Responding to a new study from Oxford University researchers calling the Cayman Turtle Farm “one of the cruelest wildlife attractions in the world,” Turtle Farm Director Tim Adam rejected the idea that the farm treats its turtles cruelly and attacked the research as flawed “pseudoscience.”
The Oxford study researchers looked at wildlife tourist attractions around the world, including elephant rides, street-side snake charmers and wildlife encounters like swimming with dolphins. The study gave the Turtle Farm, the only such facility in the world, a positive grade for conservation efforts but the worst possible grade for animal welfare.
Turtles at the farm, Mr. Adam said, “are absolutely not being treated cruelly.” He said the researchers have a conflict of interest and the study can’t be trusted because of the involvement of World Animal Protection, a regular critic of the farm.
One of the main findings of the study is that tourists by and large are not concerned with animal welfare issues at attractions, or at least not those who visit places like the turtle farm or dolphin interactions and leave ratings on TripAdvisor.
World Animal Protection, an animal welfare organization that has criticized the Cayman Turtle Farm for its practices numerous times in recent years, provided funding for the study, and the organization’s head of policy and research, Neil D’Cruze, is one of the five authors of the paper. The study scored wildlife attraction types for impact on conservation and welfare of the animals involved, and compared those to tourist feedback on the website TripAdvisor.
The researchers write that these wildlife attractions “have substantial negative effects that are unrecognised by the majority of tourists, suggesting an urgent need for tourist education and regulation.”
The Turtle Farm’s Mr. Adam said, “World Animal Protection has gotten itself in a panic because we won a TripAdvisor 2015 Certificate of Excellence.”
The TripAdvisor site says the certificate of excellence goes to “accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travelers.” The more than 1,800 reviews for the Turtle Farm on the site give an average four out of five stars to the West Bay attraction.
The study, published last month, ranks attractions from -3 to +3 for conservation and welfare. The worst attractions, both scoring -2 for conservation and -3 for welfare, are bear dancing and bear bile farming, where bears are kept in cages and their bile drained and sold for traditional medicines in Asia.
Cayman Turtle Farm scored a +1 for conservation and -3 for welfare. Debates over turtle welfare aside, the researchers conclude, “Our figures indicate that the majority of attending tourists did not recognise and/or respond to negative welfare impacts.”
In a statement, the animal welfare organization said, “World Animal Protection is very concerned that tourists, often no doubt lured in because of their love of turtles, are supporting the Farm without realizing that in actual fact, the facility’s conditions for turtles are extremely cruel.”
Researchers acknowledge the potential for problems with basing a study on TripAdvisor reviews. Reviewers on the site are not a random sample, they write, and people concerned with animal welfare might avoid going to these kinds of attractions.
Mr. Adam said the Cayman Turtle Farm has taken a number of steps in recent years to improve the conditions for turtles at the tourist attraction, and the meat production area is closed to visitors. He said the farm has reduced the number of turtles in each tank and is experimenting with giving a better variety of foods to the turtles more often.
He said the farm is also installing shade structures above the tanks, beginning with the touch tanks in the public area. He said the farm has plans to put shade structures in the meat production area, but first plans to finish installation on the tanks accessible to the public.