After posting on Instagram a photo of an elephant to promote our Laos episode, someone posted a sarcastic comment about the elephant enjoying “the rope around its neck and the chair on its back”.
What I did not post and I suppose should have, was an explanation that we discuss the treatment of elephants in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia in the episode. We talk about ways travelers can make a difference in their sometimes cruel treatment. In fact, that is the entire reason these particular elephants were included in the episode. They provided an “organic” entree to make the point that elephants in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, are sometimes drugged, beaten, etc. into submission unbeknownst to “tourists”
We had tried desperately to demonstrate this point another way by visiting elephant conservation centers in both Laos and Thailand but either our timing was off, the sanctuaries were too strapped for resources to accommodate us or they just didn’t bother to reply to our inquiries.
After an exchange back and forth on instagram, the commentator followed up that she was a fan of Raw Travel but was “against animal cruelty”. That’s a pretty popular stance. I bet if you ask 10 people, 9.8 out of 10, myself included, will say they too are against animal cruelty. Even people cruel to animals would most likely never admit that they are “for it”.
But this exchange did get me to thinking. Why are we so quick in the West to jump to conclusions and lecture each other and the developing world on how they should be living? Consider many of these countries are 50-100 years or so behind the U.S. Consider where the U.S. was 100 years ago in terms of animal cruelty or race relations or gender equality, or almost anything we wag our fingers to others about, etc.
Why should people in the wealthiest economy in the world be able to tell people in one of the poorest what they should and should not be doing? Is it right to do so? I honestly don’t know, but a hunch tells me no.
I know from personal experience, that choices are very different when you have enough money verses when you don’t. To pretend otherwise is to be naive. Priorities range from scraping by to feed your family to being able to afford the latest tech gadget, shoes, car, etc. or other material “necessity”. These are two very different and opposite ends of the spectrum and depending where you are on that spectrum will largely determine the decisions you make.
In Southeast Asia elephants and water buffaloes were and are in many cases, still a farmer’s beast of burden. In the U.S. we have tractors and have had them en masse since post WW II, but back in the day, say 80 years ago, it was a mule, oxen or horse. Yet today, do we in the U.S. outlaw horseback riding? Is not that also cruel to animals? Ever seen a horse broken? Who rides a horse to round up cattle anymore? But others can’t ride elephants or water buffaloes to get work done or rice planted in Laos or Vietnam?
WE HAVE LOTS (TOO MUCH) TO EAT… DO THEY?
And it seems we want the whole world to eat what we eat. With our factory farmed slaughterhouses for chickens, beef and all manner of meat processing, we are now going to criticize people in Southeast Asia who have been eating fogs, fish, snakes, cat or dog for centuries and decades? What gives us that right to dictate their diet?
I don’t want to eat dog or cat, it’s just not in my upbringing. I have had many beloved cats and dogs as pets so I revere them. Besides, they are cute.
I also did not care to eat snake or other “exotic” animals, but I’m sorry, I just don’t have the same qualms about eating something that is not obviously a pet (a cobra) in my culture at least. Now if you have a pet cobra, then yes, you may not wish to eat one. As I said in the Vietnam episode and I have said before, given the choice, I probably would not eat cobra again. In fact, I know I would not (due to the rat explosion, which hurts rice production) and I encourage others not to either.
But eating cobra is not against local laws and in fact is within their custom and thus it is YOUR moral choice. Yet some British guy living in Vietnam goes ballistic on our twitter page for even mentioning “Snake Village” in Hanoi. He didn’t see the show and when I tried to explain to him the context he was tweeting so relentlessly we had to block him. Of course a high minded, know-it-all, annoying ex pat hiding behind a key board in another country is nothing new. Funny, no Vietnamese saw any need to complain.
We weren’t sure whether to mention we’d seen dog meat for sale in the Hanoi food market. But I couldn’t “un-see” it and pretend that didn’t exist. Our guide gave a great explanation so queasy, pampered and idealistic Westerners like myself could better releate. “After WW II 2 Million Vietnamese starved…”, so they tried anything including dog. It’s not common in Vietnam but it’s not uncommon either. It is what it is. Don’t kill the messenger and since I’ve never thankfully witnessed mass starvation, I’m going to give them a break. Who am I to tell them what to eat?
HOW DOES MEAT GET TO THE PLATE? DO THE ANIMALS COMMIT SUICIDE?
I grew up on a cattle farm and even as kids we knew that cute little calves were going to grow up to be eaten someday. Did it make me feel funny about it? Sometimes, yes. Had I seen it killed, I would have definitely thought twice.
Which is why we show the duck being “murdered” in the duck blood soup segment in our Laos episode. I realize we may attract the wrath of extreme animal lovers who will accuse us of engaging in animal cruelty, but some (not all mind you) of those same folks will go out and eat meat in the U.S. which has been treated many, many times worse than a duck who lived most of it’s life in blissful pursuit of bugs and crickets to eat. Or if they don’t eat meat perhaps they wear leather shoes?
