Don't let me see you with an animal selfie

+ how to be a more sustainable traveler

In today’s newsletter: animal selfies, sustainable travel, and Alison Roman. This month, a portion of the profits from paid newsletter subscriptions will be donated to Womankind. Previous organizations we’ve supported include Girls Write NowWomen for WomenHeart of Dinner & Black Mamas Matter. If you’ve found your way here but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:

Early morning in Manaus and the first rays of sunlight pierce through the dense blanket of fog that has drifted off the Amazon River overnight and wrapped itself languidly around the Brazilian city. Manaus, which serves as a gateway to the Amazon rainforest, is a popular tourist destination on the nexus of the murky Rio Negro and the famed Amazon River. A launchpad for jungle adventures, Manaus whets travelers’ appetites with local tours promising exotic animal encounters.

With an estimated 94 percent of local tour operators offering animal excursions, travelers could almost be forgiven for paying a small fee to enjoy a glorified petting zoo in Manaus. With smartphone and selfie stick in hand, locals introduce tourists to caged ocelots, deceptively smiling sloths, timid anteaters, green anacondas, and vibrant toucans. As travelers roam the dirt-packed grounds of a local’s home, sloths are picked up and posed with, anacondas are wrapped around shoulders like feather boas, and toucans are playfully placed atop heads.

The experience seems harmless enough as tourists are blissfully preoccupied with selecting Instagram filters and writing witty, enviable captions for their animal selfies. What international charity, World Animal Protection (WAP), uncovered is that these tours are ridden with abuse inflicted on wild animals for the sake of selfie-stick touting tourists.

“Our love of selfies on social media is driving the suffering and exploitation of Amazon wildlife, such as sloths, anacondas, and caiman crocodiles,” explains Kai Akram, WAP’s global head of media. “Animals are snatched from the wild—often illegally—and used by irresponsible tour operators who cruelly exploit and injure wildlife to entertain and provide harmful photo opportunities for tourists.”

WAP investigators revealed that wild sloths were captured and tied to trees with rope, not surviving beyond six months post-capture. Birds had severe abscesses on their feet, while anteaters displayed signs of physical and psychological abuse by their owners. Green anacondas were found to be dehydrated and wounded, caiman crocodiles were often restrained with rubber bands around their jaws; while those cuddly ocelots were stuffed into too-small, barren cages.

Fueled by a social media obsession of people keen to pose alongside wildlife, animal cruelty shows no sign of stopping. Since 2014, there has been a 292 percent increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram, according to research by World Animal Protection. Of the multitude of animal selfies currently on the popular photo-sharing platform, over one quarter are what WAP calls ‘bad selfies.’

To spot (and ideally flag and report) a bad animal selfie, look for photos that show a person hugging, holding, or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal in any way as this usually points to unethical tours.

“Behind the scenes, wild animals are being taken from their mothers as babies and secretly kept in filthy, cramped conditions or repeatedly baited with food causing severe psychological trauma,” adds CEO of World Animal Protection, Steve McIvor. “The wildlife selfie craze is a worldwide phenomenon fueled by tourists, many of whom are unaware of the abhorrent conditions and terrible treatment wild animals endure to provide that special souvenir photo.”

To tackle the growing issue, WAP has called on relevant governments to better enforce animal protection laws and monitor tour operators offering animal encounters. The World Animal Protection also reached out to Instagram officials to explore ways to stem the flow of bad animal selfies and educate users on how to inadvertently avoid supporting animal cruelty on their travels.

When questioned about the growing number of animal selfies and associated abuse on their platform, an Instagram spokesperson replied: “We prohibit the use of Instagram to facilitate or organize criminal activity that causes physical harm to animals. We remove reported content that promotes poaching of endangered species or the sale of animals for an organized fight, and that includes animal abuse.”

Instagram’s spokesperson confirmed the platform is working with wildlife experts in hopes of providing the online community with information about animal cruelty. The thing is, animals play a massive role in the Instagram community, often garnering millions of followers. “Animals at the very highest echelons of fame have NFL-size entourages,” reports Quartz Media. “Even pets with relatively middling-sized followings have access to opportunities human fame-seekers would envy: product lines, endorsements, guest appearances, and endless freebies.”

While many of these famous animals are domesticated pooches, wild animals share the spotlight as well, sending a clear message that on Instagram, animal photos do well. While a stand-alone animal selfie can garner thousands of likes, comments, and fleeting online fame; owning a wild animal—such as Pumpkin the Raccoon—can prove a lucrative business with endorsements and money to be made.

With the COVID vaccine roll-outs and the anticipated return to travel, it ultimately falls on a traveler’s shoulders to be diligent about the animal activities they choose and to be sure they are not supporting (and promoting) animal abuse through their social media. Despite promises from local tour operators that their animals are “happy” and “love being held,” a clear indication of an unethical tour is direct interaction with any wild animal in a contained space.

World Animal Protection continues to give wild animals a voice, fighting for the end of cruel tourism and helping local communities learn ways they can tap into tourism dollars without harming wild animals in the process.

Ways to combine your love of travel with sustainability

With the pandemic, we watched as the world came to a halt and people were sequestered in their homes. Amidst all the doom and gloom, one of the few incredible things to emerge from the pandemic was seeing how the environment rebounded with the drop in tourism. From the clear canals of Venice to the clearing of smog over Los Angeles, incredible images circulated around the internet showing clear skies, clear waters, and the return of wildlife to once crowded and polluted areas. As travel slowly begins to open up, we are all looking ahead to how we can return to travel in a way that is environmentally mindful. Here are a few ways that you, as a traveler, can balance your love of globetrotting with a commitment to sustainability. 

The great love of Alison Roman and Dillbert

Chances are you’ve seen me write about Alison Roman’s recipes in this newsletter. Throughout this pandemic, I have evolved from the person who set off a fire alarm while making pasta to the person who can now flawlessly roast a chicken and “layer flavors.” I owe this, in large part, to the easy and accessible recipes that emerge from Roman’s Brooklyn kitchen.

The one thing to know about Roman is this girl loves dill. In fact, before I started cooking her recipes I don’t think I used dill on anything. So when she posted a new recipe with a googly-eyed dill (henceforth known as “Dillbert”), I was instantly charmed. This buttered salmon recipe is like a deconstructed lox bagel minus the cream cheese. This week, I also ordered this new cookbook from Molly Baz, which—if you ask me—seems like an Alison Roman 2.0, but I’m willing to give her recipes a try.

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