.

Built in 2005, the sanctuary is made up of over 66 acres of forested woodland, where around 70 bears are free to exist in peace. Visitors can enjoy touring the fence around the enclosure, as well as educational programming about the history of the organization’s conservation efforts.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary – Kanab, Utah

If you’re looking for an ethical animal encounter a bit closer to home and don’t want to even think about going somewhere like SeaWorld, you’re in luck. The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah is one of the largest animal rescues in the world. They’re home to around 1,600 homeless animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, parrots, horses, turtles, and pigs.

Although you can support their mission by adopting or sponsoring their animals, you can visit, take a tour, or volunteer for a longer period of time. Even if you don’t have much animal experience, there’s always something you can do to help out. They also host adoption-themed events around the country, like the Strut Your Mutt dog walk or the Best Friends National Conference.

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