An ICARUS Undercover Investigation: Egotourism – Are we the true poachers?

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It could be any sleepy Caribbean town, swaying palms over sandy beaches and a strong Jamaican influence, and it is. But is there a dark side to this tranquility? Living off the land/the ocean is something that has been in existence for hundreds of years in Costa Rica, a simple way of life. Unfortunately though it is still a culture that is poaching turtles, iguanas and other outlawed animals. Now we at ICARUS can agree with culture to a certain extent and it certainly isn’t the locals catching the occasional turtle who are the real issue. The real problem lies with the mass industry of fishing trawlers, with poachers who are doing it to more than one turtle in their droves to make an easy buck and also, as it turns out, tourists visiting this country and exploiting its cultures.

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Now we are not here to name names or get people in trouble, firstly getting someone thrown in jail for a few weeks for poaching hardly solves the problem, secondly it’s not exactly safe to do that either. Conservationists have often been murdered for standing up for the wildlife here (and the government doing jack all to help their countries animals). One of the most important things we want to do here on our return is education. That is the only way that you can help to change a practice that is only harming rather than doing any good for the community. One of the things we are fundraising for is to start a community outreach program, one that isn’t patronizing as they often are, but helps the community, teaches the children about their wildlife and why it’s so important, and most importantly, helps find solutions.

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Recently two ICARUS members went undercover at an illegal food market that happens every Saturday in a town in Costa Rica. We were told that every week there is turtle meat, eggs, iguana meat and others, all highly illegal. This is the story of that day and what we discovered, all names have been changed.

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We met Henry outside the house where the meat was cooked every week, we did not have the opportunity to go inside with him but he went for us and purchased us a meal of turtle stew, for $10. We waited in the car while he did this and then drove to a nearby beach to meet with a friend of his, Abigail. Abigail is Dutch and is ironically doing a thesis on ‘ethical tourism’, it is clear she is not doing the same as us and getting information but does this every weekend with Henry, an American. We all sat in a boat and ate our relevant meals, all turtle, except for Henry who, after being berated by ICARUS member Jess about eating turtle, feels guilty now. Wonder how long that will last. Turtle for the record, tastes EXACTLY like beef, we were told Iguana tastes like chicken. The mass farming industry is a travesty but when you are eating endangered animals that have no difference in taste to easily accessible animals, and legally, it does make you wonder. We were eventually joined by ANOTHER American, in her 60’s who came to Costa Rica to do yoga, called Diane. We recorded the entire event and I have scripted below the more pertinent parts of the conversation:

Henry: (opens a box) this is turtle, this is for you.

(passes the box to us)

Henry: I’m sad there are no eggs, that’s like the best part to try

ICARUS 1: This does taste exactly like beef, it’s kind of like a beef stew

Henry: I’m just upset there’s no eggs, I really wanted you to try the egg

ICARUS 1: Well thanks for arranging this Henry

Henry: No worries, it’s a good experience for you to try

ICARUS 2: Have you eaten Iguana before?

Henry: Oh yeah

ICARUS 1: It tastes like chicken right?

Henry: Similar

Henry: I went hunting with some friends for them, we knocked it out the tree. You just shoot them and they fall out

Abigail: (points to something in her turtle meal) what’s that?

Henry: I think it’s like the tripe, from the turtle’s stomach

Henry: I feel bad I can’t get hold of my friend

ICARUS 1: What did you get her?

Henry: I got her turtle also

ICARUS 2: Do you know what kind of turtle it is?

ICARUS 1: I was going to say that, there are so many different species

Henry: Green turtle

(Diane arrives)

ICARUS 1: (to Diane) have you tried it before, the turtle?

Diane: Yes I have, in Florida. (to Henry) Is this a river turtle?

Henry: No, ocean

Diane: What kind?

Henry: Green

Diane: Wow that is good (the food)

ICARUS 1: What was the name of that gerbil thing you said they cooked too?

Henry: Agouti

Diane: They do this every week?

