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Europe’s ‘ruthless’ animal attractions: Q & A with filmmaker Aaron Gekoski

Wolf on stool being yanked, Medieval Festival in Aitawak, France. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws

  • While Asia’s wildlife tourism industry is often critiqued in the media, similarly troubling European attractions featuring large animals go largely unreported.
  • Mongabay interviewed Aaron Gekoski who, with filmmaker Will Foster-Grundy, traveled around France, Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic observing animal attractions.
  • Wolves, bears, tigers, rhinos, and even hippos and zebras were observed in very small and makeshift enclosures, while being made to perform tricks for tourists.

Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Aaron Gekoski recently traveled across Europe with fellow filmmaker Will Foster-Grundy, where the pair documented large animal attractions for tourists in Germany, Spain, France and the Czech Republic, for the Ruthless Tourism campaign of the organization Four Paws.

The footage obtained by the pair shows elephants, tigers, wolves and bears performing tricks for tourists and living in cramped, inhumane conditions. While organizations like European Association of Zoos and Aquaria member institutions are required to provide professional and humane treatment to captive animals, there are many animal-oriented attractions in Europe that do not.

Mongabay interviewed Gekoski via email about what they found.

Bear in makeshift enclosure, Medieval Festival Aitawak, France. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

Mongabay: Asia’s wildlife tourism industry is often discussed here at Mongabay and elsewhere in the mainstream media, like otter cafes and such, but you point out that similarly troubling attractions featuring large animals in Europe go largely unreported. What have you seen in your travels around the continent?

Whilst Asia is widely viewed as the epicenter of cruel wildlife tourism, it is happening all over the world, and in places we don’t necessarily associate with having poor animal rights records. People in the West are often guilty of pointing fingers, yet there is abuse happening right on our doorstep.

This was the reason Will Foster-Grundy and I were approached by the NGO to highlight that you can, for example, go elephant riding in Germany, see wolves and bears performing in medieval festivals in France, visit circuses with lions in the Czech Republic (or a hippo in Germany!), or take selfies with a tiger just outside of Madrid.

We had two weeks to document these places. It was a mentally and physically exhausting assignment that took us to the far reaches of the continent. The public’s response to the campaign has been fantastic, with huge engagement across their social media channels. I think people were as shocked as we were by the findings.

Tiger being posed for photo with tourists in Spain. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

Where are these animals coming from? 

Many of the animals that we documented would have been born into captivity. For example, a circus we visited in the Czech Republic has had elephants for four generations. Whilst some view this as preferable to taking animals from the wild, it also equates to a lifetime of suffering for the animals. They spend their days performing for our entertainment, and their nights locked in wholly unsuitable habitats.

Most zoos and circuses do not have enough space for the animals to roam, so they end up in small cages, or are kept in environments that would be incredibly stressful for them. And training methods come under scrutiny: these animals are not performing because they want to, but because they are being forced to. Some animals in wildlife tourism attractions are starved so food is used as an incentive to perform. Others are given too much food and are overweight. Many of the animals we saw across Europe were not in a great state.

Bear on a slide, Medieval Festival Aitawak, France. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

Are there laws in these countries or the EU in general that govern such animal attractions?

Each country has its own laws in terms of animal welfare, however these are often not adhered to. And the EU doesn’t offer adequate protection for many species. Let’s take tigers as an example. “The commercial tiger trade and their parts is a lucrative business in Europe,” says Four Paws Wild Animal Campaigner, Ruxandra Cracea.

“The European Union does not only lack effective regulation concerning the trade of tigers or their parts, but there is also no clear overview of the actual number of captive tigers and trade of these animals. No authority, organization or country knows how many tigers are currently kept in Europe, where they are moved or how they are kept during their lifetime (in circuses, for selfies, or as pets) or where they die. In some cases, these animals are being turned into tiger bone wine or traditional medicines.”

Is there anything you saw that really stands out in terms of living conditions for the animals or abuse?

We had a long list of places to visit, but there’s only so much we could fit in – there were hundreds of venues on our list. It’s hard to single out any one venue, as each of them were failing animals to differing degrees.

We attracted attention wherever we went and many of the places were suspicious of our motives. Partly that could be two foreign men wandering around with large cameras, but also these destinations have been the subject of past scrutiny and criticism.

Rhinos huddled together, Zoo Amneville, France. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

One place that stuck out was Zoo Amneville in France. Every day, they have a glitzy tiger show for hundreds of people. At the start of the show they do an elaborate and very dramatic performance about the threats facing tigers. And then they make the tigers perform a series of pointless tricks.

We were banned from taking pictures, but managed to grab a few snaps as evidence. They were quite militant about it, as was a circus in Germany that uses a hippo in its performances! It was very frustrating going all that way to get the material and then being banned from using our cameras. But it’s a sign that they are at least aware of the criticism. A hippo does not belong in a circus and tigers should not be forced to perform tricks for our entertainment.

What can people do when they see animals suffering in attractions such as those you visited? 

First off, people can sign Four Paws’s pledge that states they won’t take part in activities that cause animals harm. This includes never visiting venues where you can touch wild animals, feed them, watch them perform tricks, or buy souvenirs made with animal parts.

Bear kept in concrete pit, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

Most tourists don’t actively want to cause harm to captive animals, but by visiting these venues, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Animal lovers should do thorough research and choose their operators wisely to ensure they offer responsible encounters. Ultimately, we will never put an end to wildlife tourism, but we have the opportunity to improve the lives of animals in captivity.

View video footage that the pair collected here and learn more about the Four Paws project on this topic at their site and on social media via #RuthlessTourism. Find Aaron Gekoski on Instagram via @aaron_gekoski.

Banner image: Wolf on stool being yanked by handler, Medieval Festival in Aitawak, France. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.

Bear riding a skateboard, Cirkus Humberto, Czech Republic. Image by Aaron Gekoski/Four Paws.
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