By Jennifer O’Connor
Celebrities wield considerable influence on cultural trends, like it or not. When Oprah does a 21-day vegan cleanse, it makes headlines. When Amal Clooney rocks a Stella McCartney sheath, sales soar. However, one trend that seems innocuous — but is actually damaging — is the pressure on stars to have their photos taken with exotic animals used as “props.”
Celebrities who are asked to pose with wild animals for a magazine spread or who do so while on vacation invariably have good intentions and even love animals, so they are easy marks for the often mercenary and merciless amusement parks and sham “animal orphanages.” These businesspeople drool at the thought of posting or retweeting pictures of a star cuddling with a tiger cub or captive orca. Kind people are naturally drawn to places that claim to offer exotic animals refuge and are eager to see elephants paint, to cuddle with bear cubs or to swim with dolphins, but exposé after exposé has revealed that many of these outfits are breeders, dealers or exhibitors exploiting Hollywood’s goodwill and generosity.
At the recently shuttered Tiger Temple in Thailand, 40 dead cubs were found in a freezer, secretly slaughtered to make tiger wine and other folk remedies for sale on the black market. But it isn’t just the “tiger temples” that are being busted. The number of tourist traps that have tacked the word “sanctuary” or “rescue” onto their names has skyrocketed in recent years. Some are more brazen than others. Tons of celebrities, from Debra Messing to the Kardashian clan, have missed the bigger picture when visiting Mexico’s Black Jaguar–White Tiger Foundation, for example. Touting itself as a rescue organization, this facility refuses to spay or neuter animals and allows “sponsors” (i.e., big donors) to hold, cuddle and take selfies with big cats. Places like this use these celebrity photos to keep visitors coming through the gates.
Many exhibitors continually breed the animals just so they’ll have a constant supply of young animals in order to sell photo ops to people like Beyoncé and Jay Z. Of course the babies are adorable, but they grow fast, and within a few weeks, they are too big to handle. They’ll spend the rest of their lives, sometimes decades, in cramped and barren cages — or even be killed.
All over Asia, elephants are kept chained in trekking camps. A few camps are working to help elephants in trouble, but the vast majority are not, and training methods are barbaric and cruel. As soon as the cameras are gone after someone like Prince William poses with an elephant, the chains go back on and the bullhooks come out.
The same with swim-with-dolphins excursions: I’m sure Rhianna had no inkling that while she can come and go at will, there are metal bars inside those tanks, and the dolphins will remain trapped in that one place until the day they die. When Justin Bieber petted a tiger at a zoo, did he have a clue that the zoo owner had been charged with cruelty to animals? Probably not. And that has to change.
Fans, tell the stars: Stay away from exotic-animal photo ops, and the animals (not the animal exploiters) will be grateful. Of course, you don’t have to be famous to make a difference. Whether right here at home or at an exotic locale abroad, every one of us must fight the temptation to pose with a panther or cuddle a cub.