The family in this remote Laos village wanted to fix this meal, we did not request it. I am NOT going to tell them not to fix duck blood soup because I am not a vegan and I live by MY morals and ethics, they live by theirs and I believe that you should live by yours. It’s part of what authentic culture is about, live and let live, observe and participate to see another way of living. Now if that culture involves harming someone or holding one down or is directly counter to my own moral code, (i.e. not allowing females to get an education) I will not participate and then perhaps criticize.
But before I do, I try to realize, that because I am from the U.S., where though we make up less than 5% of the world’s population but consume almost 25% of its resources, they may think that I need to get my own house in order before I can credibly begin criticizing theirs, especially when it comes to feeding their families.
Are we going to send money to support every poor family’s vegan diet in Laos? Even then I doubt they’d turn vegan. They’d probably buy a new farm machinery or fix the hole in their thatched roof house. Unless we buy every elephant owner a tractor or provide them an immediate alternative means of income to feed their family, it’s all naive, happy talk or in the case of most commentators on the internet, angry & self-rightous key strokes that accomplish little to nothing.
PRO ANIMAL SHOULD NOT BE AGAINST PEOPLE.
In Laos, our guide Alex of White Elephant Adventures was forthcoming about why his company does not make ANY money whatsoever off elephants. He took us to see the spectacular Tad Sae waterfalls and forewarned us that the elephants would be there. He wanted no part of exploiting them nor did we. But we both wanted to tell the elephants’ stories and showcase what happens at Tad Sae compared to other parts of Southeast Asia.
As Alex explains in the international cut of the episode (which unfortunately due to time constraints gets cut in the U.S. but hopefully will air eventually), personnel from the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) in another part of Laos regularly visit Tad Sae to insure the elephants are treated properly.
Now “treated properly” is relative I realize. I must admit that yes, these elephants would probably have preferred to be running around free in the jungles of Laos, but that is not possible now. At least they are alive and not getting poached. They are also not getting shocked and abused to do tricks in a circus sideshow.
They are fed a LOT of food and they earn income for their owners who are very poor and have families to feed in addition to the responsibility of taking care of the elephants. I’m not justifying their treatment of elephants but simply stating facts as I saw them, on the ground in Laos, in a very, very quick visit.
I personally felt an emotional connection to the elephants. This was the first time I’d been so close to these magnificent creatures and now I better understand why people get worked up about them. They are intelligent and I believe wise and I think we need to save them from both abuse and extinction. This was a great side effect of getting to see these guys up close and personal.
But I don’t think the default mode of our dialogue when it comes to the discussion of animals or anything for that matter should immediately be negative, snarky and judgmental. I have the highest respect for animal lovers and know more than a few who consistently make their views known without a hint of imposing it on others. THEIR influence has had a powerful effect on me.
To those who follow the opposite approach, I have to wonder about their true convictions. If they really wished to be effective they’d stop virtually shouting to try to get others to bend to their will. That approach doesn’t work for me and it certainly won’t work in Laos, where respect is an intricate part of the culture (and something sorely lacking in the West).
The world is not a black and white place and it’s only looking backwards that we are often able to put on our 20/20 glasses and see past atrocities for what they are (i.e.slavery, war, discrimination, etc.) and even then things were not as simple as often explained in our revisionist and politically correct history.
I believe that many who attempt to SHOUT other’s down probably don’t have the courage of their OWN convictions. They express their anger and self-righteousness, hit a few key strokes on a keypad to feel “good” about themselves.
LIVE & LET LIVE, BUT TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
I’m not social media expert, heck I’m not even a travel expert (I’m a travel enthusiast). And yes, Raw Travel is socially aware but not socially perfect. We are going to keep it raw and real. If a culture is mistreating elephants, we’ll show it. If a culture is eating bizarre stuff that we find unusual perhaps even sickening, we’ll still show it. If a destination’s leaders are corrupt we’ll show it. It’s real and raw and real is not pretty sometimes, in fact, oftentimes it isn’t.
It’s impossible to please everyone so I don’t try to please anyone but myself. My own ethics and morals are all I can worry about not because that is all that matters but because that is all I can control and feed off of and still be true to myself. And please understand these morals and ethics are still evolving. I’m a different person now than I was 20 years ago, not because it’s fashionable to think another way but because of the experiences I have had and the information I have absorbed and because the world has shifted as well.
Travel has made me a better but not a perfect person and I never will be. I’m still a work in progress, as I bet and hope you are.
I will continue to blunder along in this life until I die, traveling and evolving making many more mistakes along the way. That’s the beauty of travel and the art of living. I encourage you to do the same.
Your RESPECTFUL comments and dialogue are always appreciated, whether you agree with me or not. If we can have a respectful dialogue, then something can get accomplished. Otherwise, I’m afraid, we’re just shouting in the wind.