Compromising my ethical values is something I do not do very often. And it never feels good doing it. But my bestie was coming with me to NOLA for the weekend. So I said yes to a swamp tour I had warned would likely be unethical to the animals. I've never been so upset about being right.
The last time I was in NOLA, I "broke into" the local zoo. Although I didn't pay to get in, walking around there reinforced my ethical standards around animal tourism. I've written about this before, such as with the Monkey Forest in Ubud. Basically, my standards are don't support it unless it's highly regulated and the interaction is as natural as possible.
The Bayou Tours in Louisiana broke these rules. And I say the plural word "tours" because it's more than just the one we went on. While I learned a lot about the wildlife and swamp ecosystem on the tour, I cringed as the tour guide fed marshmallows to the animals. That only scratches the surface. Read on to learn more about why I'll never support tours like this again!
Beware The Deception of "Eco" Tours
First of all, I want to say that I talk a lot about the tour I went on and the tour guide I had in this post. But don't think this was an isolated experience. This post is not about one tour or one guide. It's about a bunch of tour operators down in Louisiana carrying out the same practices. At the end of this post, I link to a couple of truly eco-friendly options.
So, the tour we went on was with "Pearl River Eco Tours." They advertised as an "eco" tour, so even the Ritz-Carlton concierge told us they are one of the "better" eco-friendly tours. So we assumed it was eco-friendly.
I've learned throughout my life that you should never assume anything. Always ask. Always investigate. Because when you assume, you "make an ass out of u and me." In this case, Erin and I were the asses.
The "eco" in Pearl River Eco Tours might have better stood for ECONOMY than ecological-friendliness. This company is more about profits than environmental education and respect for wildlife.
The problem with "ecotourism" is it is anything that is nature-based. "Eco" does not, by definition, mean the tour will be about sustainability management, conservation, or reducing impact. If you take a guided stroll through a park, trample over flora, throw gummy bears to squirrels, and leave litter behind—that's still an eco-tour.
To me, eco tours are about educating the public on reducing human impact on the environment and wildlife through natural observation. Tour companies should lead this effort through their actions as well as their words. They should bring the public closer to these places to gain an appreciation for them while also keeping their distance and reducing their impact.
That's not what happens with most of the swamp tours in Louisiana.
Feeding the Animals
Our tour guide with Pearl River Eco Tours showed us a few alligators at the start of the tour. Since they were sitting out in the sun that afternoon, the guide did not have to bait them or lure them out. But then he pulled out a bag of marshmallows and triumphantly said that if he had needed to bait them, at least he would use marshmallows that were "fat free." Ha.
We asked "why marshmallows" and he said that it fools the alligators. The gators think the marshmallows are eggs which are their favorite snack. Great. So not only are marshmallows not even a naturally occurring food in their diet, they're also disrupting alligator instincts by tricking them into thinking they're eggs.
Not long after, we were entering a narrow part of the channel. A few raccoons were watching our boat very intently from the sides. We could see the raccoons in full view—they were so cute! And they were strangely interested in us. I wondered why as I snapped a few photos.
That's when I realized exactly why—our guide started tossing them some of the marshmallows. Do they like eggs, too? No, they eat garbage in town so why not help them eat garbage out here, too? Ugh.
That photo above pains me to post. I'd never have a shot like that if it weren't for the poor ethical standards of these swamp tour companies.
This was not some rare practice that only my tour guide was engaging in. All the other boats we saw on the tour were baiting the animals, too. One guide was full-on hand-feeding a boar at the side of the canal. Meanwhile, tourists scrambled to get their best iPhone shot of it. In my opinion, the tourists are just as guilty as the tour companies (me included).
All the animals—the gators, the raccoons, and the boars—were unnaturally unafraid of humans if not eagerly seeking us out.
I used to live in rural upstate New York. We had herds of deer in our back woods. Sometimes they'd emerge while my family and I were working in the garden. On one rare occasion, a deer approached my mom and stood a few meters away from her as she gardened. This curious deer came very close to her—but even it knew it shouldn't get too close. It spooked itself and ran away faster than my mom could react.
In short, animals are naturally afraid of humans—and that's a good thing! They should view us as threatening and not as a food source. It disrupts the natural balance of things. They become reliant on us, but then what if we stop coming around?
These tour companies may claim to love and appreciate the bayou, but they really only care about positive reviews and profits. They want their customers to see animals up close. It's what they think the tourists expect (and yes, most of them do expect this!). So they manipulate close animal interactions into occurring through food.
