Does TripAdvisor Hurt Animals?

It used to be that almost no one blinked an eye at elephant rides, or people posing for pictures with tigers or even packed stadiums surrounding a pool of performing orcas.

Luckily, some people are now better informed about the cruelty and abuse hiding behind tourism involving animals.

Still, not everyone understands the realities behind many tourist destinations - and an estimated 550,000 animals are negatively impacted because TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel site, isn't doing much to reveal cruel tourists traps for what they really are, according to World Animal Protection (WAP).

"World Animal Protection is calling on TripAdvisor to stop promoting and profiting from some of the world's cruelest wildlife tourist attractions, including venues that allow tourists to ride elephants, handle sea turtles, watch dolphin performances and take lion and tiger 'selfies,'" Carla Pisarro, communications manager for WAP, told The Dodo in a press release.

"Last year, The University of Oxford reviewed 188 wildlife venues featured on TripAdvisor and found that 75 percent of the different types of attractions involve wildlife cruelty," WAP wrote in its petition urging TripAdvisor to take action to help animals. The metrics TripAdvisor currently uses depends almost entirely on what (sometimes naive) tourists think about their visit. "[TripAdvisor's] Popularity Index and Certificate of Excellence instills trust in tourists, but, in many cases, this trust is misplaced. TripAdvisor uses an algorithm to determine which venues to award. They have the power to change this algorithm."

But TripAdvisor's leadership doesn't think the company is doing anything wrong.

"The fact that a property, establishment or business may be listed on TripAdvisor does not represent our endorsement of that establishment," Desirée Fish, vice president of global communications for TripAdvisor, told The Dodo. "TripAdvisor is like the yellow pages - we provide the listings as a platform for travelers to share with others their genuine experiences of a place - both positive or negative."

Fortunately, animal lovers make ample use of the comments section to warn people about places that seek to profit from cruelty. Still, some people think that with such large influence comes responsibility - and that TripAdvisor could be doing much more to prevent cruelty to animals.

One thing TripAdvisor could do, according to WAP, is to stop awarding "Certificates of Excellence" to venues that are just bad news.

"TripAdvisor has shown before that it isn't afraid to reward businesses that do the right thing, such as those highlighted via its GreenLeaders program," WAP told The Dodo, in response to TripAdvisor's comment. Something like a 'WildlifeLeaders' Program would help tourists tell the animal-friendly places from the animal foes, WAP suggests. "This would reduce the number of visitors to poor welfare attractions, since most tourists simply aren't aware of the suffering behind the scenes in cruel wildlife tourism venues."

Elephant Safari Park in Bali is just one venue that's earned such an accolade. One reviewer, who gave the place four out of five stars, wrote: "We went there expecting more than the elephant ride, but this is really the main attraction, so make sure you plan to ride one, as it is really worth it and pretty much the only thing to do there. There is a small show but it's pretty quick (10 min.). You can also walk around the park and see the elephant, but this part feels just like a big zoo."

Another reviewer wrote about the same place: "In our 15 years of travel experience, we can honestly say that this must be one of the most horrific tourist traps we have seen for a long time. Those elephants did not look well looked-after and it was an extremely sad sight to see. We would suggest that you try to avoid this supplier if you don't want to support animal cruelty."

"We believe the best catalyst for change comes from the travel community itself," Fish said.

But sometimes, when real animal lives are on the line, a bad review just might not be good enough.

Do you think TripAdvisor has a responsibility to help tourists make informed decisions? Click here to sign World Animal Protection's petition to urge TripAdvisor to do more.