Coming back from a trip to Asia with pictures of yourself and an animal or two is almost a rite of passage. Be it riding on an elephant, feeding a baby tiger a bottle of milk, or grinning as an orangutan climbs on your shoulders, it’s hard to look at these pictures and see anything but some innocent fun.

But while the image itself is not the problem, the system in place that allows the image is often harmful – even deadly – to the animal.

The most egregious case of this was the recent shutdown of the “tiger temple” (actually Wat Pha Luang ta Bua Yanasampanno) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, where investigators charged 22 people with animal trafficking, and found a slew of dead or mistreated animals, most of them rare or endangered, and some of which were preserved for… well, no one’s sure what, but it’s probably not good.

But, as is often the case in Asia, phone calls were made, and the facility will re-open at a new location this year – although reportedly with more oversight.

The only good thing to come out of this is all the publicity. Recently, stories about animal abuses on social media and blogs have helped spread the word to the point where awareness is higher than ever before – but it’s still very easy to find yourself in a dodgy situation, even if you never planned it to turn out that way.

Still, you may wonder how feeding a baby tiger some milk can hurt. The answer is: it doesn’t. It’s what goes on behind the scenes that’s the problem. There have been many reports – none of them substantiated, but it’s not hard to believe – that the tigers are drugged to keep them docile. And it doesn’t stop there – YouTube has a slew of heartbreaking videos that show humans restraining, hitting, and beating baby elephants to ‘break’ them to be more passive for tourists. The orangutan climbing on your shoulder didn’t leave his home of his own free will – someone captured him, sold him, and went back to capture more, depleting the habitat of its wildlife and forcing the animal into a pretty rotten life.

Practices like this are part of a large-scale pattern that’s causing great harm to animal populations around Asia. As travelers, it’s our responsibility to understand the dangers and do our part to not merely avoid the harmful practice, but actively work to make things better.

But hey, we’re not robots – we love animals, and we understand that it’s not everyday you can play with elephants, feed apes, or help rehabilitate injured or abandoned creatures of all sizes. So while there are plenty of dodgy zoos, farms, and animal centers, there are also many that put the best interests of the animal ahead of making a buck.

Smiling Albino puts a lot of work into finding ethical animal experiences for our guests to enjoy, should that be something they’d like to experience. For instance, non-riding elephant experiences at the Anantara Golden Triangle, Elephant Nature Park, Elephant Valley or Boon Lott’s provide a safe, enjoyable experience that both benefits the animals and provides our guests with a great story to take home with them.

Animal tourism is a controversial issue, but as always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have. If you really want an animal experience to be a part of your Smiling Albino trip, we can make it happen, and in a way that benefits you and the animals. Everybody (and every animal) wins!