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Theorizing animal labour in Thailand’s tourism industry

Theorizing animal labour in Thailand’s tourism industry

Megan Whitney

Working animals have historically occupied important roles in human societies as protectors, partners in work, companions, and others. Social, economic, and ecological changes over time – as well as new ideas about the proper ‘place’ of animals in our human world – have created new expectations for working animals and their caregivers. Despite the fact that partnerships between human and animal workers continue to be integrated into so many aspects of how human societies function, these dynamics are underrepresented in labour theory and strategies to improve animal welfare. Theoretical perspectives on animals in the world of work have focused on how animals are instrumentalized and commodified within capitalist development. While these approaches have been significant to understanding animal exploitation, they can overlook the complex ways that people and animals navigate their shared work, and how these relationships become formative of labour processes.

Acknowledging the significance of the human-animal bond to how work unfolds raises questions about the ethical, political, and economic dimensions of people’s relationships with working animals and the implications of these on animal welfare; as well as how animals influence their living and working conditions. Doctoral candidate Megan Whitney will explore these questions through a study of handlers and elephants who are employed in Thailand’s tourism industry. Animal tourism has become the subject of debates concerning animal welfare, competing economic interests, and how to properly facilitate interactions between people and animals. In recent years, animal activist groups, tourism operators, government agencies, and other organizations, have begun questioning whether elephants should be working in tourism and raising concerns about their welfare. Thailand is famous around the world for the diversity of its animal life and is a popular destination for different forms of animal tourism. The factors determining the welfare of working elephants are complex, and there is still a lot to be learned about how working elephants would like to live. Megan’s research will examine how the living and working conditions in tourism venues, and the life history events of handlers and their elephants, shape interspecies relationships and animal welfare.

The research sites for this project are Surin province and Chiang Mai province in the northeastern and northern regions of Thailand as these sites are culturally and historically significant to the development of animal tourism, and are currently two of the most high-traffic areas for visitors seeking interactions with elephants. Currently, there are approximately 3,783 captive elephants in Thailand with almost 95% of them privately owned and employed in 223 tourism venues throughout the country. Surin province is where many elephants and their handlers are trained for work in the tourism industry. In Chiang Mai, there is a rich history of working animals involved in the logging, agriculture, and transportation industries. Conducting research at these two sites is an opportunity to interact with animal handlers from diverse backgrounds and to learn about how animal husbandry practices have evolved alongside other aspects of the development of the tourism industry.

Currently, there are approximately 3,783 captive elephants in Thailand with almost 95% of them privately owned and employed in 223 tourism venues throughout the country.

Drawing on scholarship within the sub-disciplines of animal geography, labour geography, political ecology, and animal welfare, Megan seeks to contribute to labour theory and animal welfare literature. This research will explore how people’s moral and ethical commitments to animals, the self-determination of animals themselves, and the ways that people and animals are asked to perform work, are part of what constitutes the category of “labour” and a critical aspect of improving animal welfare.

To carry out this research, Megan will conduct field research in Thailand over a period of six months. During this period, Megan will visit tourism venues to observe the work, living, and welfare conditions for working elephants, and conduct interviews with animal handlers about their experiences and relationships with their elephants. Megan will also interview experts in elephant welfare and behaviour, government officials, and representatives from NGO groups, to understand the social and legal network involved in improving elephant welfare. Throughout her doctoral studies, Megan has been improving her Thai language skills and will completing Advanced-level language training during her fieldwork.

Megan’s research emerges from years of work and volunteer experience with animal welfare organizations in Thailand and Canada including the International Sled Dog Racing Association, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Thunder Bay & District Humane Society, and the Toronto Humane Society. During her research, Megan will collaborate with NGOs and academics in Thailand to ensure that the research findings will benefit research participants. She is passionate about improving the human-animal bond and believes that this can be best achieved by taking a compassionate and non-judgmental approach to understanding the circumstances of people who share their lives with animals.


Megan Whitney is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. Her dissertation is under the supervision of Professor Peter Vandergeest and committee members Professors Alice Hovorka and Philip Kelly, and funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, awards from the York Centre for Asian Research, the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute, and the Southeast Asian Language Studies Council. Megan holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University and an Honours Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Lakehead University. Megan is currently a member of the leadership team at the Toronto Humane Society where she is involved in the development of animal welfare standards for resident animals.