The Sad Truth About Many Wildlife Selfies & How to Take a Cruelty-Free One

Ella with Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

Wild animal selfies - we've all seen people have them, or even had one ourselves. I often scroll through my Facebook or Instagram feed and lay eyes upon photos of people I know, smiling alongside a majestic animal, be it a tiger, a leopard or a bear. But what if I told you that sadly, many animal selfies are cruel to the animals? There are ways to take part in this activity, completely cruelty-free, but the sad reality is that few people know the difference. I bet few people who take part in these cruel selfies know just how bad they are for the animals. If you saw a photo online of someone with a wild animal, would you know if it was cruel or not?

As the trend for animal pictures grows, it's becoming more and more concerning just how many people don't realise the damage that their images are causing for the animals involved. So, I've come to help you all identify cruel wildlife selfies and how to avoid them. Why take a picture that is bad for the animal when you can have selfies with animals without harming the animal?

Cruel Vs Beneficial Wildlife Selfies

There are 2 types of wildlife selfie. Let me give you a brief overview of the differences.

What is a cruel wildlife selfie?

A cruel selfie takes place in a place which encourages visitors to pay for photographs alongside wild animals purely for profit. The animals have no other purpose other than to stand/lay there all day and have photographs taken with tourists. The animals are often mistreated. Some examples of of places which encourage cruel selfies are Tiger Temple in Thailand, elephant rides and cheetah/lion cub handling in game reserves in South Africa.

What is a beneficial wildlife selfie?

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some wildlife selfies that can be beneficial to the animals. I was fortunate enough to have some myself. Wildlife sanctuaries that rescue animals from terrible situations often allow visitors or volunteers. They educate visitors on the animals. Many animals at sanctuaries can never be released into the wild as they have come from backgrounds where they have had too much contact with humans. As a result of close contact with humans, you can get very close to some of the animals and as long as you respect the animals, you can take photos beside them whilst visiting the sanctuary. These images are beneficial to the sanctuary as being so close to animals is a desirable activity which will bring more guests and volunteers to the sanctuary giving the sanctuary more money to rescue more animals from terrible situations.

Ella with Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia
Ella with Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

How to Spot a Cruel Wildlife Selfie

So, you've just found an image online of one of your friends with a wild animal or you've just arrived to have a selfie taken yourself. How can you tell that this is good for the animal? Here's a checklist of things to look out for that can tell you if the animal is actually unhappy and being treated cruelly.

1. Is the animal tied up at all?

If the animal has any sort of leash, chain or rope tied to it, this is a really bad sign. It's cruel to tie a wild animal up as it causes the animal a lot of discomfort. It's likely going to be tied up all day being forced to stay and take photos with visitor after visitor and let's be real, that's no life for a wild animal is it? Not only is it uncomfortable, the chains and rope can actually cause blisters and sores on the animal.

2. Is the animal sleeping or docile?

As shocking as it is, many places actually drug their wild animals to make it safe to take photos with them. Taking a photograph alongside a fully grown tiger or bear is a dangerous activity for humans, unless the animal has been drugged to prevent an attack. As you can imagine, this is horrible for the poor animals. Tiger Temple does this. I have also seen photos of people in zoos where you can have your photo taken beside bears that appear to be unconscious.

3. Do you have to pay to have your photo taken with the animal?

No place that actually cared about its animals would have people queueing up to have photos taken with an animal that will have to endure that for most of the day. It's highly distressing for the animal.

4. Where is the animal? Is it in a natural environment?

If the animal is in a large enclosure that resembles that of its natural habitat and you enter it to see the animal, this is a good sign. Likewise, if the animal leaves its enclosure and walks freely alongside you, this is also a good sign. However, if the animal if in a room, a tank or a small cage or in any form of human environment, this is a bad sign. It's not natural to keep an animal in these conditions and will cause distress to the animal.

5. Is the animal a baby?

If the place is not an animal sanctuary that rescues orphaned animals, there should be no baby animals to bottle-feed or walk. Especially in Africa, this is a sign of 'canned hunting' where wild animals like lions are brought up by humans so they have no fear of them. Once they are old enough to be released into the game reserve, they are shot by hunters because they're easy to kill due to their lack of fear of humans.

