Maybe it’s urban societies’ disconnect from nature, or maybe it’s the fact that animal pics and and videos are just so darn cute, but regardless of the rationale, the fact remains that interaction with local wildlife is a major tourism draw around the world – for better or for worse, more often than not for the latter.
Some travelers will go to extreme lengths in order to capture that perfect moment for the ‘gram, whether it’s choosing to do business with unethical – and often abusive – operators, rushing in for an ill-advised selfie, or simply failing to do the proper due diligence. But with its recently launched Animal Experiences category, Airbnb is looking to eliminate any excuses and take the guesswork out of the equation.
In partnership with World Animal Protection, the homeshare platform has created a collection of 1,000 ethical experiences involving more than 300 species, from penguin walks in Cape Town to tea with naughty sheep in Scotland to rescuing abandoned puppies in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – courtesy of a roster of hosts that include veterinarians, conservationists, and marine biologists, all which have been vetted to meet the company’s new animal welfare policy.
Under that policy, direct contact with wild animals is strictly prohibited, meaning no petting, feeding, or riding allowed; marine mammals are not allowed to be held in captivity for entertainment purposes, and working animals like horses are restricted to one rider, max, who’s less than 20% of the animal’s weight. Overall guidelines highlight responsible travel, meaning no negative training techniques or wild animals used as props for selfies or photoshoots, and greater oversight into hosts’ broader business, meaning anyone who traffics in elephant rides, big-cat interactions, trophy hunting, or animal entertainment is banned from the platform. And to make sure nothing unethical slips through the cracks, Airbnb is relying on its users to monitor its global network of hosts and report any policy violations they witness firsthand.
For the animal-welfare advocates who consulted on the project, Airbnb’s new offerings are a best-of-both-worlds scenario. “I call them deathbed moments,” National Geographic photographer, marine biologist, and SeaLegacy cofounder Paul Nicklen said at the Animal Experiences unveiling. “It's so humbling and so powerful.” As a professional photographer, he and his team can work months to get that one great shot, but tourists don’t often have that kind of time – or the knowledge of how to behave around wild animals. “They’ll go running up to get a selfie with it, and they terrify that animal,” he said. “We just have to really come back to this place of respect, calmness, moving slowly, putting these animals first, and I think they'll all leave with a much more powerful experience.”