‘Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test… consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.’ – Milan Kundera.
I’ve been meaning to write a post for a long time about my visit to Petra in March 2017, and my opinion on the way the working animals are treated at this world famous tourist attraction. Now, with the recent publication of an article on the BBC website about this very topic, I feel it has become even more relevant for me to write about my experience.
The article, which you can read here, was written because animal rights group PETA have recently launched a campaign to try and end the mistreatment of the animals that work at Petra, citing:
…donkeys, horses and camels are beaten and forced to carry visitors in extreme heat without shade or water.
During my time in Petra last year, this is exactly what I witnessed.
Why Petra made me so angry!
I’ve travelled a fair bit. I’ve seen some sorry looking animals on my trips. A live chicken dangling unceremoniously from a motorbike with exhaust fumes blowing in its face. Mangy dogs running loose, begging for scraps, skinny and unhealthy looking. Horses left tacked up and tied to a post for several hours without access to water during this time.
These incidents have been unpleasant to view, and where possible I’ve tried to rectify the situation – taking water to the horses, throwing leftovers to the dogs… But for the most part, I’ve had to take into consideration that I’m in a different country, and around the world, animals are treated differently to how we treat our pets in the UK. Whilst it’s not nice to see and on occasions has left a bad taste in my mouth, there has never been an animal-related incident that left me downright furious or completely spoilt my day.
Petra was different.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction. In 2017, approximately 600,000 people came to visit the site. It’s important to note that Petra is a city. It’s not the sort of attraction you can stroll around in half an hour. We spent a day there, and barely scratched the surface. Just entering the city is a bit of a hike – roughly 2km from the site entrance to the end of the Siq, where you’re teased with a tantalising glimpse of The Treasury before the canyon widens out and you can gaze up in awe at this wonder in all its glory.
I had no idea before I visited the site how big it was. I didn’t realise that I was in for a day of sometimes strenuous hiking, in temperatures reaching highs of 25-26 degrees. There is little shade in some areas and at times, it was a struggle. That day, I walked 22,563 steps and climbed the equivalent of 91 floors. That’s approximately 15-16km of hiking, which I was almost completely unprepared for. I have a sneaking suspicion that most visitors to this attraction also underestimate the amount of walking they will have to undertake, and are also underprepared like myself. And this is where the working animals come in – on stand-by to do the hard work instead.
Petra is home to a large collection of horses, mules, donkeys and camels, all of which are used to transport tourists through Petra. And whilst I understand that such a beautiful site should be accessible to as many people as possible, and that the locals do have to make a living somehow, I do not think this should come at a cost to the animals.
I spent my day at Petra in a fury as I experienced animal after animal being mistreated.
I watched seriously lame horses being whipped to make them go faster as they pulled their little carriages bearing tourists through the Siq. I saw a donkey being beaten around the head by one angry man when it stood its ground and didn’t want to move forwards. From what I observed, the animals were given little by way of food or water throughout the day, and spent hours standing around in the midday sunshine, with no thought to bring them into the shade for a little respite. Many animals were covered in sweat, with their harnesses in poor condition and in need of a thorough clean. As I endured the horrendously hot and long climb up to The Monastry, I glowered as mules and donkeys passed me, most bearing tourists that were definitely too heavy for their mounts. All the animals I saw that day had an air of misery hanging over them.
Without wanting to seem too dramatic, the things that I observed during my day in Petra threatened to ruin the entire experience for me. And the reason it felt so different to other occasions when I’ve witnessed the mistreatment of animals?
For a large part, tourists were responsible for what was happening.
The locals who own the animals were and continue to cater to tourist demands. Some tourists struggle to hike a few kilometres through the site, and so take a carriage pulled by a horse instead. Or they climb aboard a mule or donkey which climbs the hundreds of steps up to The Monastry so that the tourist doesn’t have to.
It wasn’t necessarily the locals who made me angry. It was the apparent ignorance of the visitors to Petra that left me hopping mad. Could they not see that the animals were being mistreated? Could that woman really not see that the horse pulling her carriage was lame? Could that man really not tell he was several pounds (and then some) too heavy for that donkey? Could no one else see the caked on sweat, the occasionally open, painful looking sores or the fact that these animals were tied up in the direct sunlight with no fresh water?
What can we do to improve the quality of life for Petra’s animals?
Whilst it’s unlikely that the authorities will ever do away with using animals within Petra altogether, and I recognise that the locals do have to make money, there are things that we, the visitors and tourists who come to Petra, can do to help improve the lives of the animals that work there.
Plan your trip.
This is the most important and vital way we can help improve the animal welfare at Petra. Ignorance is helping to feed the mistreatment of animals here, so do your research. Plan which parts of the city you want to visit and allow plenty of time to get there at a walking pace you are comfortable with. Prepare for the heat and take plenty of water, snacks and sun cream. Dress appropriately with sturdy shoes you’ll be happy to wear all day in sandy, rocky conditions. Don’t go beyond your comfort zone or force yourself to walk further than you can cope with – use a map of the site to check how far you’d be happy to walk. Trust me, there are beautiful parts to Petra within walking distance for most people. There definitely isn’t any need to rely on animals to take you beyond your means.
If you see animals being mistreated, report it.
While PETA state that officials at Petra are paying lip service to individuals wishing to report the mistreatment of animals, it is still worth telling someone working at the site if you witness an animal being badly treated. Information about who to speak to is included in the guide you can pick up at the visitor centre:
Please report any abuse and mistreatment of horses, camels, donkeys or mules (e.g. whipping, racing, overloading, no access to water or shade etc.) to the Visitors Centre, Tourist Police or Park Ranger.
As much as I hate to rain on your parade, if there is anyone in your party who might not be capable to walking any great distance, then maybe they shouldn’t come. Or at least, maybe they shouldn’t go further than The Treasury at the end of the Siq, which is a relatively easy walk over a largely paved or concreted path. It is downhill on the way in, but the uphill isn’t too tough on the way back and it’s a viable option for individuals who are less able to walk.
Talk to the people who own these animals. Start a conversation.
This can seem daunting. I completely get that. The owners are trying to make you take a ride on their mule or in their carriage, they’re not there to chat when money needs to be made. But if you feel able to, this might be a really useful first step towards ending the suffering of the animals at Petra. I chatted to a couple of the men who owned horses pulling carriages through the Siq. I love horses and found approaching the animals easy – patting them, stroking them and generally giving them a tiny drop of love and affection. The owners hovered close by and seemed suspicious of my behaviour before deciding to come over and initiate a conversation.
It started in a predictable fashion. They wanted me to take a ride in one of their carriages. I declined, but used the opportunity to ask about the horses – whether they had had water that day, where they were kept, how many hours they had been working. Whilst I’m not sure the men entirely understood my questions, they were keen to reassure me that the horses were kept as well as could be and they seemed concerned that I was asking these questions in the first place. Perhaps they thought I was an inspector or had come from an animal welfare charity and was checking up on them.
Either way, if the owners know that the visitors to Petra want to see healthy, happy animals, they may be more inclined to make a difference and improve the lives of their animals where possible. It’s just a thought, but worth taking into consideration if you visit and feel comfortable striking up a conversation with one of the owners!
Above all, remember that it is our choices that impact the lives of these animals.
Maybe if more tourists asked questions about the welfare of the animals, rather than blindly accepting carriage rides or hopping onto the back of a donkey without a second thought, we might start to see change from the bottom up. So think carefully before accepting a ride. And if in doubt, just walk away.
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