Few things look as epic on Instagram as those sweet camel riding pics. You know, the golden hour sunset shot enveloped by shimmering sands, snapped from atop a Bedouin mount birthed in some exotic desert locale? That shit right there is Instagram gold. But is it ethical?
It's a question not really answered by any animal rights organizations, though Michael from Bemused Backpacker took an admirable stab at it in this post. Since I came to a different than conclusion than him, I wanted to share my thoughts (though mad props to him for being one of the few people to ask the hard questions!)
In recent years, there has been a tidal wave of support for animal welfare as travellers begin to realize that riding elephants, swimming with captive dolphins, and petting drugged tigers is not the most morally sound activity. In case you missed the memo, those activities are highly unethical. They rely on animal abuse, poaching, and violence.
Now, the main reason people don’t support those activities is because they involve wild and/or endangered animals. And that makes sense, right? We shouldn’t be kidnapping wild elephants just so that they can come and paint for us or give us rides. As neat as riding an elephant might be, I think we can all agree that they are better left in the jungles and savannahs of the world (though safaris may not be as ethical as you think, either). The same applies to dolphins and tigers: these animals should be left in the wild, not captured for our amusement. I think we can all agree that, generally speaking, that makes sense and seems fair.
But what about camels? They are considered more domesticated than those other animals, and have a history of being used by societies for work and transportation.
So, is riding them ethical?
Short answer: Nope.
Now, this is assuming you’re a traveller from some relatively well-off country and not a subsistence nomad living a traditional lifestyle in the desert. Seeing as my audience is comprised mostly of budget travellers and not Bedouin nomads, that seems like a fair assumption.
So, let me ask you a question:
Can animals tell the difference between pleasure and pain? For example, does your pet dog or cat prefer it when you give them treats OR do they prefer it when to yell and hit them?
You can logically extend this to pretty much any animal and come to the same conclusion: most animals (if not all) prefer nice things over less nice things. Same goes for people.
Now, what about camels? If you're like me you’re no camelologist, but we can make a reasonable assumption, I think. If camels are like most animals, they would prefer nice things to happen over not nice things, right? Not really a stretch of the imagination.
So, if we can agree that most animals (like people, and including camels) prefer nice things over bad things, we can probably start to see how riding camels isn’t maybe the most ethical.
The crux of the matter is this: if an animal can distinguish between pleasure and pain, is it morally acceptable to intentionally cause it pain and discomfort? Is it morally acceptable to limit its freedom?
Now, maybe you think that animals are only here for our enjoyment and entertainment and have no intrinsic value in and of themselves. If that’s your position, I doubt I’ll be able to convince you of my point so thanks for stopping by.
But, if you think animals should be valued and respected and are not just here to be our property, perhaps you’ll give my argument some thought.
The fact of the matter is this: camels aren’t born to be ridden by humans. They have to be trained to bear riders, and that training involves violence. They are beaten with sticks, whips, or bullhooks; are constantly overloaded; and are often chained and muzzled. Hardly sounds like something they would choose, if given the choice.
On top of that, constantly being overloaded with people and gear can cause permanent damage to their backs. Camels aren’t born with saddles and saddle bags, and they are notoriously overworked. Just because they can carry a lot of weight doesn’t mean they should.
Now, you can try to look for tour operators that treat their animals well. They are few and far between, but they are out there. Fellow blogger Linn from Brainy Backpackers tried to do that on her trip to Egypt. In her words:
“I did ride a camel around the pyramids of Giza in 2011. I was looking for "healthy looking" camels as that's what I was told I should do. When I finally sat on the camel I noticed dried blood down its neck and I couldn't hold back the tears. I didn't enjoy that camel ride and wouldn't recommend anyone going on one. “
Here’s a photo from her trip. You can seem the dried bloodstains on her camel.
Now, even if you find a company that doesn’t overtly abuse their animals that still means you are supporting a business that treats animals as property, a business that values profit over the expense of an animal's freedom to live free and unharassed.
I know this sucks to talk about and think about. Not only does it suck for the camels, but it sucks for us because we want to be responsible travellers but we also have always wanted to explore the desert on camelback. That’s a tough spot to be in, but if we want to be ethical travellers then we will need to think twice about how we interact with animals — all animals.
Just because an animal has been domesticated doesn't mean it shouldn't be treated with the respect we give wild animals. Because if you believe animals have intrinsic value and are not just here to be our property, you’ll probably want to skip that camel ride.
But that’s just my two cents. What do you think? Share your thoughts below (but please keep them civil, friends!)