While generally I don’t go on my trips as a tourist, I do sometimes partake in touristic activities. I have complicated feelings about tourism; on the one hand, I recognize it’s a powerful economic driver, an important source of income for many countries. I also am a huge believer in cultural exchange. But. I think tourism industries can lead to exploitative situations and can often get in the way of cultural exchange,

I’ve had hours-long conversations about this, party economies, and more. But, because this is a blog about animals, we’ll talk about tourism as it involves them.

Full confession: I have participated in both elephant and horseback rides, one being in Nepal and the other in Cuba. Addendum: I am not terribly educated about animals in tourism, but I know there is a strong faction against the use of animals in entertainment. I lean that way because of what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

Cecilia sees the world from the back of an elephant.

It’s easy to understand why people engage in elephant (and other) rides. Seated on what was essentially a caged table on the back of an elephant, I saw the jungle in Nepal from impressive new heights - things I’d been nonplussed about on the ground (particularly the leech-infested waters we waded through in sandals). The elephants themselves were gentle and easily distracted, pulling up long grass in clumps and whacking off the dust on their shins. I was also told that the nature conserve providing the tours was one of the more compassionate to the animals involved and one of the more effective at conservation.

Yet I’m not sure this is saying much. For one, the implements used to train the elephants looked dangerous, more like weapons than tools. The trainers themselves hit the elephants, hard, with sticks between the eyes, and scarcely did we finish our trip than the elephants went back out again with new groups of tourists on their backs. The final sad point was, when we were introduced to the facilities, we saw the elephants kept on chains. The only two elephants who interacted with each other were two babies who stretched the chains to their full extent to make contact. The rest slept or drank water from pails adjacent to piles of hay.

So it’s this I don’t get: if conservation is another purpose of these tours, then why aren’t the elephants allowed to have some semblance of life in the wild? Why aren’t they participating in the natural ecosystem of the jungle there? Mind you, this wildlife reserve also called itself home to rhinos, boars and other wild animals that were allowed to roam free.

Riding horses on the beach.

So while the experience itself was fun, I was overall left with a negative impression. I felt the same horseback riding in Cuba - the sights were incredible, the stars like freckles, and the bats were plentiful. But our horses frothed at the mouths, walked slowly, and were, again, beaten into submission with whip-like sticks. Mine kept veering off the path to eat and refused to return. Once again, they seemed exhausted and depressed. Animals in these situations are often thought of as tools, and not always tools that are taken care of.

I understand the economic purposes behind everything, that in Cuba and Nepal, wages are very dependent on bringing tourists to an area and providing them an “exotic” experience. A higher volume of tourists means more money. But, like many things in life, I wonder if it’s worth it for us, the tourists, to participate.

I’ve yet to do any such thing in Peru, though there’s an alpaca petting zoo near my home. I’m not sure if would be any different than what I’ve seen in other countries, though I’m interested to know more.

Tell me, what do you know about animal conservation? Have you ever purchased an experience that depended on animals?

Dalmation in Nepal.

Once again, I’m in mind of the podcast I listened to about the history of the domestication of the cat. Another fun fact discovered during that listen is that mixed breeds of cats are far more common as pets than are mutts - essentially, there is a higher percentage of dog owners with pure breeds.

This isn’t actually a surprise for me, as I’ve seen all kinds of dogs held in different environments for their designer qualities. For example, the stray dogs in Nepal were largely different than the dogs kept as pets - but being a pet didn’t necessarily guarantee a better life.

The German shepherd and Dalmatian at my home in Nepal were designer breeds, certainly, definitive status symbols, but they lived in a small uncleaned cage, sleeping in their own feces. Whenever they were let out, they rushed around the vicinity creating general chaos until the family couldn’t put up with it and returned them to their quarantine. Meanwhile, the dog up the hill had been taken from the streets and had of her house free reign and the furniture.

Huskies in the tropical climate of Cuba.

In Cuba, on the other hand, I met two huskies in a town where their thick fur was wildly inappropriate. They lived in a luxurious home with a wealthy family, and wanted nothing in terms of affection and food, but when the days reached over a hundred degrees, they could do nothing but lounge in the shade.

I’ve also already mentioned village life in Hungary, with the preferences of families there to arm their homes with pitbulls. The purpose there, of course, is more functional than decorative, but one breed has been singled out for certain qualities.

