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Animals in tourism: a risky business


2020-03-01

How to tackle risk in your supply chain

Animal activities and experiences in tourism can pose a significant risk to both the health and safety of people and animals. Businesses operating or selling such activity should therefore make every effort to assess risk and manage it effectively. However, as with most matters concerning animals, there are multiple factors to consider, not least the fact that there are thousands of species, each presenting different issues. Understanding the potential risks and how to mitigate them is crucial.

Risk mitigation is essential to any business, to protect against financial loss and damage, and to sustain operation in the event of an unforeseen happening.

Risk for tour operators and travel agents that offer animal experiences include the probability that the activity could have a negative impact on the welfare of the animal, or worse, threaten their survival. Equally, the animal interaction may place people - whether a customer or an attraction employee - at risk of injury, or worse. Animals are after all unpredictable, and therefore potentially dangerous in nature.

Consider captive Asian elephants by example. These species are classified as a Category 1, ‘hazardous animal’, by UK Defra’s Hazardous animal categorisation, noting the species’ ability to “cause serious injury or be a serious threat to life, on the basis of hazard and risk of injury, toxin or disease”. The guidance advises against unsupervised contact or without a suitable barrier between the animal and the public. Yet direct (supervised and unsupervised) contact between elephants and tourists is commonplace and encouraged in elephant camps across Asia. Whereby activities like elephant bathing (considered by some as a responsible alternative to riding) pose significant risks. Having visited such facilities, I do question whether those risks have been duly assessed and considered.

I would recommend that all travel businesses, and their suppliers, assess risk and consult hazardous rating criteria before permitting direct animal interaction of any kind. This applies to all animals, not only those large in stature, but also smaller mammals (such as primates), birds (like ‘birds of prey’), reptiles (including snake species and crocodilians), etc. This should apply to both wild animals in the wild and those in a captive environment. In close proximity to people, particularly when avoidance is prevented, most animals are likely to trigger their ‘fight-or-flight’, stress-response and enact their respective defence mechanism(s) (e.g. teeth, horns, spikes, poison, etc.). On my drafting of ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines in 2012/3, I had included Defra’s hazardous animal classification, and it is included in ABTA’s 2nd Edition of the Guidelines (2019) – a valuable resource. For instance, these Guidelines recommend that all elephant contact without a barrier is “Unacceptable”.     

It is not only an animal’s ability to cause physical harm that should be considered. Many animals can also carry, or are infected by, disease transmissible to humans. These are known as zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases, which can pass between vertebrate animals, including humans. Zoonoses include bacterial infections, such as Salmonella, but also fungal infections, parasites and viruses (i.e. Ebola, Avian Influenza (H5N1), SARS and coronavirus (CoV)). For instance, holding of a reptile can result in the transference of Salmonella to a person’s hand (which may then be used to pick up food), an animal’s bite might transfer rabies, whilst airborne disease (e.g. Influenzas) can transfer through close proximity. Outcomes can range from mild to serious illness in humans and even death.

Equally, it is important to recognise that human diseases can severely impact on other animals, particularly those closely related species. For instance, a monkey eating a half-eaten sandwich may pick up a cold that could be deadly (and could be transmitted to other members of the troop). It is also not uncommon for tourists viewing primates in the wild, to undergo a medical check-up, and for imposed viewing distances to be no closer than a sneeze can carry.

It is estimated, globally, that zoonoses cause one billion cases of human illness and millions of deaths occur every year. Whilst zoonoses constitute 60% of the reported, emerging infectious diseases, with 75% of the newly detected human pathogens over the last three decades, originating in animals. As the world is increasingly inter-connected, emerging zoonoses in one country can potentially constitute a threat to global health security.

Risk assessments must therefore consider zoonoses, the risk of transference, and implement effective preventative measures.

When it comes to identifying the right measures to prevent the risks of physical injury and zoonotic disease infection, many would advise preventing direct contact between people and animals of wild species (in particular). Although, where that does take place, preventative measures are recommended. Appropriate preventative measures include: the prevention of transmission through the washing of hands (and other areas, where relevant) with soapy water or effective sanitiser, both before and after the contact; the detection of disease by screening captive animals (particularly new arrivals) and where relevant, maintaining effective quarantine measures; and the control of the interaction through the requirement of appropriate conduct and constant supervision and vigilance.

Whilst, unethical and intrusive preventative measures (not advocated but to be aware of) include the deterrence of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response: removal of an animal’s claws, teeth or sting (etc.); taping jaws shut; the use of sedatives; the separation of young for hand-rearing; or the prevention of the animal to avoid participation (as such being held or tethered, or the pinioning of birds (removal of part of the wing) or the clipping flight-feathers).

Customers, employees, the welfare of animals and reputations must be protected at all costs.

For a tour operator or travel agency, which may offer thousands of products, or excursions, involving animals (wild and domestic), it is understandably difficult to ensure the appropriate safeguards are incorporate into its operations and supply chain. It requires careful assessment, the identification of risk and the expertise to advise accordingly. As well as knowledge of the plausible risks across all commonly kept animal species!

We are to report that this expertise is now available through Preverisk’s partnership with Animondial. This unique partnership combines over a decade of animal welfare in tourism expertise with auditing and post-audit excellence. It offers tour operators and travel agencies, and their suppliers, the opportunity to ensure all associated risk is identified, measured and controlled. Furthermore, that the animal activities and experiences meet appropriate animal welfare standards that includes their protection from fear and distress (mitigating any ‘fight-or-flight’ response).

For more information about the partnership and its animal welfare auditing and post-audit services, please contact us today!


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