This is a question which interested me when I started noticing how in many countries, multi-day hikes often rely on the use of pack animals to carry gear and supplies. This isn’t always the case, of course. For example, during my 3-day hike on Mount Rinjani, the second-highest volcano in Indonesia, superhuman porters were employed to carry 20kg+ loads, while speeding past all of the hikers up the agonising steep ascents. And even during 5-day hikes in Torres del Paine, Patagonian Chile, there are hikers carrying all of their equipment and food. In these two examples, donkeys or mules have just never traditionally been used, for practical reasons more than ethical.
The Use of Pack Animals for Trekking
However, I have often found myself stuck in a dilemma, between not wanting to rely on pack animals and really wanting to do certain hikes. In Merida, Mexico, I found myself refusing to go on a trip to a cenote (sinkhole) because it involved riding in a train pulled by a donkey (for context, it was 40+ degrees Celsius, and 90%+ humidity during this time). I was also eager to do the Ciudad Perdida (‘Lost City’) trek in the Sierra Nevada, Colombia, after hearing rave reviews; but upon learning it was impossible to organise without pack animals, I decided not to do it. Again, the heat at this time was intense.
But is it actually cruel to use pack animals in cases like this? I think there are definitely some cases where a donkey or mule is carrying too much weight, for too long, and without enough breaks, water or food (causing exhaustion which is only compounded by the intense heat). However, in many countries, there are regulations dictating maximum loads to protect the welfare of the animal. In India, for example, laws on the prevention of animal cruelty dictate that mules can’t carry a load over 200kg. This may still seem like a lot, but if we bear in mind that pack animals have traditionally been used, for thousands of years, to carry such weight without any obvious detriment to their health and that they have natural weight-bearing strength, such limits can appear reasonable and ethically sound.
The Role of Pack Animals in Developing Countries
For some countries, the use of pack animals is absolutely essential in transporting goods, since there are no roads for vehicles. This is true in Nepal, as a case in point; so when I went hiking in the Himalayas, even though I had concerns about mules carrying too much or being worked too hard, I had to understand that this was the only feasible way for a developing country like this to transport those goods and supplies that I would also end up benefiting from.
However, despite these apparently uncontroversial points, the case can still be made that it is often cruel – and perhaps categorically non-defensible from an animal rights position – to use pack animals for trekking. Brooke, an international equine charity, underlines that, in Nepal, “the welfare status of the animals is poor in all areas”. Sometimes the cruelty is obvious, but even when it’s not, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
In the mountainous regions of Nepal, communities rely on the use of pack animals for their subsistence and livelihoods, and so by trekking there, are you contributing to animal cruelty anymore than you would be by shopping in a supermarket that also sells meat, or making a payment to someone who will use that money to buy meat? Only an insane kind of vegan purist or animal rights advocate would obsess over any and every possible way that their money could fund animal cruelty.
On the other hand, it may also be true that a pack animal is specifically being used for the trek you have signed up for, carrying your gear and supplies. Indeed, yaks, as pack animals in Nepal’s tourism industry, are essential for carrying the loads of tourists in the Himalayan region. Sometimes for hikes, only porters are used. It’s always worth doing your own research and then following your personal convictions or conscience.
In the case of the ‘Lost City’ trek in Colombia, pack animals are being used specifically for the trek, and so by paying for it, I bear more influence and accountability in this situation. If you already don’t mind animals being used to make our lives easier, then the question of whether pack animals are used or not seems trivial or unnoticeable. But, if you are concerned with the use of animals for food, entertainment or sport, it is a question worth considering. Anyone who cares about animals and enjoys trekking should think about it. In terms of ethical tourism, the subject matter has, curiously, been overlooked.
The Animal Rights Position
It is my personal belief that animals should not be considered chattel property, as the animal rights philosopher Gary Francione puts it; meaning it is wrong to treat sentient animals (both human and non-human) as economic commodities, as things which we might try and take care of, but not over and above their potential to benefit us in some way. In Francione’s view, every sentient creature, by virtue of being sentient, has a desire not to suffer and a desire to seek well-being. It can be argued that when an animal is being put to work, all day, every day, that it suffers; or at the very least, is at risk of suffering by virtue of being treated primarily as property.
Now if we take into account actual or potential harm, and disregard for the animal’s own interests, then to justify this treatment for the sake of enjoying a hike starts to appear as morally indefensible. Just as with using animals for racing, circuses, zoos and meat, the argument supporting these institutions – namely human enjoyment or pleasure – no doubt appears speciesist. I would personally not even be able to enjoy a hike if I was feeling guilty about this mule or donkey being made to work for my own personal enjoyment.