25+ Ethical Animal Encounters Around the World

Wild animal encounters can be incredible experiences for travelers around the world. However, often the animals are beaten into behaving – like the tigers who pose for selfies or elephants trained to carry humans. While it may be the next fad, it’s not an ethical way to see animals. Be sure to check out my guide on What is Animal Tourism? so you can understand how this even came to be.

I teamed up with over 20 other travel bloggers to bring you ethical animal encounters around the world – so you can see these incredible animals up close without worrying about the animals. Each experience puts the animal first – so you know they’re working in the best interest of the animal. Don’t forget to check out my wildlife photography tips so you can capture those animals beautifully!

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Ethical Animal Encounters in North America

See the wild ponies of Chincoteague Island, Virginia

Recommended by Me, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

Made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague, the wild ponies are one of the best things to see in Chincoteague, Virginia. Ponies and horses are such peaceful and beautiful animals that it’s such a treat to see them in the wild. The wild ponies have called the island home for over 200 years! Legend has it they came over on Spanish exploration ships and made the island home after a shipwreck.

The ponies are not owned by anyone and roam freely – so a sighting is purely based on luck! The Chincoteague Fire Department helps care for the animals with any veterinary needs and hosts the Annual Pony Swim Event in July. Some of the newborn calves are auctioned off to help raise funds for the care of these animals, but also to keep the herd at an appropriate size for the island. The horses do not have predators, so population control is important. The animals are comfortable with humans since humans have not hurt them, but please DO NOT feed or pet them. Their diets are solely what they can find on the island, and if you introduce a new food it may be detrimental to the animal.

The wild ponies of Chincoteague are a great ethical animal encounter.
The wild horses of Chincoteague, Virginia. Photo by The Directionally Challenged Traveler.

Interact with Ostriches at Ostrichland, California

Recommended by Olivia of Girl with Blue Sails

Making a visit to Ostrichland, California
, was one of the most fun and quirky road trip stops I’ve ever encountered. I’m an animal lover, so I could not pass up the opportunity to see ostriches and emus up close. Located just 5 minutes away from the popular travel destination of Solvang, Ostrichland sits on a large farm and is open to visitors year-round.  

Ostrichland is a family-run business that welcomes guests to wander the property, see their pet ostriches and emus, and buy optional bowls of pellet feed for hand feeding. Entry is $5 per person and $1 per bowl of feed. They also sell ostrich-themed souvenirs at the gift shop. The farm is purely for viewing and feeding the birds, all while providing a memorable and ethical animal encounter for guests. 

The property contains plenty of land and wide-open space for the birds to roam, and the animals look very well taken care of. The birds have the option to come over to the viewing areas, where there are large open slats in the fences for guests to hold out bowls of pellets. Ostriches and emus are really sweet animals, and will not hesitate to approach you if you come forward with food. My visit was in the morning, so there were plenty of eager birds looking to come visit. 

For the protection of the birds, guests are not allowed to pet them. The staff also asks that you hold out your bowl far enough so the birds don’t strain their necks trying to reach you. There are signs posted, reminding guests of the safety rules, and there are plenty of keepers on hand to monitor the treatment of the birds. I would recommend this lovely, quirky farm to all travelers and animal lovers.  

Ostriches at Ostrichland, CA
Ostrichs in Ostrichland. Photo by Girl with Blue Sails

See Wild Flamingos in Celestun, Mexico

Recommended by Shelley of Travel to Merida

Located in the small Mexico Yucatan Peninsula fishing village of Celestun, you’ll find the Ría Celestun Biosphere. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve has one of the coolest ethical, wild animal encounters in Mexico.
Celestun is home to a flock of about 35,000 wild flamingos, which are out en masse during their November to March mating season. As the city is a bit remote, Many head there on a day trip from Merida, Mexico, as this is the closest big city to Celestun.
You can take a bus to Celestun, but it’s much quicker to join a tour from Merida or drive your rental car. If going on your own, take a tour led by the Celestun locals once you arrive, like the Guardianes de Los Manglares de Dzinitun tour.

This nonprofit group helps rebuild and preserve the mangroves so the flamingos and other birds continue to call this area home. They offer eco-tours in canoes, taking visitors through the mangroves and out to the open lagoons, where you’ll see the flamingos.

As a protected UNESCO Site, tour operators only offer kayak or canoe tours to help protect the integrity of the area. Besides flamingos, the Ría Celestun Biosphere is home to hundreds of other bird species and is known as one of the best places for bird watching in Mexico. Keep in mind that visitors aren’t allowed to get within about 100-feet (33m) of the flamingos, so remember to bring a long lens camera to get photos. They are naturally quite fearful around humans, so they will fly away on their own if you get too close.

Seeing wild flamingos in Mexico is a great ethical animal encounter.
Wild Flamingos. Photo by Travel to Merida

Visit the Turtle Hospital at Sea Turtle Center, Marathon, Florida

Recommended by Kylie from Between England and Iowa

An ethical animal encounter in the USA is visiting the ‘Turtle Hospital: Sea Turtle Center’ in Marathon, Florida. This is a working sea turtle hospital and was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Their mission statement is “Rescue, Rehab, Release” and since its opening, over 2000 turtles have been treated and released back into the wild. They are a non-profit charity that relies on donations. 

