Modern, compassionate travelers are refusing to take elephant rides while traveling throughout Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. As a result, elephant camps and sham sanctuaries have found another way to empty tourists’ wallets: bathing elephants.

For ethical travelers who are fascinated by the world’s largest land mammal but know that elephant rides are cruel, bathing elephants affords a way to get up close, seemingly without causing them the kind of harm that rides do. But for the animals themselves, such activities can mean a lifetime of chains, bullhooks (which are sharp steel-tipped rods that resemble fireplace pokers), and forced interactions with the public. Some of these camps even practice the same cruel training methods used at sites that offer rides to make elephants submit to human interaction, while others use elephants whose spirits have already been broken through the torturous training. Video footage shows that baby elephants are forcibly separated from their mothers, tethered with ropes, crammed into wooden boxes, gouged with weapons such as bullhooks or nail-studded sticks, and beaten mercilessly. Elephants are often left injured, traumatized, and “broken,” and some don’t survive the process. Those who do are forced to spend their lives in servitude—whether used for rides, shows, bathing, or other forced human interactions.

Baby elephant tied by ropes and being pulled into an unnatural position.

Baby elephant training

Elephants don’t naturally engage with humans, and they’re perfectly capable of bathing themselves. On their own, they love water, and in nature, they’ll spend many hours playing in it, swimming, and taking soaks with their families. But many camps that offer bathing experiences allow large groups of people to participate, and elephants are required to lie down, whether they want to or not. They must remain prone—leaving them in a vulnerable position—while overly excited strangers engage in horseplay and holler around them. Just like elephants who are used for rides or shows, many are controlled under the threat of punishment if they don’t comply. PETA has received reports that at one camp, at least, elephants are actually chained during bathing.

Not only are these elephants at risk of punishment, travelers are at risk of being injured or even killed whenever they come into direct contact with elephants. When it comes to wild animals, there’s simply no safe way to touch, play with, or get up close to them. The stress of their living conditions and being forced to interact with the public can cause elephants to “snap” and run amok, and attacks by captive elephants have resulted in dozens of human injuries and deaths. Participants have been tossed into the air during elephant baths, and handlers have been killed after tourists have attempted to take selfies with elephants. Captive elephants are also susceptible to tuberculosis—the number one cause of death by infectious disease in human beings globally. The bacterium that causes the disease is also one of the biggest threats to captive elephants, and direct-contact programs with tourists only increase an elephant’s likelihood of exposure.

Camps around the world are exploiting travelers’ goodwill and generosity by adding the word “sanctuary” to their names and by claiming to have “rescued” animals. Ethical travelers seek out such excursions, but far too many fail to meet even the most basic tenets of a genuine sanctuary.

Legitimate sanctuaries provide animals with safe, comfortable living conditions that give them as natural an existence as captivity allows. That means that reputable animal sanctuaries wouldn’t allow tourists to have “hands-on” interactions with wild animals—including taking photos with them, riding them, or washing them.

Travelers who care about elephants should opt only for observational activities and avoid any facilities that encourage the animals to come into direct contact with the public.

The views and expressed opinions on these pages are those of the organizations listed, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Expedia, Inc.  Any cited research mentioned by these organizations is sourced by them and has not been verified or independently evaluated by Expedia, Inc.