13 years ago I studied abroad in Egypt, the destination of my childhood dreams. Tomb raiding, temple exploring, camel riding—it all seemed so magical, like something straight out of an adventure film.
For months to come, I proudly placed my epic camel riding photo front and center on my Facebook profile. It was the pic that in my mind, told people “that’s a badass traveler right there.” It looked dope AF. But was it ethical?
The short answer: Hell nah.
The complicated answer: Hell nah! But, I also just got back from visiting Egypt a second time, and I can tell you this topic is so complex.
ANIMAL CRUELTY – WHAT I WITNESSED
This month, I returned to Egypt with a new perspective I didn’t have years ago. Globetrotting for over a decade since my first trip has made me much more conscious of how tourist behavior affects animals, the environment, and the local communities of the places we visit. Nowadays, sustainability is at the forefront of my mind when traveling.
I knew going back, especially now that I’m vegan, would feel very different this time. Instead of being blinded by my excitement to ride a camel, my eyes were wide open and what I saw was depressing.
Camels, horses, and donkeys alike were all miserably being worked to death and performing for the entertainment of tourists. Most looked malnourished, ribs and bones poking out through their bloodied, bruised skin. They were dehydrated, exhausted, and when they weren’t working, they were bound so tightly that their heads were right up against the walls, barely able to move. The ones on duty got yelled at and whipped, further exacerbating their existing mental and physical wounds. The gashes on some looked infected.
These animals were noticeably in pain with no food, water or shade. And some were flat out deceased. YES. You read that right.
We saw a dead horse on the ground that was slowly being eaten by a stray dog. And nothing was being done about it.
Sorry y’all. I know that was graphic. But it’s what we witnessed.
HOW CAMEL RIDING IS UNETHICAL
Beyond the way they are mistreated by their owners, what is so unethical about riding camels?
- It isn’t fair to limit their freedom by enslavement.
- Camels shouldn’t be forced to exist for our entertainment.
- They aren’t born capable of being ridden by humans—they have to be trained for it, and that training often involves violence.
- They can carry a lot of weight, but that doesn’t mean they should. They are constantly overloaded and all that hauling day in and day out will naturally damage their bodies.
- They are abusively overworked in extreme heat with little access to food, water, and shade. Imagine if we had to do that as our day-to-day job.
- It’s a miserable way for any animal to spend their entire life.
- Even if you find a handler or company that doesn’t blatantly abuse them, you would still be supporting businesses that value profit over freedom.
- You’re a tourist. Not a Bedouin nomad inhabiting the desert.
- Ancient Egyptians revered and respected their animals and they didn’t even use camels. Foreign conquerors introduced the concept of working camels to Egypt. So errr, yeah. Technically you’re supporting the way of colonizers. Ijs.
- If you can’t picture your pet in the same conditions, why be okay when it’s a camel?
WHY PEOPLE DON’T ADVOCATE FOR CAMELS
Over the years, a number of travel bloggers and animal rights activists have flocked to the web to condemn animal tourist attractions, the most heatedly discussed being elephant rides and drugged tiger selfies.
A few years ago, I posted a video that included a list of the top 10 cruelest animal attractions based on a study by World Animal Protection. Camels, horses, and donkeys def didn’t make the cut.
Well if you take a closer look at the type of animals that people often advocate for—they all have one thing in common. They are wild animals. There is often no real question as to whether it’s ethical to kidnap a wild animal from its natural habitat and raise it in captivity (often using cruel training techniques) for the purpose of amusing tourists. It would suck if the tables were turned and we were snatched from our parents at birth, right?
I think we can all agree that’s effed up. No Instagram shot is worth that kind of misery.
But what about domesticated animals like camels, horses and donkeys? These are animals who have historically been integrated into various communities to be used as transportation. Or in the sad case of the camel—transportation, milk, meat, and leather (*tear drop*). The unfortunate reality is once camels are deemed too weak to give rides to tourists, they are sent to the camel market for slaughter. So while tourists are happily riding their camels past the pyramids, hundreds of creatures are being sold off every day at the massive market in Birqash, just 20 miles down the road.
When it comes to domesticated animals, especially livestock, we are trained to look the other way. For years, I’ve searched the web looking for a definitive answer to whether camel riding was okay, and the web has been silent.
Heba Khamis for The New York Times
PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO SPEAK UP
Earlier this year PETA launched an investigation that produced imagery reflecting much of the same disturbing activity I witnessed last week. They got video proof y’all. There is no questioning it. I already pledged to not ride any animals, wild or domestic, long before they released this footage. But their investigation, coupled with seeing it with my own two eyes last week, solidified my views. If I ever had any lingering doubts, that shit is gone now.