There are some turtles that are permanent residents of the Turtle Hospital. These unfortunately have health problems or have sustained injuries that would make them vulnerable if released back into the wild. For example: one of the residents is blind and several others have ‘Bubble Butt Syndrome’. Bubble Butt Syndrome occurs when a sea turtle is hit by a boat and is then unable to dive down due to trapped gas. Because they then float, it makes them a target for further boat hits and they struggle to catch food. In the hospital, they can regulate their eating and they are able to live happy safe lives.

Visitors are able to take a 90-minute tour behind the scenes of the hospital. An introductory talk explains some of the threats that sea turtles have in the waters around the Florida Keys. Visitors may then be able to watch a turtle during surgery before seeing turtles in the rehabilitation tanks, where they can build up their strength before being released back into the wild. The tour finishes up at the large salt water pool where visitors can feed some of the resident turtles with special food pellets. The feeding is regulated and limited so the turtles only get what they need and aren’t over fed!

A rehabilitated sea turtle
Sea Turtle in rehabilitation.

Go Whale Watching in the Dominican Republic

Recommended by Christian of Punta Cana Travel Blog

 The Dominican Republic not always gets the prize for the most sustainable activities (especially considering the all-inclusive tourism in Punta Cana and the trash problem in the country), but when it comes to whale watching, the country certainly makes some big efforts to protect the animals and allow for an ethical animal encounter.

 Each year between January and March, the giant humpback whales are coming to the warm waters in the Bay of Samaná (between Samaná and Punta Cana) to give birth to their babies and protect them during the first weeks. The calm and protected waters of the bay are ideal conditions for the babies to grow during this time, and the large population of whales makes it perfect for visitors to observe the gigantic humpback whales as there is hardly a day where you don’t see them. The majority of tour operators even give a whale sighting guarantee. During most of the whale watching tours in the Dominican Republic, you can actually spot many whales – a dozen sightings are nothing unusual, sometimes even as close as just a few feet from the boat.

 What makes whale watching excursions in the bay of Samaná particularly ethical are the clear rules set by the Dominican government. It is not allowed to swim or snorkel with the whales, each boat has to keep a distance of at least 50 meters from the whales (but the animals often come closer on their own), and a maximum of 3 boats is permitted to watch a group of whales at the same time. Furthermore, the boats have to be sensitive with their engines and put them into neutral when observing the whales and each whale watching operator needs a particular license (which you lose pretty quickly) to offer these excursions. The license has to be renewed each year. Whale Samaná is the leading tour operator in Samaná, but others can be recommended as well.

 All in all, whale watching in the Dominican Republic is one of the most popular excursions for visitors to Punta Cana and beyond, and thanks to the regulations to protect the animals, it is one of the most non-harming animal encounters in the Caribbean.

The hump of a humpback whale in the Dominican Republic

Ethical Animal Encounters in Central America

See a sloth up close in Costa Rica

Recommended by Cecilia and Scott of Lovicarious

Costa Rica may be known for its coffee and waterfalls, but there is one thing that visitors seem to love most, the sloth.   Humans have long been fascinated by their gentle smiles and the adorable slowness with which they live their lives. Sloths are common in Costa Rica and while you may encounter some of these creatures in the wild, they are well camouflaged and sometimes easy to miss.

There are many other opportunities to see sloths in Costa Rica, but not all are ethical. It is important therefore to do your homework. Support only organizations that have the best interest of the animals in mind as opposed to those which just want to make a profit. As a rule of thumb, no ethical attraction should allow you to pet, touch, or hold a sloth. This is extremely harmful to the sloth and can inhibit its chances of being released back into the wild. Wildlife refuges and sanctuaries are a great place to start.  

The Toucan Rescue Ranch in San Josecito aims to rescue, rehabilitate, and release Costa Rican wildlife back into their natural habitat. This ethical encounter offers both daytime and nocturnal tours of the ranch, allowing visitors to see and learn more about these gentle creatures.

Close up photo of a sloth.
Face to face with a sloth. Photo by Lovicarious
Costa Rica Bucket List

Release Baby Turtles in Costa Rica

Recommended by Sinead of Map Made Memories

Traveling in Costa Rica is like traveling through a real-life nature textbook; once in a lifetime wildlife opportunities abound in this incredible, environmentally-minded country. We were fortunate enough to time our family trip with the turtle hatching season and were keen to support an ethical experience that was not overrun with other tourists. After hours of research, we discovered a small turtle sanctuary at Playa Junquillal on the Guanacaste coast that is run by local volunteers in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund. This collaboration reassured us that this not-for-profit venture was trustworthy. Volunteers can turn up to the center each day at dusk to find out if there have been any Olive Ridley or Leatherback turtle hatchlings that require releasing into the sea. On several occasions, we left disappointed but our persistence paid off as on our last night in Playa Junquillal there had been large hatching.

Our small group of volunteers excitedly car shared the release location (which changes each night to deter predators) where after basic training we released the eager turtles one by one onto the sand to start their arduous journey to the sea. This is a vital journey for the turtles as it enables them to imprint the beach so they can return in the future to lay their own eggs. Once all the turtles were released, we chased off predators and sprayed exhausted turtles with seawater to encourage them to continue on to the waiting sea. Watching the tiny turtles navigate by natural instinct across a tranquil beach and disappearing into the sea against the backdrop of a setting sun is a magical memory that will stay with our family forever. 

