Phuket Zoo never faced any charges for the highly-publicised death of Milo the orangutan in 2016 – even though the zoo never had a permit for her and even dumped her in the jungle near the Khao Phra Thaew Non-Hunting Area Conservation Centre in Thalang before officials “had the chance” to find her being kept at the zoo.
In fact, Phuket Zoo has never faced any harsh action for any impropriety whatsoever.
A key factor in the inspecting officials’ attitudes this week was probably best summed up by Natawon Jumlonggard, Chief of the Phuket office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE).
“In the past, there have been continual reports of animal cruelty with people taking photos and (video) recordings of animals, but depending on the individual’s perspective it may or may not be regarded as animal cruelty,” he said.
As Zoo Manager Pichai Sakunsorn pointed out, tourists having their photos taken with the animals is one of the zoo’s three main revenue streams. If visitors to the zoo objected so much, they simply wouldn’t pay to have their photos taken with them.
Here we hit the crossroads: many of the visitors to Phuket are not from Western countries.
National Geographic in concluding its special cover story for June “Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism” hit the nail on the head. Use social media to spread the word about whether an animal tourism venue is worthy of supporting or not, and send the message by not giving them any money.
For the likes of Phuket Zoo, the message has been loud and clear for English speakers for years – animal welfare must come first – but for Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern and now Indian visitors, that battle is just beginning.
Worse, the truth is that the bus loads of tourists brought to the zoo have no idea what they will be shown until they arrive and see it for themselves. By that time the zoo has already reaped the fees for entry tickets paid as part of the tour – the deal is done before the tourists have even seen what lays behind Phuket Zoo’s walls.
To be sure, more needs to be done to make sure all visitors know where their money is going when it comes to Phuket Zoo before they hand it over to a tour operator.