6. What animal is it?

Some fully-grown animals are very dangerous, even when raised by humans. These animals are not fit to have selfies with as the danger is too great. So, if you can have a selfie with it, that's really strange and suggests the animal is being mistreated. Again, it could be drugged. These animals are: tigers, lions, leopards and most types of bear. There will be the odd exception to this. I have seen videos of people who have grown up with big cats and have a fantastic thriving relationship with the animals even when they are fully-grown. But this is rare and even in circumstances like this, I'm sure not just anyone will be able to get so close to the animals.

7. Ask yourself, why are you able to have a photo with this animal?

Wild animals are meant to be wild and free. They are not meant for our entertainment so how are you able to take a photo alongside an animal that was destined to be free and away from humans? If the animal has been rescued from a cruel past alongside humans, it's understandable that they can never be set free. Likewise, if an animal is a young orphan, it needs humans to take care of it until it is old enough to take care of itself. If the reason is none of these, it's a bad sign.

There are other exceptions as well. Some wild animals are easy to approach in the wild such as dolphins, other marine life, monkeys etc. Also, if you are rescuing a wild animal or relocating a wild animal and the animal is unconscious, I also don't think there is a problem with this the photo is not causing the animal any unnecessary harm and is building awareness and encouraging a good cause.

Ella with Baboons at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia
Ella with Baby Baboon at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia
Ella with Baboons at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

How to Take a Selfie that is Good for the Animal

It's wonderful how you can do something enjoyable like taking a photo near a wild animal without causing any harm to the animals. Not going to lie, I love it! The photos of me alongside wild animals are some of my favourite photos, not only because I'm actually with something so amazing but because the animals are having a good time too.

Here's how you can take photos with animals without harming the animals.

1. Visit a wildlife sanctuary

Wildlife sanctuaries rescue animals from terrible situations. Sometimes the animals have been raised as pets, sometimes they're from circuses or zoos and sometimes they're orphans. Many animals rescued by sanctuaries can sadly never be returned to the wild because they are unfit or have grown up too closely with humans. An animal that has had too much human contact will have no fear of humans. They will then either get themselves killed by wondering too close to people or could kill people themselves because they have lost their natural fear. As a result, there are sometimes animals in these sanctuaries that you can get close to and even take a picture near.

The point of sanctuaries is not just to take photos with the animals, so whilst being shown the animals or whilst you're volunteering, you can just take pictures or get a friend to. It's pretty casual. Just make sure you listen to the experienced guides who will tell you how to act around the animals, as they are wild animals after all. You can't just hug them like kittens!

I have volunteered at N/a'an ku sΓͺ wildlife sanctuary in Namibia. During my time there I was able to take a caracal for a walk, take baboons for a walk, feed and groom a cheetah, look after a baby baboon for the night and clean out the lion habitat which involved the lions being darted and health-checked. All offered great photo opportunities without disturbing the animals.

There are some great-sounding elephant sanctuaries in Thailand which I would love to visit.

Be careful! I was actually researching whether there was a legitimate tiger sanctuary in Thailand and found one which looked rather dubious. It claimed to rescue animals like tigers but looked more like a zoo, encouraging people to come and bottle-feed the cubs. I cannot say for sure whether it was cruel but it raised a lot of red flags and I will be avoiding it. Just be careful when looking for sanctuaries. People seem to say what they want online these days.

Ella with tranquillised lion at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia
Ella with Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

2. See animals in the wild

You can't just go up to any animal in the wild - that would be stupid. But, there are many animals which you can approach, especially if you have a knowledgable guide with you. With wild animals, you can't usually get as close to them as you would with animals in a sanctuary but a photo with a truly wild animal is incredible. The photo may show you and the animal quite far in the background but a selfie is a selfie, right?

I haven't taken many images like this yet but on my trip to the Seychelles, I was fortunate to get an image with a wild stingray. I stumbled across the animal by accident whilst having a tip in the ocean and was careful not to get too close or irritate the animal.

Ella swimming with stingray at Anse Royale beach on Mahe island, Seychelles

I hope you found this article useful. More importantly, I hope it helps animals in future. If we stop visiting these cruel places, they will eventually shut down. But in order for that to happen, we need to spread the word. I don't blame people who take selfies at these cruel places. It's sometimes hard to tell that a place is nasty. I think Tiger Temple actually said it rescued tigers! We need to politely tell people that these places are not to be supported. Instead people need to be pushed to the right places which are actually working to help animals.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever had an animal selfie?

NOTE: All photos used in this article are my own and are cruelty-free. Most were taken at N/a'an ku sΓͺ wildlife sanctuary whilst the last was taken in the wild.

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