Baby sea turtles at sunset. Photo by Map Made Memories

Visit Monkey Island in Panama

Recommended by Jose of The Culture Portrait

The country of Panama, with its year-round warm weather, exuberant green rainforests, beautiful Caribbean and Pacific Ocean beaches, and one of the most biodiverse locations in the planet, is an excellent place to ethically encounter different species of monkeys. Around 30 minutes from Panama City, is an island inside Gatún Lake (a lake that was crucial in the creation of the Panama Canal) called Monkey Island, which is home to 4 different species of monkeys. These are the howler monkey, the spider monkey, the white-faced capuchin, the red-crested tamarin and the really cute owl monkey.

Through one of the tour companies in Panama City, you can take a completely ethical tour of the island, as in here, you’ll be watching the monkeys in the wild, in their natural habitat. A tour to the island is usually done as a day trip from Panama City, as it doesn’t take long to get there. You can book a trip through the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, or directly through the tour company, Almiza Tours. They’ll pick up at your hotel in the city and then take you to a dock where you get on a boat, which will then take you on a tour of the island. 

Once you get close to the island, lo and behold, the monkeys come and visit you while you’re still sitting on the boat, as they are friendly and love to have tourists feed them bananas (so definitely bring some). The tour around the island is about 80 minutes. Overall, it’s a great experience for families, and while the monkeys are the main attraction, you might also get to see sloths, crocodiles, and toucans.

Seeing howler monkeys in the wild is a great ethical animal encounter.
Howler Monkey.

Spotting Quetzal in Panama

Recommended by Jose of The Culture Portrait

Did you think that beautiful Caribbean and Pacific Ocean beaches, delicious coffee, beautiful waterfalls, monkeys, sloths, toucans, and hundreds of other bird species were all there is to see in Panama? Well, think again, because a lovely small town named Boquete in Panama’s highlands is home to one of the most beautiful birds in the world: the resplendent quetzal. Hikers and nature lovers will live this ethical animal encounter.

The quetzal can only be seen in a few places in Central America, of which Panama is one. The lush cloud forest and mountainous setting around Boquete are stunningly beautiful, which has immigrants from North America and Europe coming here to retire for good. You can spot the quetzal in one of the best hiking trails in the town of Boquete, named Sendero De Los Quetzales (or “Trail of the Quetzals” in English), which is around 9.5 km. It’s a completely ethical encounter as currently, this bird can only be seen in the wild, in its natural habitat in the cloud forests of Boquete. Furthermore, the elusive quetzal is elusive indeed, and the best time to plan to spot the quetzal in the trail is from September to April only, as on the other months of the year they’re in nesting season.

A quetzal in Panama
Close up of a Quetzal. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Scuba Diving in Belize

Recommended by Dina of The Discovery Nut

Diving in Belize is one of the best experiences a Traveller can have. Not only do you get to explore some of the clearest waters in the Caribbean (Belize banned all of the commercial offshore oil activity, the only developing country to do so), you will also get to see tons of incredible wildlife such as turtles, manta rays, nurse sharks (but don’t worry, they won’t eat you) and even manatees! 
These gentle marine animals also live in the waters of Belize, although they are much harder to spot than other animals. If you happen to get really lucky, you might spot one slowly passing by!
The abundance of wildlife here is truly stunning, and once you get in the water, you will be blown away by all of the marine wildlife right in front of you. 
Belize is a small but incredibly scenic country and has offered some of the best diving in the world. One of the most famous places for diving in Belize is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. 
Translated as “Little Channel” from the Mayan language, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is protected by the Belizean government and can only be visited with a licensed guide. There are several companies in San Pedro (the closest town) that offer snorkeling and diving tours of Hol Chan. All animals within Hol Chan are protected and all commercial fishing is prohibited. 
And if you are new to diving, you can also get your diving certification here too. There’s literally no better place to get certified as a diver! 

Curious sharks gather around a boat.
Curious sharks in Belize. Photo by The Discovery Nut.

Ethical Animal Encounters in South America

Visit the Galapagos Islands

Recommended by Nicole of Go Far Grow Close

The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador but located in the Pacific Ocean 1000 km from the Ecuadorian coast. There are 127 islands, although only 19 are large and four inhabited. They are located at the confluence of three ocean currents and are extremely isolated, making it one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. In addition, it led to the development of unusual plant and animal life. In 1959, the Galapagos Islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos Marine Reserve was created in 1998 and surrounds the islands, making it one of the largest marine reserves in the world. The Ecuadorian government strictly controls the number of people who can visit the Galapagos Islands. Most of the islands require a permit to land, even if it is only for an hour or two. On each island, there are strict trails to follow in order to minimize the environmental impact of visitors. Because of the extreme isolation of the islands and the limitations placed on visitors, most animals are absolutely fearless of humans. You can easily be sitting on the beach minding your own business when next thing you know a bunch of sea lions come out of the water and come rambling right towards you. I have no idea what would happen if you stayed put. I never had the courage to do anything but bolt. During your visit to the Galapagos, you can swim with sea lions, come within inches of marine iguanas (as they aimlessly walk in and out of the water or the bushes), be within touching distance of albatrosses engaging in a marital dance, or walk side by side giant tortoises that can be 70 years old or older. You can try and book a hotel in one of the few areas where hotels are allowed. Then, try and book individual day excursions to nearby islands provided there are permits still available for the day. However, without question, it would be far better to save up and book one of the Galapagos cruises. They are already issued permits that allow you to access the most remote or restricted islands, usually with the most interesting and rare animals to see. In addition, it is an extraordinary experience to be on the boat surrounded by these beautiful islands with rarely another person or boat in sight.