ICARUS 1: I think every Saturday

Henry: But it’s a secret ya know (sic)

Henry: It’s illegal

Henry: I didn’t eat turtle today because I kind of felt bad, I already ate it twice. I’ll let you all do the bad part

(after some more general conversation we all went our separate ways)

All in all we were together with the group for forty minutes, the food is cooked by a local’s mother and although I’m sure that the locals go to get food for lunch etc it was incredible that all of the people we ate with and who go regularly are foreign. As I mentioned previously these recipes have been in Costa Rican culture for a long time, it is not surprising that they still exist. The shocking thing though is the tourists and ‘gringo’s’ who are exploiting those cultures to have a ‘fun experience’ in Costa Rica and they can go home and tell all their friends they ate turtle. Frankly that is pathetic. I am all for experiencing culture. I LOVE immersing myself in the culture of another country. These kind of egotourists though, who are only in it to have a cool activity, and not actually contribute anything to the society that they want to experience are incredibly selfish and ignorant. Not only that but they are causing actual harm, they are funding illegal activities that hurt not just the turtles they are eating but also the country and it’s people. It’s because of these horrendous individuals that our planet is entering the sixth mass extinction, all thanks to the human species. One day we can look back and blame people like the ones we ate with for the reasons the green sea turtle no longer exists. And personally I find that completely unacceptable.

What would you rather out of the two below images?

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The green sea turtle, poached into extinction

or…

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The green sea turtle, thriving and free

We know what we would prefer, To Be Continued…

There is No ‘But’ In the Word Conservation

In an earlier post titled ‘Why The End Will Never Justify The Means When It Comes To Conservation’ (which you can read here) ICARUS wordsmith Artemis Grey focused on the issue of ‘hands off’ conservation, particularly citing the world famous ‘Lion Whisperer’ who insists that his main focus is animal advocacy and conservation, even while he, himself, interacts with the lions under his care, and engages in the exact activities that he condemns as animal exploitation in other situations. As expected, we received a great deal of defensive response from fans and supporters of the Lion Whisperer, every one of which contained some version of the statement ‘He does those things, but…’

But he raises awareness. But the animals are well cared for. But he does more good than bad. But he has a special bond. But the only reason you’re attacking him is because secretly, you’re jealous of him. But you can’t compare what he does to ‘real’ cub-petting. But he didn’t breed his lions (up for debate) so it’s not the same. But other experts do it, so it’s not fair to single him out. But, but but….

After consideration, Artemis decided to write a second post on the matter of hands off conservation, expanding it. After all, she did, indeed, focus primarily on the Lion Whisperer, and he isnt the only ‘expert conservationist’ who mishandles the animals in their care, and he’s not the only well-known “sanctuary” which fails to qualify for GFAS accreditation because of direct contact with animals.

The ICARUS group maintains a strict policy against handling captive wild animals, except for the purposes of rehabilitation or medical treatment. Have the members of ICARUS made mistakes? Yes, you can read one of the first posts we ever published wherein we acknowledge that we’ve made mistakes, and subsequently learned from them, and strived to do better, here. It’s human to make mistakes. It’s exploitive to continue making those mistakes and label it as conservation.

It might be best to start with the original ‘Father of Lions’ himself, George Adamson. There is virtually no one on earth who hasn’t heard of Elsa the lion, and her offspring, or of Joy and George, the folks who raised Elsa and other lions. What isn’t well known, is that Elsa herself died tragically young (widely believed because of a tick-borne illness, but the truth might have more to do with human predation, though the pressure to cover it up is immense) and all of her offspring also died within a few years, killed either by game wardens for predation on livestock or attacks on humans, or killed by farmers as they were attacking livestock. In addition, one of the very lions used in the making of the famous movie Born Free, injured staff during filming, and was subsequently shot by George himself after mauling a child, and then killing one of George’s assistants, whom the animal had known since birth.

tumblr_loowclyMlV1qbo67vo1_1280 Joy with Elsa, considered ‘Conservation’

0Tourist who paid to play with lions, considered exploitation.

It’s possible that if they were alive now, both George and Joy would have regrets about their inadvertent exploitation of the lions in their care (and of course, GFAS accreditation did not exist while they were alive). Actress Tippi Hedren shared similar experiences with lions as a young woman, but Tippi, now 85, advocates against ever possessing a big cat as a pet or otherwise exploiting them.

The word ‘but’ in regard to conservation is a dangerous, and insidious thing. When you are dealing with a public looking to you for examples of how to protect wild animals, you must make yourself an ideal example. A child who witnesses domestic violence, even if as a child they are told that hitting people is wrong, is at a much higher risk to subsequently abuse their domestic partner. While this statistic does not directly relate to animal abuse, it does represent the scientifically accepted fact that a child who witnesses something they understand to be wrong is more likely to engage in that behavior at some point, than a child who witnesses correct behavior. Applied to conservation, this means that children who idolize adults mishandling animals in their care might understand that the animals shouldn’t be handled that way, and yet still engage in that behavior themselves. It is far better to simply refrain from doing things you don’t want the public at large to do.

