The use of animals for begging is extremely common around Asia, and it can be very difficult to know what to do when we encounter it.
In recent months there have been a spate of articles regarding elephant rides, helping people understand why elephant riding is bad for those elephants and how it contributes to elephant welfare in general. This is fantastic progress and many more people are becoming aware of how to treat animals when they travel, but there are other, more complex issues that also need to be considered.
I have written before about the use of 'prop' animals in tourism in places such as Thailand, where tourists can pay to have their photos taken with animals. These are almost always poached from the wild and mistreated or even drugged. Shamefully, I myself took such photos many years ago, before I dedicated my life to the helping wildlife charities, and before I gave enough thought about animal welfare. When seeing homeless or injured animals, again the situation is simple, we know we can help.
But there is another case that is not as easy to discuss as these issues: begging.
A recent trip to Cambodia prompted a lot of thought on this subject. Myself and Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS Asia, passed a puppy on the street, being used to beg for money. This poor dog had a very tight chain around his neck and was being forced to hold a bucket for people to put money in. A woman with medical issues and young boy accompanied the puppy, collecting the money as people gave it (and as you can see, a lot of people did put money in the bucket).
What should we do in a situation like this, and how can we help?
Often, the knee-jerk reaction is to criticise the people mistreating the animals, forcing them to perform or beg for money. Having documented so many cruelty cases, it is natural for me to blame those in control. In the case of elephant riding operators or tourist prop owners, it is also usually (but not always) easy to see who is causing this to happen.
But what about begging animals? In many cases like this, the people are living in poverty, using whatever means they can to survive and sometimes this means using animals to attract attention and money. What would you do if your family was starving? This is the situation for many people, even sometimes for the mahouts that look after working elephants.
The only real way to stop this situation is for governments, organisations and communities to tackle the root causes of poverty, which can take generations. What about this particular animal?
Some people give money because they find the tricks entertaining: holding the bucket, having a monkey pray with its hands together, and so on. Some give money to help the animal and the people, but giving money could mean that you condone the use of animals for begging. It works, and the animal will continue to be mistreated.
Similar logic is applied to pet shop animals or animals seen for sale in markets: people feel sorry for them and want to help them out of the cage and into a better life. This argument holds no water: it simply fuels the trade of more animals and putting money into the pockets of those who breed the animals. In many Asian countries, especially near temples, you can find small birds in cages that can be released for a fee. Again many people pay the fee to help the birds, which are simply re-caught and sold again.
The owners of these monkeys are also very poor, and have been seen sleeping on the street. I have seen them many times, and as it is illegal to keep them, the animals can be confiscated by the authorities, although they are usually gone by the time the authorities arrive. Although naturally I am focused on animals, I know that this would take away one of the few sources of income for the family.
For a clearer example, take the work of Wildlife SOS together with Free the Bears and other NGOs in India. The Kalendar people have used 'dancing bears' for begging for generations, and confiscating the bears is taking away their livelihood now that attitudes towards animal welfare have changed. Instead, a rehabilitation package was provided to anyone surrendering their bears to the sanctuaries, and the owners taught new skills to find new employment to provide for themselves instead of begging with bears. This was a fantastic success with all of the known dancing bears off the streets and into the sanctuaries, with the Kalendar people finding new ways to make a living.
We explained to the owners that the collar was too tight around the dogs neck, and that we did not like to see the animal being used. Upset with what we saw, we eventually walked away, and in the end, we didn't give any money.
Was this the right thing to do? Would it have been so bad to give a dollar to this family? Is sending a message about animal welfare worth more than helping these people? Or would it encourage more people to do the same instead of finding ways to earn money that don't involve animals?
There are no right answers, and it's up to the conscience of the individual what to do. Certainly, the act of buying a pet shop dog or paying for a bird to be 'released' gives a sense of gratification that is demonstrably false, but in this case, I still do not know.
If we have money to spare, I feel we should spare it to those less fortunate than us. But regardless, I believe showing the owners of begging or working animals that you and other tourists do not want to see animals used in this way. That is the most important action we should take.