Seeing wild sea lions is a great ethical animal encounter.
Sea Lions in the Galapagos. Photo by Go Far Grow Close.

Go Penguin Spotting in South Georgia

Recommended by Bella of Passport & Pixels

Until it was added to the UK’s green list a few months ago, many people hadn’t even heard of the island of South Georgia. Located in the middle of the Southern Ocean many hundreds of miles from the nearest mainland and on the way to absolutely nowhere, why would you have heard of this remote British Overseas territory? Well, if you’re into nature, perhaps you should have, because it’s home to an astonishing abundance of wildlife with several different species of seals, whales, and, most overwhelmingly, penguins.

There are an estimated 7 million individual penguins in South Georgia, mainly made up of king, macaroni, and Gentoo, though there are also smaller numbers of chinstraps, adelies, and rockhoppers. The biggest and most impressive colony of all is at St Andrew’s Bay, which is home to close to half a million king penguins. The sight, sound, and smell of so many birds all in one place is mind-boggling.

Getting to see them isn’t easy, though. You’ll need to book an expedition cruise (I traveled with Quark Expeditions, but other reputable operators are available) and sail for a day from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina to the Falkland Islands, and then for another two days straight across often rough seas from the Falklands to South Georgia. If you’re lucky, when you arrive the weather will be good enough and the sea calm enough for you to disembark and witness one of the greatest wildlife wonders of the world.

To make sure your visit is ethical, landings are carefully controlled. Tour operators are regulated and monitored, no more than 100 people are allowed ashore at a time and safe walking routes are clearly marked to avoid disturbing the penguins. Boots, bags and jackets are scrubbed and inspected before disembarking to avoid bringing any non-native species onto the island, and putting anything down on the ground is forbidden.

It’s a challenging and expensive undertaking, but for wildlife lovers looking for the ethical trip of a lifetime, it simply doesn’t get any better than this. 

Penguins in South Georgia
Penguins in South Georgia. Photo by Passport & Pixels

Ethical Animal Encounters in Antarctica

Antarctica is one of the most protected places on earth. Any tour company that visits the continent must adhere to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) to protect this delicate continent. Tour operators are trained in how to stay away from wildlife while on land and on boats. While on land, staff marks off areas that are unsafe to explore – whether there are penguin homes or seals nearby. There will be ample space for the animals to move and be protected.

Whale Watching

Whale watching is one of the most exciting things to do in Antarctica. You never quite know when or where they’re going to pop up – keeping you on your toes at all times. From orcas (actually dolphins, not whales) to minke whales to humpback whales – there are a variety of animals to see! Since you’re seeing them from a safe distance, either on the cruise ship or in a zodiac, this is one of the most memorable ethical animal encounters.

An orca hunting a penguin
A young orca chasing a penguin
A zodiac watching three humpback whales
A zodiac boat watching three humpback whales
40+ unedited photos to inspire you to visit Antarctica

Seal Spotting

There are six different types of seals that call Antarctica home. Ross, Weddell, crabeater, leopard, fur, and elephant seals. They range in size – from 150 kg (300lbs) to up to 4,000kg (8800 lbs!). The seals can be in the water, on the beach, or relaxing on sea ice! The ship’s staff will analyze the seal’s behaviors and temperaments to inform you how far to stay away. It also depends on the seal – leopard and elephant seals can be much more aggressive so they’ll mark off a larger distance from these animals.

A zodiac spotting seals
A fellow zodiac boat spotting seals on the ice. Photo by The Directionally Challenged Traveler.

Taking a walk with a Penguin

Penguins in Antarctica are peaceful animals and super curious. While you’re instructed to stay 5 feet away, it’s nearly impossible to do so. You constantly have to be looking around to make sure that you’re not about to run into them! You should not pet or feed the animals

Me with a penguin in front of me. Walking with penguins is a great ethical animal encounter.
Walking with Penguins. Photo by The Directionally Challenged Traveler.

Ethical Animal Encounters in Europe

Visit Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, Romania

Recommended by Or of My Path in the World

The biggest brown bear sanctuary in the world and one of the most incredible places to visit in Romania, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti is an ethical animal encounter you won’t forget. It’s so amazing to see the bears happy and carefree while you’re visiting and so heartbreaking to know what they’ve been through to get there.

It was first established in 2005 by Cristina Lapisin’s memory of Maya, a bear she tried to save from a cruel life in a cage in a yard of a hotel near the famous Bran Castle. The sanctuary’s mission is to rescue as many bears as possible from captivity and poor living conditions.

Today, it is home to about 100 bears, covering 69 hectares of oak forest with plenty of trees and pools for them to enjoy, and they are also finally provided with appropriate food that matches their dietary needs. The sanctuary’s website also clearly states that it is not a zoo and that you should be considerate to the bears when visiting (no throwing food, no flashes, no extreme noise, etc.). These are some of the reasons why it was voted one of the world’s most ethical animal attractions by National Geographic Traveller.

