Elephant riding and tiger selfies: Ruthless tourism in the heart of Europe

Elephant Riding and Tiger Selfies: Ruthless Tourism in the Heart of Europe

FOUR PAWS investigations reveal the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment in Germany, Spain, France and the Czech Republic


6.9.2019 – While wildlife tourism in Asia is widely discussed in all media, the ruthless abuse of wild animals in Europe has remained largely unreported. Investigations by the global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS expose the cruel treatment and suffering caused by tourist attractions in Germany, Spain, France and the Czech Republic. The footage obtained by FOUR PAWS shows how elephants, tigers, wolves and bears are forced to perform tricks, have close interactions with visitors for lengthy periods and even play a game of chase with them in some cases (https://youtu.be/u3-DeUEwfNw).

FOUR PAWS’ investigations in a number of tourist attractions in Germany, Spain, France and the Czech Republic paint an alarming picture. The animals are kept in small enclosures or cages where they are forcibly trained to eventually perform tricks, pose for photos or interact with tourists repeatedly. These conditions and forced displays are far from the life these animals would have in the wild and their ecological needs simply cannot be met. Meaning many animals develop psychological and physical damage as a result. “It is unacceptable that in the 21st century it is legal in Europe to abuse wild animals for entertainment. These ruthless tourist attractions are not only examples of animal cruelty, but also fuel unregulated commercial breeding which can contribute to illegal wildlife trade. What happens to the animals once they become too old or sick to perform or when the cubs are too old for petting? We ask tourists, the tourism industry and the public to end the demand for wild animal interactions and spread the word about their suffering,” says Kieran Harkin, International Head of Wild Animal Campaigns at FOUR PAWS.

Riding with elephants in Germany

For just five euros visitors can ride on an elephant’s back in Germany. Those who dig deeper into their pockets can spend an hour with an elephant for 180 euros. The animal can be ridden, as well as fed, washed and taken for a walk. If the elephants are not booked, they perform tricks in the circus ring. They are made to sit on small chairs, play football, stand on one leg or have a trainer climb on them. Further research into the venue reveals that every year there is also a tug-of-war between the elephants and the villagers. In winter the animals have to pull sledges or play football matches. “Elephants are highly intelligent herd animals who migrate and occupy vast areas of land. It is extremely cruel to keep them enclosed in small spaces and exploit them for commercial gain. Sadly, it is widely known that brutal training methods are normally used to make them submissive. The lack of movement in captivity can result in joint or back problems, in addition to the indeterminable psychological distress. It is often misunderstood that wild animals do not adapt to be around humans but are forced through violence to do so,” says Harkin.

Taking tiger Noa for a walk in Spain

Near the Spanish capital Madrid, tigress Noa is kept with over 100 other animals, all of which are rented out for film productions. If the animals are not working on a film set, they are available to guests for interactions and as photo props. The main attraction is tigress Noa. For 150 euros tourists can walk Noa for an hour on a leash, pet her and take selfies. “The footage we have obtained shows how the tiger snaps at a visitor while playing a game of chase – behaviour that is expected from a tiger, but which makes interactions extremely dangerous for humans. Luckily the man got away with only a few scratches. After all, Noa is a predator weighing about 300 kilos with sharp teeth and claws. Her natural instincts cannot be suppressed even when raised in captivity. There are only 3,900 tigers left in the wild and worryingly tigers are still commercially traded and treated as a commodity throughout Europe, which has been proven to overlap with illegal tiger trade,” explains Harkin.

Wolves and bear at medieval festival in France

At the medieval festival in Watten in northern France, two wolves and a bear are the main attraction. For just two euros, visitors can watch the wolves jump through hoops and balance on narrow bars. The bear entertains the tourists with sliding, dancing and eating fruit from a skewer. “The handlers emphasise how much fun the bears are having during the show, but the reality looks very different. The wolves look emaciated and seem stressed, whilst the bear appears visibly uncomfortable with the leash and muzzle. Between and after the performances the wild animals are locked into small trailers. None of the ecological needs of the bears or wolves are considered when treated and kept in this way,” says Harkin. The investigations also focused on zoos that offer wild animal shows. One of them, also in France, featured an animal tamer alone in the cage with up to ten tigers. “Ironically, a video is played before the show, pointing out the importance of the conservation of tigers. The commercialisation and exploitation of these animals have nothing to do with the conservation of wild tigers – on the contrary,” Harkin adds. 

Skateboarding bear in the Czech Republic

Investigations in the Czech Republic reveal more horrendous displays of wild animals in shows. At one circus, a brown bear was made to perform elaborate tricks such as riding a skateboard or dancing with a hula hoop, all whilst looking visibly weak and unwell. Shows with lions, zebras and elephants were also offered to the cheering crowds who seem to ignore the poor physical conditions of the animals.

FOUR PAWS asks tourists to avoid supporting animal abuse

Until stricter laws are enforced to protect wild animals in Europe, FOUR PAWS is asking tourists to be more wary. If they notice any tour operators, attractions, or organisations violating the rights of animals or abusing an animal’s welfare,, the animal welfare organisation asks them to report it immediately by emailing wildlife-tourism@four-paws.org.

Katharina Braun

Katharina Braun

Team Lead Public Relations


+43 (0) 664 885 33 270

VIER PFOTEN International 
Linke Wienzeile 236
1150 Vienna, Austria

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FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, farm animals and wild animals – such as bears, big cats and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones. With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions. www.four-paws.org

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