Eyewitness accounts, photos, and videos include horrific examples of handlers beating animals and even hitting the testicles of those too exhausted to go on. One showed a horse collapsing while hauling a tourist carriage and being beaten on the ground until she managed to get back up. She, like many others, was forced to continue working despite blatant injuries. There’s a lot more, but you can watch.
It’s not just PETA either. One simple Google search on ethical camel riding, and you will see many more people coming forward to take a stance on this issue. Something you’d be hard-pressed to find previously.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
Part of me wants to lash out and blame the handlers for their cruel treatment, as well as tourists for letting it all happen. But the sad fact is a third of Egyptians live in extreme poverty and their government has corruption issues. So there are many factors contributing to the gruesome brutality that exists within the animal tourist industry in Egypt and other developing countries. Absence of empathy from handlers and a lack of awareness from tourists are only part of the equation.
According to CAPMAS’s latest survey on income, expenditure and consumption for 2017/2018, Egypt stated that those who earn less than LE 8,282 (US$ 501.03) annually and $1.3 daily, live under the poverty line.
With so many living below the poverty line, it’s safe to assume that if people are struggling to take care of themselves or their families, they certainly aren’t going out of their way to care for their animals.
While that explains the starvation, it doesn’t rationalize the extreme physical abuse. At the end of the day, beating an animal to submission is a choice. And I choose not to enable that kind of treatment.
SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
I could say, “Let’s all boycott camel rides!” But that’s the easy route.
I mean sure I’ve made the choice to not ride animals, but let’s go even deeper than that.
I think a variety of actions must take place in order to improve the welfare of camels, horses, and donkeys in Egypt (and other developing countries), while also considering the needs of local populations.
ECONOMIC IMPROVEMENT – After talking to a friend of mine who lives by the pyramids, he explained that Egypt has not been the same since the revolution. People are suffering at the hands of extreme poverty and a corrupt government that isn’t doing enough to help. Tourism has historically accounted for about 13% of the Egyptian economy, and it slowed down after the revolution due to safety concerns. It’s picking back up though. A better economy could improve the way of life for people and in turn improve the lives of their animals.
REFUSE TO DO BUSINESS – If you visit a tourist attraction and see animal abuse, speak UP. Don’t just stay silent or cry on the inside. Nothing changes if nothing changes. If handlers become aware that their cruel behavior is upsetting customers, they will be forced to modify their business models. Happy tourists keep them in business. Unhappy tourists mean no business and they can’t have that.
CHOOSE AN ALTERNATIVE (Like Quad Biking!) – Let’s be real. Some tourists just flat out don’t care and will do whatever it takes to get the perfect shot. Is what it is. However, if people choose Instagram-worthy alternatives, this could lessen the amount of camelback riding and horse carriage rides that take place. My friends and I opted to get our epic desert shots by way of quad bikes (ATVs). IMO, that was way more badass than a cliché camel selfie.
GOVERNMENT FUNDING – The government really needs to step in here. Not everyone can go around quad biking like we did. That’s not a sustainable solution anyway. However, if the government could raise the funding to supply locals with electric rickshaws and more modern forms of transportation, this will eliminate the need for animal transportation between the pyramids while also providing people with an alternate way to make money. Animal abuse, *POOF*, be gone. That’s the hope and the dream anyway.
SIGN THE PETITION – There’s power in numbers. Take action by sending this pre-drafted message (or you can modify it with your own words) to Egypt’s minister of tourism. Everything is already laid out and all you have to do is fill in your name and email address and hit send.
We went quad biking near the pyramids as an alternative to riding camels.
So errr yeah. Wish this tragic tale of unnecessary suffering could simply come to an end with a swift and effective boycott. But like anything terrible in life that has been normalized for years—it will take time to stop it.
I have pretty much adopted the mentality that it’s never okay to participate in animal tourism of any kind. I have a basic way of evaluating whether or not something is cruel. If it’s not something I’d allow to be done to my dog, then why would I allow it to be done to another animal?
Animals feel things physically, mentally, and emotionally like we do. They experience pain, discomfort, and depression just as any human does. If you believe that animals deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion; and don’t deserve to be beaten, bloodied, bruised, screamed at, and reduced to entertainment—then please advocate for them. Domesticated animal abuse issues deserve just as much attention as wild ones. These animals deserve the opportunity to live a good life like anyone else does. Stand up, speak out, and by all means—skip that ride.
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