The sanctuary is located about 25 km from the city of Brasov. It can only be visited with a guided tour that provides educational information about the place and tells the stories of some of the bears. It’s recommended to book your tickets in advance because only 1-2 tours a day take place, and you should note that children under five years cannot enter for safety reasons.

Visiting a bear sanctuary is a great ethical animal encounter.
A bear enjoying watermelon. Photo by My Path in the World.

Go Whale Watching in Iceland

Recommended by Steve of Maps Over Coffee

Whales are some of the most magnificent creatures on this planet. As a kid, we would go to Point Reyes in California to look for them from the lighthouse. 
 If you looked closely you could see a whale spout, just a dot halfway to the horizon. And even at such a great distance, we couldn’t help but marvel at them.
So when we got a chance to go whale watching in Iceland, we jumped at it! But, out of respect for the animals, we wanted to get as close as we could without disturbing them. It was important to find a tour company that held to a high standard of stewardship.

We decided to do our whale watching in Husavik in the north of Iceland. It was reported to be the whale watching capital of Iceland and we were circling the whole island and camping nearby. 
There are 4 tour operators in Husavik to choose from. We ultimately chose North Sailing. Like their competitors, they are committed to providing ethical tours that have the least impact on the cetaceans. We found North Sailing’s code of conduct on their website, which abides by the Ice Whales Code of Conduct.

Additionally, they have restored old oak fishing ships just for the purpose of whale watching. And while they are not as quick and nimble as the other tour guide’s Rib boats, they didn’t need to be since you could get a good view without approaching too close. This gave us the peace of mind to enjoy the tour. Which was amazing! It’s good to know they are committed to ethical treatment of humans, too! They provide warm jumpsuits and hot chocolate to brave the North Atlantic waters. But most importantly, they are committed to education. We went in September and found a couple of lingering Humpback whales. Most of the rest had begun their migration to the Gulf of Mexico while these two were left with the check. 

They didn’t seem to mind, though as they would leisurely come to the surface to catch a breath and go back down to the smorgasbord below. As they took their dive their tails would come up, signaling our game of hide-and-seek for the next 10 minutes or so. While we love to watch whales from the shore, there is nothing like getting up close to see them in the wild. 
If you get a chance, we highly recommend North Sailing when whale watching in Iceland. 

A humpback whale tail. Photo by Maps Over Coffee.

Visit Skansen Park in Stockholm, Sweden

Recommended by Philipp of Journication

You are tired of walking the buzzing crowded streets of Sweden’s capital and look for some diversion in nature? Even with only one day in Stockholm, you should not miss out on Skansen’s open-air museum Park on the island Djurgården.

The park was opened back in 1891, initially as an addition to the nearby Nordic Museum. A highlight besides old original houses from all parts of Sweden is the Nordic fauna, which you can also meet in Skansen. First, a herd of reindeer was settled at the Sámi campsite – faithfully recreated in the open-air museum.

Today, the park is home to over 300 animals, with large enclosures and many retreats. In addition to the reindeer, you can meet other typical Nordic animals such as moose, wolves, otters, horses, bison, and various small animals in a petting zoo. A highlight without question the bears. Be careful when visiting in winter – they hibernate and cannot be seen at this time.

Relatively new is the Baltic Sea Science Center, which only opened in 2019, where the underwater world of the Baltic Sea is brought closer to visitors with various aquariums, exhibitions, and events.

Skansen Park in Stockholm is a great ethical animal encounter, since the wolves like these are wild!
Wolves in Skansen Park. Photo by Journication

Feed Wild Reindeer in Scotland

Recommended by Me, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

When researching my visit to Scotland, I found out that there in a reindeer herd living in Cairgorm! The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer. There are about 150 reindeer in the herd. They are tame and friendly! There are daily guided Hill Trips to see the reindeer. While it’s typically rain or shine ( and we went in the rain!), in the winter, the tours can be canceled if it’s not safe. It also depends on the reindeer – they are free-ranging and may not be in the area. The reindeer are familiar with their handlers and know to expect snacks, so they typically come to the tour group. They are such fun animals and the memory of feeding reindeer is something that I will cherish forever.

During the walk, the guide tells you about the herd and the habits of reindeer. There is a shop with plenty of reindeer-themed souvenirs to remember your experience. You can also adopt a reindeer to help take care of the reindeer including veterinary care!

Me feeding a reindeer in Scotland!

Ethical Animal Encounters in Africa

Take a Safari in Namibia

Recommended by Martha of May Cause Wanderlust

Namibia is a great place to encounter wildlife because it is home to all of the Big Five game animals – and there are many ways to encounter these animals in an ethical way.

The best place to encounter animals ethically is Etosha, a National Park that protects a huge expanse (22,270 km2!) of the natural habitat of hundreds of species of wild animals. Elsewhere in Namibia, wild animals are under threat from farmers, so the National Parks are really important to protect them. For example, in 1952, there were 26 elephants in the park, but these days there are sound 2500!

