A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Animal Tourism – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Photo 1: The majestic oso perezoso.]
I didn’t realize this until a friend jokingly pointed it out to me–I choose my travel destinations based on animals that live there. Or, as I see it, I choose a travel destination, research the location, and then get really excited about an animal that lives in the area that I’ve never seen before.
When I traveled to Amazonas, the animal that I so desperately needed to see was a sloth (or, as they are called in Spanish, osos perezosos or “lazy bears”). Seeing and holding a sloth was perhaps the highlight of the entire trip.
However, looking back on the experience, it was actually incredibly disappointing and uncomfortable. The reason was simple; Amazonas and the area around the open border between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, is incredibly commercialized. Based on my experiences visiting other areas of Colombia with other tour groups, I had become accustomed to something that they often call “eco-tourism”–visiting, watching, and traveling with minimal impact to the area, environment, and creatures that live there.
I was expecting something similar when I was told that we were going to see sloths, and I was very disappointed in what it ended up being. On a day that we spent hopping from country to country and island to island with approximately twenty other people in one very large river boat, we hopped off at one designated location and were herded onto a large porch where indigenous women handed us sloths and owls and held out turtles and monkeys for us to take pictures of. It was rushed and commercialized.
Don’t get me wrong–I jumped right in because my brain was screaming “Sloth! Sloth!” and I was functioning like a five year old in a toy store, but as soon as I went to pick up a sloth that was climbing on the railing of a porch, I realized how awful the situation was. Sloths don’t really have any defenses–or offenses, for that matter–but the ones in Amazonas do have two large claws that they use to hook on to the trees that they climb. When I went to try and pick up the sloth, it clung for dear life to the railing. When one of the girls working on the island pried it off, it tried using its claws to “claw” us.
The animals there were not happy.
[Photo 2: I didn’t see any capybaras kept in captivity, but there were capybaras that regularly interacted with people at one of the reserves we stayed at. Some people questioned the ethics of interacting with the wildlife. At the same time, there are many people in the area that regularly interact with them. Who are we to suddenly say that they can’t?]
One friend of mine works as a river guide in the United States, and part of her training has always been to never interact with the wildlife that she encounters when camping or leading trips. She refused to touch any of the animals and sat off to the side, away from the group. She said that the experience made her feel ashamed.
Another friend of mine expressed ideas that were quite the opposite. She said that the treatment of the animals made her feel bad, but that we were paying for the experience and would never have another opportunity to see the majority of these animals ever again. Us sitting off to the side wouldn’t influence anything; caring for these animals for tourists was how many of the families on the island made their living. Those that didn’t care outright for the animals made their living selling wood crafts and jewelry to the tourists that visited to see the animals.
[Photo 3: I met many parrots in the Amazon, and I can say with great confidence that not a single one was particularly friendly. That being said, they were probably very tired of being bothered by tourists.]
To put it simply, it was all very conflicting. There was no outright abuse of the animals taking place; they were well cared for, well fed, and some of them (though, not all) were rehabilitated animals that couldn’t or wouldn’t, for whatever reason, return to the wild in the unsettled section of the island. That being said, the animals were there purely for the enjoyment of the tourists, and there were many of them that had simply been plucked from the wild and plopped down in an incredibly small cage. What kind of a life was that? (Some would say that a life like that is, in itself, abusive.)
It would be a lie for me to say that I didn’t value the opportunity to hold a sloth. It would also be a lie for me to say that I didn’t feel a little bit ashamed for participating in the exploitation of animals. In the end, no matter how much we wanted something to change, the fact remained that we, as tourists briefly visiting the island, weren’t capable of doing anything immediate to influence the situation–and, even if we were, it would hard to imagine a changed situation that didn’t result in many families losing their livelihood. I’m not entirely sure if it would be possible for us to have any influence on the situation that those animals were in. While dozens of tourists visit the island every day, it exists in a part of Colombia that is highly disconnected from the rest of the world, where day-to-day concerns are incredibly different.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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