In both Cuba and Nepal, I saw exemplified the desire for designer - foreign - dogs; many stray dogs were native to the area, mutts, smaller and more narrowly built. I’ve wondered for some time about the nature of breeding in other countries, as in the United States, breeding dogs can be complicated, and often problematic.

That being said, it was also incredibly common for families to take dogs off the streets and integrate them into their households. Stray dogs might also adopt families, as while I was in Cuba, several stray dogs had homes they stayed close to, even if another dog was already in the home. In turn, they might be fed by the family and familiar faces in the neighborhood. This process was fascinating to me, as it meant attached stray dogs participated less - even intact males - in the ganglike behaviors of dogs on the streets.

Now that I’m in Peru, I’ve seen some of the designer dog desires (the occasional Saint Bernard happily lagging behind its owner, dachshunds in coats, and furless dogs with tufts of wiry hair on the tops of their heads), but I’ve also seen families with mutts from the streets - even the families that are better off. Peru has an interesting, somewhat contradictory, pet culture, but it’s also changing as the culture and economy develop.

Cora, one of Cecilia's family dogs, resting on her bed here in Portland.

And, of course, we know in the United States that it’s a mix. Purebreds and certain mixes (cough - labradoodle - cough) can be purchased at prices upwards of a thousand dollars. Breeds come with important behavioral and personality distinctions, and sometimes extreme genetic disorders; I’m thinking mainly of bulldogs, who I’ve heard require artificial insemination and C-sections to safely reproduce, and pugs, who can have a whole host of physical difficulties.

In contrast, I can think of few cats I know who are purebreds, though I know that designer cats do exist - siamese and hairless cats are two

examples. I have heard, though, that it’s and absolutely fascinating experience to watch a cat show and see what distinct breeds actually look like.

None of this is to pass judgement, but it is something I’ve kept in mind while travelling. Personally, I love most dogs that cross my path and one of my own dogs is this crazy-looking gremlin thing who used to meander the streets of Los Angeles. She was a bit more of a challenge because of her fear and mistrust of people, but she has been so worth it. All I will say is that I hope anyone looking into buying a new pet will do the proper research for whichever breed or background of animal they’re thinking of taking home. It makes things better in the long run.

What type of pet do you have? What’s its origin story?

In the U.S. we view these cute rodents as pets.

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try guinea pig in Peru, though I’ve heard it’s quite a delicacy. My Peruvian friends tell me the meat is tender with fine bones embedded - eating cuy provides delight but requires a level of vigilance.

Americans often feel a little squeamish thinking about guinea pig as a meal, and I get it, but I also find it fascinating. This is mainly because I’m always a little enthralled by which animals are deemed a protected - or, at times, condemned -class. My go-to example is always going to be the cow in India and Nepal. Because cows are sacred in the Hindi-majority countries, it is illegal to kill them. My host family told me cows hold that sacred position due to their usefulness; not only do female cows provide milk, but families with large swaths of agricultural land utilize cows in farming.

There are a few things to note with this. The first is a warning: if you are a traveler to Nepal or India, avoid beef on any restaurant menu. It may be that whatever cow turned into that food was sick or dead for a few days before being sold to the restaurant. There’s also a possibility that the cow was killed outside country borders and then transported back - again bringing up issues of sanitation and bacterial stuff.

The inability to kill cows also caused another problem: stray cows, usually of the male variety. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why this happens, but it does, and it means often teenaged cows wander the streets leading to Kathmandu, as well as around the city itself. I never saw them cause too much trouble aside from adding to the congestion and filth of the city.

So intentional cow deaths are a no go in India and Nepal, as are dog and guinea pig deaths in the United States. Conversely, cultures around the world and across time (stereotypically in China, but also in countries in Africa, pre-Americanized Hawaii, and South Korea) consume dogs. A quick look at the history of eating dogs indicates some fascinating facts, such as that some cultures domesticated the wolf for their meat, and thus some breeds of dogs were developed specifically for consumption. I’ve also learned some cultures killed and ate dogs for ritualistic and religious purposes; often these dogs experienced a higher standard of living than other animals used for consumption.

Overall, it seems which animals are consumed in whichever culture is often based in centuries of history and development. My opinion on it is this: as long as the animals are treated well in life, I won’t judge a culture for which animals it eats. I also know that dogs respond to warmth in every culture I’ve been in - and I’ve been told that unexpected animals do as well, such as a turkey that was taken in by a family as a pet and became a companion in the way that a dog or cat is a companion for us.

So - my question for you is, what unexpected pets have you had in your life? What about unfamiliar meats you’ve tried?

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