At Etosha, you can venture into the park with a guided tour, or you can drive yourself. If you do the latter, you must observe the strict rules including not leaving the road, not exceeding speed limits, not driving close to animals, not feeding animals and never getting out of your car (the last one is for your protection because the animals are wild and there are predators amongst them!). There are no guarantees that you will see any animals (unlike some unethical places), but you can increase your chances by visiting water holes, which draw the animals in.  

I was lucky enough to see herds of enormous elephants every day I was in Etosha, as well as two prides of lions and a mating pair (awkward). I also saw giraffes, white rhinos, and lots of zebras and antelopes.

Another ethical Namibian wildlife park deserves a mention: Okonjima Nature Reserve, which is home to the Africat Foundation which, you guessed it, specializes in the protection of big cats. Here I was encountered two cheetah brothers lounging on a small hill after their lunch.

It was really awe-inspiring and humbling to see so many magnificent animals in their natural habitat, so I highly recommend doing a wildlife safari in Namibia!

A close up of a lion
Up close to a lion. Photo by May Cause Wanderlust.

Visit an Elephant Orphanage in Kenya

Recommended by Me, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

Elephants are one of the most peaceful creatures on earth and are beloved by many. Unfortunately, so many animal encounters take advantage of their trusting nature and incredible intelligence to train them to do tricks. It is difficult to discern which places are ethical as some are named “sanctuaries” for “retired” elephants. However, there are a number of true elephant orphanages and rescues around the world, and one of the best is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi, Kenya.

As a visitor, you can see some of the baby orphaned elephants for an hour (11 am-12 pm) each day. This viewing is accompanied by information regarding the elephants, their routine, and what they like to do. The elephants are in a fenced-off area and you are only allowed to touch them if they come to you! You can even “adopt” an elephant to follow their story throughout their time at the Trust. The ultimate goal is to release the animals to a herd in the wild. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has such a great success story that sometimes the released animals will actually bring other orphaned or injured animals to the organization – talk about a referral!

Not only does this organization rescue and release orphans, but they also have anti-poaching programs, community awareness programs, and they provide veterinary assistance to animals in need! You can visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust from Nairobi or add it to most Kenya safaris!

Baby elephants drinking milk. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is one of the best ethical animal encounters in the world!
Baby elephants treating themselves to milk at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Photo by the Directionally Challenged Traveler.

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Recommended by Polly of Polly Goes

There are many reasons why mountain gorilla trekking is a bucket list trip for so many adventurous travelers who want to have an ethical wildlife encounter. Among them are the fact that they are critically endangered, the extremely remote habitat where they live that is only reachable on foot and located in just one tiny part of Africa, and the incredibly familiar way the gorillas behave which can be attributed to the fact that they share about 98% of their DNA with humans. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, travelers who take part in a gorilla trekking experience are directly supporting conservation efforts, and in fact it is partly due to this type of tourism that mountain gorilla populations have risen over recent years from about 800 when a survey was taken in 2012 to over 1000 at the time of a census in 2018. 

You can go gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in each of these locations the activity is strictly regulated by the government and the protected national parks. There are many rules in place that protect both the animals and their human visitors: you must obtain a permit ahead of time, you must keep 7 meters (or about 22 feet) away from the animals (something the gorillas don’t realize, so it’s not always possible!), and you cannot embark on the trek if you are not feeling well because gorillas are susceptible to catching human viruses. A maximum of eight people are led on foot by park rangers and trackers to find one gorilla family, and once there you get just one magical hour in their presence. While the rules may feel strict, they prevent too much impact on their environment while allowing tourism to contribute to protecting the species, and the gorillas can continue to live how they please – as wild and free as their beautiful jungle habitat.

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

Get up close on a Safari in South Africa

Recommended by Me, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

South Africa is one of the best destinations to see the big 5 safari animals – the lion, elephants, water buffalo, rhinoceros, and the elusive leopard. While many travelers visit Kruger National Park, there are a number of private game reserves around the park as well which do not have fences, so the animals can travel freely. This means there is a LOT of land for the animals. The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, located next to Kruger, is well known for its legendary leopard viewing.

One of the things I loved about South Africa is that if they know cubs are born and staying in an area, they will leave a vehicle nearby with the radio on. This allows the animal to get familiar with the car WITHOUT associating it with humans or food. Often when you see animals attack on a safari it is because the companies feed them so they have better spotting and therefore, better reviews. I thought this was a great way to make it seem like these vehicles are just part of the area, nothing to fear, but also nothing to gain from them.

Ethical Animal Encounters in Asia

Visit the National Research Centre on Camels in Rajasthan, India

Recommended by Sundeep and Bedabrata of Delhi-Fun-Dos

A trip to Rajasthan in India is unfinished if you don’t encounter “The Ships of the Desert”, the invaluable camels.

In 1984, the Government of India established the National Research Centre on Camels in the outskirts of Bikaner, a city in Rajasthan. This organization works in the field of camel health, camel breeding and the study of camel milk. We were traveling to Bikaner that is otherwise popular for forts, mausoleums and the famous Karni Mata Temple known for rats. But having heard of the Camel Research Centre, perhaps the only one in India, we were not going to miss this place.

When we reached the centre in the afternoon, the camels were just back from grazing in the surrounding desert. They came in all sizes and shades and it was amusing to see them gambol among themselves. The camels were housed in different enclosures for the males, females, and calves. The centre had an infirmary for sick camels. Incidentally, the camels, we were told, were usually peaceful but could get very aggressive if angry. The upset fellows were isolated so that they did not harm others.

