The darker side of captive exotic wildlife encounters for tourists

Natasha Daly spent a year and half investigating the plight of some elephants, tiger cubs and other animals kept in these attractions. Her reporting was featured in National Geographic Magazine.
8:37 | 06/20/19

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Transcript for The darker side of captive exotic wildlife encounters for tourists
Reporter: They're some of the most coveted experiences in travel. Riding an elephant is big on people's bucket list, watching elephant performances. Reporter: Moments designed to soothe the soul and garner a selfie. But the treatment of some of these animals behind the scenes can be alarming, like Mena, the elephant. There was a chain around her leg that had spikes to it. Reporter: Chained to a pole with spikes sticking into her skin. She also had a spike chained around her ankle since we last left her. Reporter: Natasha Daly and photographer Kiersten loos covered across four continents understanding how the cost of likes can come to animals. What we've seen behind the scenes is to get that animal docile. Obviously not something the general public is aware of. Reporter: Her report in the national geographic magazine exposing the hidden cost of wildlife tourism. The number of animal selfies has grown 300%. Reporter: The experience for the traveler, she found is often fueled by an obsession with The sheer number of people now not only posting their travel experiences but consuming others' travel experiences means that these things are spread in an instant. Reporter: Tell me about the impact of the selfie. Clearly the wildlife selfie is what's driving a lot of this demand. Absolutely. So people would once learn about these experiences in guidebooks or through word of mouth. Now all you have to do is open your Instagram feed. By posting these experiences online it serves as viral advertising. And because they come across as benign you may not realize through one second of scrolling that this experience may involve this dark side. Reporter: It's that dark side that she says she uncovered in Thailand. What we found is that elephants, in order to give those rides they are trained from a young age, and often this training is fear based. Animals will be trained with a wooden stick with a metal hook at the end called a bull hook. They're trained to be compliant, to follow the commands of this hook. I'm here at a camp. Reporter: Tell me about Mena the elephant you encountered. Mena is a 4 year old elephant outside of Chang my Thailand. Her trainer had a nail he was pushing behind her ear to make her compliant and make her do the breaststrokes. After the show we walked over to where she was being kept. There was a chain around her leg that had spikes in it. The spikes were all the way around, pressing into her skin. She was kind of hovering in the air because the foot hurts to put weight on it. I asked her trainer why she was in the spiked shackle, and he said she's naughty and this teaches her not to kick. Reporter: The trainer said the chain only stays on for a little while before being removed. With permission we returned that night. I found she was still in her spiked shackle. It's getting dark and pouring rain. Mena has had a spiked chain around her ankle since we last left her. This is the first time I sort of witnessed deception that can go on in this industry. Reporter: You spoke with the owner. And what did she tell you about the condition of the elephants she keeps? She did say Mena has behavioral problems but she noted since she had been kept on the spiked shackle her behavior had improved. So it indicated that yes, this condition is something that may be done to correct elephants' behavior. Reporter: In a message from the general managers online they say they are concerned about the welfare of domesticated elephants and are constantly trying to improve their environment, but wildlife tourism isn't limited to the far reaches of the world. Many states have partial restrictions and four states have no restrictions at all. There are thousands of wild animals being kept in back yards, in display in makeshift zoos. It recently came to a head in Florida. At dead Dade city wild things people could spend $200 to swim with tigers. It prompted an investigation into animal cruelty. The owner of the facility spoke with the Tampa affiliate about the allegations. The reason we like to do swims for the benefit of the animal, it's hot. You want to get in the pool. We want to get in the pool. It's a great time for the tiger to have fun. Reporter: The swimming with tigers attraction was shut down by the usda in 2017. And many of the tigers have ended up here, at the wild animal sanctuary outside Denver. I know, you haven't eaten in years! These two tigers are part of 39 tigers we got from Oklahoma where 19 of them actually started in a place in Dade city, Florida, where people could pay to play with tiger cubs and swim with them. Reporter: They're no longer kept in cages. Now they're able to roam free. The 10,000 acre sanctuary is home to over 500 animals that have been rescued from what they say are situations of exploitation. Pat Craig founded the sanctuary 39 years ago. Every rescue we go on is pretty iconic and amazing. Every animal we see is usually pretty close to death and we have to hurry up and get them out of there and nurse them back to health. Reporter: He tells us Dade city isn't the only facility keeping big cats in the U.S. According to the wwf there are approximately 5,000 tigers held in captivity in the united States. But only roughly 300 of those tigers are in zoos. There are now more tigers in the U.S. Than there are in the wild, where only 3800 roam free. Right now in the united States, there's still well over 20,000 lions, tigers and bears outside the zoo system, still a pretty big epidemic in the United States. What a strange and scary story in central Ohio, a big game hunt. Reporter: In 2011 over 49 animals were killed in zanesville, Ohio, lions, tigers and wolves brought down after they were released by the owner of a private animal reserve, prompting lawmakers to change the law. The crackdown leaving many bears in need of rescue. All of these bears along with the neighboring habitats in that direction and in this direction are all bears that were rescued from the state of Ohio. Reporter: Many of the bears arrived malnourished, but now they appear healthy and happy. They're probably some of the most enjoyable animals. Once they get here in a safe situation they enjoy life. Reporter: They say the health and well-being of the animals is their top priority. Here visitors walk across an elevated bridge to prevent the animals from undue stress. And three can only be observed from a distance. It's a feature highlighted in one of Daly's articles. How do to wildlife tourism right, providing tips for ethical wildlife tourism, recommending tourists do research ahead of time. Look for animals that are forced and seek for experiences that offer observation of animals in natural environments. It's important to know that the phrase wildlife tourism isn't necessarily a negative thing. But what you want to look at are the experiences being offered. Reporter: At the end of the day, is the selfie worth it? That's what people have to decide for themselves. Is getting that perfect selfie that may be a once in a lifetime experience for you worth potentially contributing to an industry where an animal is suffering for that photo. This whole industry is so driven by consumer demand. So the experiences that are on offer cater to what people will pay for. You have the power to change things. Your individual decisions actually have a great deal of impact.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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