Our tour guide, John, did not hide his company's desire for positive reviews. As we exited the boat at the end of the tour, he asked us to write a review on Trip Advisor "if we liked our experience."
No, John. No, we didn't.
Another problem I had with this tour was John's fanaticism around hunting and how he tied this to his religious beliefs. While he was talking about how all living things are God's miracle, he simultaneously discussed the commercial industry around selling alligator skins and teeth. Gator necklaces, wallets, shoes, belts—you name it, Louisiana sells it. And John was proud of this.
John's reasons for hunting did not match up with his forthright Christian beliefs which he used as justification for hunting. He said hunting is "God's will." Apparently, God is profit-driven, too.
I have ever-conflicting views on hunting—in some ways I'm okay with it and in some ways I'm against it. For instance, locals hunt hogs in the Pearl River area because they introduce bacteria and disease into the water systems where they thrive. But the other reason for hunting hogs is that they damage golf courses and farmland when they "root" or dig. Well, put up a damn fence! If my parents raised fencing to keep the deer out of their garden, farmers and rich golf course owners can to keep hogs out.
I wouldn't ever go hunting myself, but I do like to fish. So I don't disagree with it, per se. I disagree with some of the methods used in hunting (and fishing, for that matter) and the rationalizations used to justify doing it. If it's to prevent disease, and you can demonstrate the disease is truly harmful and prolific, then okay.
But whose fault is the proliferation of the pigs in the first place? That would be humans. John, as a tour guide, should have been forthcoming about the fact that Spanish colonizers introduced the pig to the area. We are the reason for the overpopulation in the first place. We are the reason for disrupting nature's balance—and these tour companies continue to do so in new ways today.
I wonder if that was part of God's plan...
Total Disregard for the Environment
If the above wasn't bad enough, our boat bumped and banged its way through the bayou throughout the tour. We crashed into trees, scraped along the shallow river bottom, and rode directly into marshes to make way for other boats. I winced every time we made yet another dent in a tree.
The visible scrapes left behind in tree trunks by previous tours were numerous and deeply ingrained. It was as if the natural world was something in the way instead of something there to visit, protect, and appreciate.
Furthermore, John told us a story about a tree that had a bees nest on it one season. He said, "women and children kept complaining about it, so we had to remove it."
Not only was this rude and sexist to say in the first place, the fact that removal was an actual solution to the problem is insane to me. Remove the beehive? Bees are so important to ecosystems—we barely even understand just how important. But we do know they are going to be extinct soon if we don't start protecting them. Scientists have shown our own food production will suffer as a result.
Nevertheless, John boasted that removing the hive showed how much they "care about their customers."
They could have altered the path of the boat for one season. They could have turned it into an educational moment for tourists. They could have maneuvered the boats around the nest. Instead of putting the animals first, they put the tourists first and, therefore, their own pockets first.
This is why greed is the #1 reason we won't have a bayou—or other present day ecosystems—to visit in the future.
Truly Eco-Friendly Swamp Tours
I talk a lot in this post about the tour I went on and the tour guide I had. But this post is not about throwing any one tour company or guide under the bus. It's an example used to criticize almost all the tours operating down there in Louisiana! As we drove through the swamp, I saw several other companies carrying out the same (or worse!) negative actions I've described above.
But this doesn't mean there are no ethical options out there for visiting the swamps of Louisiana. If you're motivated to see some gators in their natural habitat, then search for tour companies that explicitly state on their websites that they do not bait, feed, or lure gators.
Here are 2 of the remaining truly eco-friendly options around New Orleans:
This $70 tour launches 45 minutes outside of New Orleans on Pearl River. The tour operator claims to be one of the few tour companies that does not feed the gators. They also use a quieter engine on their flat bottom boat to reduce noise pollution in the bayou.
This family owned business does 2-hours for $40 per person (2 people minimum). They clearly state on their website that they do not feed the alligators and that tourists should expect to sometimes not see any alligators at all. Like the other company, they use a quiet engine to reduce noise pollution.
I try really hard to maintain good ethics around the environment and animals when I travel. But I don't always get it right. And this time was one of those mistakes.
I hope to never compromise my ethics again on an animal-focused tour like this one. It's worth it to take the time to investigate a company before depending on the word of anyone else. I'd rather know before I go than feel such incredible disappointment and guilt!
So don't even take my word for it! Look up the above options or other possible tours for yourself! And feel free to comment below if you know about or have gone on any swampy tours around NOLA that are truly eco-friendly. I'd be happy to add them to the above list.