The newborn calves were kept with their mothers at the nursery enclosure till they were feeding on their own. We came across the keeper who looked like a portly grandfather oozing affection. An abandoned camel was snuggling against him in all reassurance. This enclosure stole our hearts. 

The centre also had a camel dairy and the milk was used for making ice creams, kulfis, and cold coffee. The products were sold at very affordable prices. We tasted their ice cream and cold coffee. The milk was slightly salty and added an interesting edge to these items.

The day came to an end at sundown. On our way back to our hotel, we were still soaking in the most pleasant experience of man-animal love in our minds.

Camel drinking milk. Photo by Delhi-Fun-Dos.com

Go on a Tiger Safari in Bandipur National Park, India

Recommended by Sinjana of Backpack & Explore

Bandipur National Park located in the state of Karnataka is one of the most important tiger reserves of India. Together with the neighboring Mudumalai, Wayanad and Nagarhole national parks it is the largest tiger zone of India. Once a hunting destination for Royals of Karnataka, today it is a safe place for the majestic beasts along with other native species. They include antelopes, elephants, monkeys, peafowls, and many endangered species. Bandipur National Park is dedicated to preserving forests and tigers in India. So, despite multiple protests, the road transport through the forest remains closed from 9 pm to 6 am. This is to avoid accidents and poaching-related crimes in the forest.

Jungle Lodges resort is a public-private venture for sustainable and environment-friendly tourism in Karnataka. They have a 6-hour safari for the tourists who stay in the resort. 3-hours in the early morning and 3-hours in the late afternoon after lunch. There is a proper dress code for tourists so as not to attract unnecessary attention from wildlife. They take tourists to the interiors of the jungle in open-hooded jeeps but do not use bait or gunshots to make the tigers appear out of hiding. Such malpractices are unfortunately common in some tiger reserves of India.

It’s also refreshing to see elephants roaming in the forests freely. In many elephant rescue centers in India, the giants are in chains and are forced to ferry tourists for entertainment. But Bandipur remains unapologetically wild. Here the animals own the forests and the forest guards are at their service. This makes Bandipur one of the best places to visit in Karnataka.

Tiger walking on the road. Photo by Backpack and Explore

Roam with deer in Nara, Japan

Recommended by Melissa of Parenthood and Passports

Nara, Japan is best known as the home of more than 1,000 protected deer. Once considered a national treasure in Japan, these famous residents in Nara, primarily live in and around Nara Park. However, the deer are not fenced in so they are able to roam freely. In fact, they can be found wandering through the streets alongside locals and tourists. 

While most wild deer tend to shy away from people, in Nara the deer have become habituated to being around people and have become comfortable sharing their environment with humans. They are perhaps a little too comfortable, as they will approach people expecting food and even nip at anything they think might be food, like a map hanging out of your pocket. 

Although feeding the deer can create chaos, overall a visit to Nara is a peaceful experience. The deer often seek out human interaction wanting to be pet and even cuddled. 

For many years, people who practiced the Shinto religion in Japan believed deer were messengers from the gods, so the Nara Park deer were considered holy and protected from being hunted. Their population grew over the years, and now this public park is a popular place for people looking for a free and ethical experience with one of the most graceful animals on the planet. 

You can easily visit Nara as a self-guided day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka. While the deer in Nara are tame, for the most part, visitors should always remember they are still wild animals, and can nip or bite if provoked and can be unpredictable. So, approach with caution, and keep young children from getting too close. 

The Nara deer are wild and free, making it one of the best ethical animal encounters in the world.
Nara deer. Photo by Parenthood and Passports.
Guide to visiting Kyoto, Japan

Seeing Monkeys in Iwatayama Monkey Park

Recommended by Vicki of Vicki Viaja

Many visitors to Japan are eager to catch a glimpse of one of the country’s most famous animals during their trip to Japan: The snow monkey. Did you know that in Kyoto, you can ethically observe these fascinating creatures? Namely in the Iwatayama Monkey Park.

However, before you are allowed to enter the park, you first get a briefing with rules of conduct. It is important not to chase the animals, touch them, take pictures with flash or look them directly in the eyes.
After you agree to the rules of the park, you go up a small path. Of course, since the animals are free to move around the park (there are no cages or anything alike), there is no guarantee that you will meet monkeys on your way through the park. 

At the top of the mountain, there is a small building for visitors. In the square in front of the visitor center, you will most probably meet quite a few of the monkeys. This is because visitors can buy a bag of food inside the center for the monkeys to come in contact with. However, the food is not allowed to leave the center. So, to feed the monkeys, the visitor must go inside a cage and hold his hand with the food on it through the grate to the outside. The monkeys, which can move freely outside, thus have the opportunity to take the food from your hand. In this way, you can make contact with the animals without chasing them. It is essential here that the snow monkeys have the opportunity to leave at any time and move away from the people in the large park. I personally love the idea of humans staying in cages to observe animals rather than the other way around.

A baby monkey with parent.
A baby monkey with a parent in Iwatayama Monkey Park. Photo by Vicki Viaja.