The late Steve Irwin is another example of someone with the best intentions, who did not necessarily set the best example. I adored Steve, I still adore Steve and his family. I think they have the best intentions, and they’ve certainly helped to bring conservation into the limelight. However, Australia Zoo continues to allow the public to walk with, take pictures with, and feed tigers and other wild animals, for a starting price of $400.00. I would never slander Steve. I simply do not condone the behavior of his Australia Zoo.

16-year-old-bindi-irwin-crocodile-hunter-fathers-legacy-australia-zoo-4Bindi, with one of Australia Zoo’s tigers. Bindi remains a leading name in conservation.

Thailand-Tiger-Park-reopens-after-mauling-650x487 Tourist paying to play with an adult tiger, considered exploitation.

s-Steve-IrwinSteve feeding a tiger at conservation-based Australia Zoo

QGlZuLPTrainer feeding Hercules (a hybrid animal called a liger) at T.I.G.E.R.S, a group devoted to the conservation and preservation of rare and endangered species

61637656bd560c478e961aa9391c4df4Tourist participating in a pay-to-play scheme.

The human capacity for rationalizing is inexhaustible, much to the detriment of the animals in their care. Often times, ‘experts’ with a comparable amount of experience with their animals are differentiated by how they’re presented, not what they’re actually doing. Humans will rationalize away blatant similarities simply because they like one expert over another, or because they feel that what one expert is doing with their animals is somehow more righteous than what another is doing, when in fact both experts are exploiting their animals.

400393 01: World-renowned illusionists and conservationists Siegfried & Roy pose with Pride, the Magical White Lion in this undated photo. The Las Vegas entertainers, honored as Magicians of the Century, perform at The Mirage where they have been the longest and most successful entertainers in the history of Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Siegfried & Roy/The Mirage via Getty Images)
Siegfried & Roy pose with Pride, the Magical White Lion. Many members of the public feel that Roy finally ‘got what he deserved’ after years of exploiting his big cats in his show.

5I9ZeAwThe Lion Whisperer relaxing with one of his white lions, vehemently defended by his fans as a ‘conservationist with a special bond with his animals’. His television shows depicting such interactions are not considered animal exploitation by his fans, but rather, advocacy.

It is not merely individual highly visible people who engage in this sort of ‘It’s okay for me to do it, I’m an expert’ behavior. Dade City’s Wild Things has been in the media recently after coming under fire for allowing tourists to swim with tiger cubs (for a price) but the park adamantly defends its decision to allow public interaction with its animals as outreach and conservation advocacy that gets the public involved.

Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation is an extremely recognizable foundation which claims to be a rescue center and a sanctuary. However, while it is a private organization, celebrities are often invited to come visit and play with the many young animals, and it is not a GFAS accredited sanctuary. Despite that the group advertises itself as a conservation center, the animals are uncut and allowed to breed at will. With hundreds of thousands of defending fans, Black Jaguar White Tiger is acclaimed and its founder, Eduardo, is worshiped as a savior of the animals in his possession. The truth is that he permits breeding, and handling, using the massive draw of adored celebrities playing with captive wild animals to provide constant social media exposure. This, in turn, brings in huge donations which he uses to maintain his facility.

2a242649face8e02afca920ae7e4dc29Eduardo’s foundation is strictly for conservation and rescue, he claims.

340x252-1432844013635669142439325897-543589299_BlackJaguarWhiteTiger_facebook.jpg?f4e9c5Eduardo, and various celebrities, at the Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation. The large number of cubs is not maintained through ‘intentional breeding’ Eduardo and his supporters insist, but rather, through ‘allowing nature to take its course’.*29137009.sfimages

T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) of Myrtle beach fame is another group that runs multiple parks, and multiple opportunities for the public to hold and play with the animals the group is supposedly breeding and raising in the name of conservation. Though their very name insinuates that they deal in endangered and rare species, one of the animals they’re most famous for, Hercules the liger, is not a naturally occurring species at all, but rather, a hybrid created by humans through the forced breeding of a lion and a tiger. Though T.I.G.E.R.S. says it donates a great deal of money to conservation, most of that money is made by allowing the public to play with captive big cats, and there is little evidence that any of it actual goes to conservation. They are also not GFAS accredited, despite their use of the word “sanctuary”.

hercules_-_largest_living_cat_webpage2_guinness_world_records_500x388Hercules, of T.I.G.E.R.S. with a trainer. They advertise themselves as experts helping to preserve endangered and rare species.

rajani-ferrante-riding-liger-herculesHercules of T.I.G.E.R.S. with another trainer.

hqdefaultThe Lion Whisperer, defended as an expert conservationist with a ‘special bond’ by his fans, riding one of his ‘fellow pride members’.

