Book Review: Pandas to Penguins

Animal sightings are right up there with eating as far as what motivates me to travel. (Perhaps I should have named this blog Dolphins & Desserts?) And yet, much of the animal tourism industry – including aspects of it I’ve participated in myself – isn’t entirely ethical. While I don’t profess to be swearing off zoos and aquariums forever (especially now that I have a toddler), I strive to see animals in the wild as much as possible, and am increasingly focused on doing so in the most sustainable way possible. As soon as I heard about “Pandas to Penguins: Ethical Encounters with Animals at Risk” by Melissa Gaskill, I knew it was something I needed to read. Thanks to Texas A&M University Press for providing me with a copy for review purposes.

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The book begins with an overview of wildlife tourism and its impact, and provides some background about the history and goal of protecting endangered animals, as well as Gaskill’s definition of what makes an operator ethical. There are also some great wildlife photography tips, which were of particular interest to me (my favorite one amounted to “put down the camera and enjoy the experience!” which I’ll admit I need to be reminded of every once in a while).

A stingray moving through the water, Bora Bora

From there, Gaskill selected 26 animals to profile, sorted by the continent where you can responsibly encounter them. All the animals chosen are: threatened in some way, accessible enough that humans can see them in the wild with reasonable probability of success, and can be seen using the ethical tourism practices she set forth in the beginning.

Sea Turtle at the Bora Bora Turtle Center at Le Méridien

For each animal, she includes a section on the biology of the animal, threats to their existence and steps tourists can take to help protect the animal, before turning to how to best see them in the wild.

Orca (killer whale), British Columbia Gulf Islands, Canada

Regardless of how much wildlife tourism you’ve done, I’m sure Gaskill has a few ideas that will be new to you. While she includes some animal encounters I’ve already had (monk seals in Kauai, whale sharks in Mexico), as well as quite a few things that have long been on my bucket list (wolves in Yellowstone, gorillas in the Congo), she also gave me plenty of future travel inspiration (camping with rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands? volunteering with lions in Kenya? Yes, please!)

Kihi kihi (moorish idol), Kahuluu Beach Park, Big Island of Hawaii

With this kind of book, it can be easy to strike a preachy or holier-than-thou tone, and I appreciated that Gaskill avoided that and provided information without judgment. Some parts – especially the sections that summarize the Endangered Species Act and the descriptions of each animal – tended to be a bit dense. And as someone who loves travel memoirs and trip recaps (hello, travel blogger here!) I would have loved to hear more details about what it’s like to actually participate in some of the wildlife encounters in the book, either through the author’s own memories or interviews with others. But these are fairly minor complaints, and I would say this book is enjoyable to read and is likely to be of interest to anyone who is curious about ethical animal tourism.

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Disclosure: As noted, I received a complimentary copy of Pandas to Penguins for review purposes. My opinions are my own, as are all the wildlife photos in this post.

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