Swim with Sea Turtles in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Recommended by Victoria of Guide Your Travel

Gili Trawangan is recognized for its fantastic nightlife, laid-back attitude, and, of course, its stunning beaches. Because the island is so small, one beach blends into another, but the famed Turtle Beach in the north-east of the island is a firm favorite with visitors. This beach, with its gorgeous white sand and crystal clear seas, is ideal for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. This is one of the greatest sites on Gili Trawangan to watch green sea turtles swimming in the shallow seas, as the name suggests. Turtles can sometimes be spotted directly from the shore as they graze in the concealed underwater meadows of seagrass. Simply hire snorkeling equipment on the beach and see if you can spot any turtles. If you know where to look, you can usually find one in a matter of minutes. The water will get deeper and you will reach the drop-off after only a short swim from the shore. This is where the sandy ground disappear, and you should turn around. Although the neighboring island of Gili Meno appears to be close, swimming there is not recommended due to the currents. You’ll be alright if you stick to the beach. If you’re looking for an ethical way to swim with turtles in South East Asia Gili Trawangan is definitely the place to go. The turtles are completely free and can come and go as they please. As long as you don’t touch them you can rest assured that you’re not disturbing them.

Snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia is one of the best ethical animal encounters in the world.
Swimming with wild sea turtles. Photo by Guide Your Travel

Diving with Manta Rays at Komodo Islands in Indonesia

Recommended by Campbell and Alya of Stingy Nomads

Diving with many large manta rays near Komodo island is an incredible bucket list activity in Indonesia. Komodo Island is one of about 17 000 islands that make up this country in South  East Asia and is home to spectacular fauna and flora. Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching over 1800 km2. On land, the largest lizard on earth the Komodo dragon roams and underwater some of the most biodiverse marine habitats on the planet are to be found. The massive coral reefs in Komodo national park is home to manta rays and an incredible variety of fish, sharks, and other marine life.  Diving around Komodo island with manta rays brings most dive tourists to the park and Manta point is the top dive site for this experience. On a good day, divers are surrounded by up to 20 massive manta rays gliding around the divers. This is an ethical animal encounter since divers, dive leaders, and operators are not allowed to touch or in any way interfere with the animals, only observe.

The best way to access Komodo National Park is from Labuanbajo on the large island Flores.  Manta rays can be seen all year round, but the best time to dive with mantas is December to February in the wet season when more than 10 mantas circling you is common. Blue Marlin Dive Center, Divers Paradise Komodo, and Scuba Junkie are popular operators to dive with.

Scuba diving with manta rays is one of the best ethical animal encounters in the world.
Manta Ray. Photo by Stingy Nomads.

Ethical Animal Encounters in Oceania

Get up close to a Koala in Australia

Recommended by Me, The Directionally Challenged Traveler

Zoos are hit and miss when it comes to an ethical animal encounter. It truly should be a case-by-case basis – is the zoo for profit? Is the zoo an appropriate size for the animals they take care of? Are the programs they have educational and not interactive? What do they have other than animals in confinement? The Zoos Victoria is a non-profit group that is home to three zoos – Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne Zoo, and the Werribee Open Range Zoo. Each one offering immersive and educational experiences with animals. They also partner with local communities and conservationists, partake in breeding and recovery programs, and are committed to sustainability for our planet (they’re actually the world’s first zoo to achieve carbon-neutral certification!) – which is why it’s considered an ethical zoo.

For an additional fee, you can have a small group experience and get up close to a koala. There is a safety briefing with some education about koala behavior. Guests are not permitted to hold, touch, or pet the koala. However, it is a pretty cool experience to stand next to a koala. All of the funds from the close-up encounter go directly to fighting wildlife extinction!

Me next to a koala in Australia
Hanging out with a Koala. Photo by the Directionally Challenged Traveler

Swimming with Wild Dolphins in Akaroa, New Zealand

Recommended by Nadine of Le Long Weekend

New Zealand is home to many marine mammals, including nine different species of dolphins. However, it’s the New Zealand native Hector’s Dolphins that are perhaps the most special and unique. These little dolphins are among the world’s smallest, and can only be found swimming in the waters surrounding the country’s South Island. There are, unfortunately, only around 15,000 Hector’s dolphins left in the wild, and many of this population can be found swimming, hunting, and playing in the marine reserve at the mouth of Akaroa Harbour. Many tours take place to see and interact with these special dolphins, but I’d recommend booking with Black Cat Cruises. Not only were they NZ’s first eco-tourism provider, they actively give back to the conservation efforts of the dolphins.

When you go on a Black Cat Cruises tour, you are assured of their commitment to protecting and respecting Hector’s dolphins too. The staff always put the dolphins before profits, and ensure the dolphins are in the mood for playing (ie. not in the middle of a hunt, and displaying playful behavior) before allowing their passengers into the water to swim with them. Swim times are strictly monitored too, as to not interrupt the dolphin’s natural behavior. Once you are in the water with these magical creatures, the experience is amazing! You’re provided with a thick wetsuit and snorkel so you can observe their antics under the water, and you can watch them playfully dipping and diving between the swimmers. I’d highly recommend it as one of the best things to do in New Zealand!

Snorkeling with wild dolphins is one of the best ethical animal encounters in the world.
Swimming with wild dolphins. Photo by Le Long Weekend.

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25+ Best Ethical Animal Encounters Around the World
Best Ethical Animal Encounters Around the World

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