1282976243119-adventure picsTourist participating in a pay-to-play exploitation of big cats.

Lion tamer riding one of his circus lionsLion tamer during his act, something that everyone who supports conservation would condemn as exploitation.

And there are many, many more groups and people who engage in behavior that is damaging to their animals. It would literally be impossible to include every single one in one post. There will always be one more person or group who is ‘worse’ or ‘less responsible’. It remains an uphill battle to speak out against such activities, as fans and followers will always defend those they adore, but the ICARUS group remains firm in their position. It is entirely possible to love a person or group, and yet not condone what they do. It is possible to disagree with their actions openly without slandering them. It is also possible to feed and shelter an animal, and still do it a terrible injustice by exploiting it.

The photographs in this post are designed to highlight the dangerous problem with using the word ‘but’ in regard to the handling of animals by people, experts or otherwise. This is one reason that the ICARUS group is evenhandedly against ever handling captive wild animals aside from giving them medical care, or rehabilitative therapy, and one reason that we chose to embrace the strict guilders of the GFAS. Humans will always attempt to rationalize why it’s acceptable for one person to carry out exploitation while it’s unacceptable for others to do the same. Thus, we take the stand that it is never acceptable. The justification of an expert’s behavior is a slippery slope the ICARUS team refuses to even start down. Instead, we choose to approach conservation and preservation by setting an example of what the public should do in regard to both wild animals, and captive wild animals, rather than showing them what they should not do.

In the words of Thoreau ‘Wildness is the preservation of the world.’ 

If you love wild animals, keep them wild. Support groups like ICARUS who are working to keep them wild, not treat them like pets in the name of conservation. Actions speak louder than words. If someone is receiving money in exchange for allowing public interaction with captive wild animals, or receiving money in exchange for their own interactions with captive wild animals, then they are not acting in the name of conservation, even if they are speaking about it.

Author: Artemis Grey

*This statement has been removed from the foundation’s website since the publication of this article.

The Greatest Act On Earth

With the events currently taking place at the Missouri State Fair in regard to the tigers being exhibited there, the ICARUS team felt that it would be a good idea to address a few things relating to the matter. During this investigation there have been varying opinions as to the condition and treatment of the tigers involved. The USDA has received hundreds (at minimum, full numbers have not been disclosed) of complaints about the tigers, but at the same time the trainers of the big cats claim they are well cared for, and numerous attendees of the show, have claimed that the cats look fine, and seem to love their handlers. So, how does a member of the public decide whether or not an exotic animal being used in a show like this is, or is not, suffering from abuse or mistreatment?

Firstly, don’t be afraid to do research. Google can be a very good source of information, so long as you are careful to ‘check your sources’. Don’t take one webpage and use it singularly, check out a number of pages or results. If you find numerous pages stating the same problems, then likely, there are legitimate issues. The best thing to do if you have questions in regard to a certain group, or animal’s condition is to take a few moments on your smart phone to research the subject. This could be as simple as a google image search for ‘healthy elephant’ You can then look at the resulting photographs, while looking at the elephant standing in front of you. It will, at the least, give you a basic idea of whether whatever you’re seeing that seems strange is, in fact strange, or if you’re finding dozens of different animals which all look similar. In the same vein, it’s often fairly easy to learn whether or not specific shows or animal trainers have a history of violations or issues by simply Googling their name. Likewise, if the questionable trainer or owners claim to be aiding with conservation by owning the animals, a quick Google search can counter that. Many times trainers will claim to be aiding in the conservation of white tigers, or ligers when, in fact, there has never been a wild population of white tigers, or ligers. The truth is that white tigers are a genetic mutation achieved through extreme inbreeding (and for every white tiger you see, dozens of normal colored tiger cubs, or grossly deformed white tiger cubs have been destroyed) and ligers are created by the forced crossbreeding of a lion and a tiger, which, again, often results in genetic maladies and deformities, and a very shortened lifespan for the cats.

Do not look at the subject of captive wild animal welfare in terms of ‘I’m just a member of the public and they’re the experts’. It’s not the mindset you’d have if you were going to a car dealership to buy a car, is it? You would educate yourself on the car you wanted and its features. It’s not the mindset you would have when buying a house, or booking a vacation, either. Instead, you’d research the housing market or the area you’re planning to go on vacation. Most people aren’t professionals at everything they do. You don’t need to have decades of experience in order to have a basic understanding of situations. So if you feel that something is amiss in a situation involving captive exotic animals, but the owners/trainers assure you that everything is fine, don’t feel like you have no choice but to accept their answers.

Remember this very important fact when it comes to traveling shows that involve captive exotic animals: The trainers for these shows are actors. They might have a experience with the animals involved, and they might have raised those animals from adolescence, but they are, first and foremost, actors. And the show is just that. A show. Their number one priority is to make money from people like you who are paying to watch, just as a television show’s number on priority is viewership. Keep in mind the times you’ve seen a movie wherein the onscreen chemistry between two actors was electric, but long after the blockbuster was done with, the public discovered that in real life the two actors absolutely hated each other, and nothing of the ‘electric chemistry’ that seemed to exist on screen, actually existed at all. It was simply an illusion created by two very talented actors. So the truth is, these trainers might not care about the animals in their show at all. Maybe they do, but it’s completely possible that they are simply putting on an act.

Another vital thing to consider is the fact that the animals in these shows do not have a choice in where they are and what’s being done to them. Many times, the public sees these animals ‘showing affection’ to their handlers, and they take those actions at face value. What bears remembering is the fact that from the time these animals enter the ‘arena’ for a show, to the time they exit it, they are performing and following commands from their trainers. Therefore, any ‘show of affection’ is likely nothing more than yet one more subtle trick performed for the audience. People often find such a suggestion offensive, but when one objectively looks at the fact that the animals are wholly dependent on their trainers for food, shelter and any other need, and that they’ve been trained to respond to commands – sometimes through violence – then it seems much more reasonable to think that their ‘affection’ might simply be trained response. If a human child is kidnapped and raised by someone other than their parents, they’re still considered prisoners by the public. They often remain with their abusers, even if they’re suffering, and will lie to authorities and tell them that their abusers are kind and caring. We understand innately that in the case of human children, this is a direct result of the abuse they’ve suffered during their captivity, but for some reason, much of the public does not make the same connection in the case of captive wild animals.

But why should you believe groups like ICARUS instead of the trainers and exhibitors of these captive exotic animals? What makes us qualified to assert that the animals in these situations might be suffering? The truth is, only you can decide who to believe. All we can do is present you with scientific facts.

However, some things to consider in situations like the one out at the Missouri State Fair, or any similar situation include:

Is the person, or persons in charge of the animals in question using the animals to make money?

Does their business depend directly on exhibiting the animals?

If an institution calls itself a sanctuary, do they allow the public to have direct contact with the animals, holding and playing with them in exchange for either monetary donation, or publicity?

Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim that they are breeding and exhibiting them to ‘promote conservation’?

Does the person or persons in charge of the animals claim to have a special bond with them? Do they claim that the animals perform because they want to? And that the animals enjoy performing?

In the case of groups who are opposed to captive exotic animals, do the members act openly hostile?

Do they engage in violence, and reckless acts, like opening cages and setting animals free?

Do they promote violence in general?

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then there is cause for concern. Justifying the exploitation of captive exotic animals is a clear sign that those doing the exploiting do not feel like exploitation is wrong if the ‘right’ people are doing it. And in contrast, if those who do not believe in animal exploitation endorse or call for violence agains their opponents, then they are more interested in making a political statement than they are in the welfare of the animals.

Responsible animal advocates, like the members of team ICARUS, will calmly state why they are opposed to the exploitation of animals, and will offer supporting facts. They will be willing to work with others to solve the problem, and will never suggest that violence or slandering is the answer. We might vehemently disagree with the actions of trainers and private owners, but we will never condone harming or otherwise attacking those persons. The way to create change is through outreach and the spread of information. We don’t want the public to agree with us because they believe what we’re saying, we want them to believe in us and what we’re doing because it’s the right thing for the animals.

There is no function for the public performance of a captive exotic animal other than for human entertainment. There is no need for them to ‘earn their keep’ because there is no reason for them to be ‘kept’ at all. The only thing that requires a wild animal to be held captive is for purposes of exploitation. This is why the ICARUS team strongly disagrees with the practice of allowing the public to have direct contact with cubs or adult animals – even by well meaning sanctuaries. Such activities cross the line into exploitation.

We understand the need for sanctuaries to support themselves, and public tours which do not involve touching the animals are a great way to do that. There are many ways for people to support the protection of captive wild animals, that doesn’t involve exploiting them, you just have to look. In fact, GFAS accredited sanctuaries must abide by strict regulations in regard to how their animals are kept or handled.

For more information about captive exotic animal and how to protect them, check out the Facebook page of ICARUS for links to reputable sanctuaries and rescue organization. And remember you have the power to educate yourself, make informed decisions, and help animals in need.

Author: Artemis Grey