I am caught in a moral dilemma: Who is crossing the line of morality? The relationship between the tourist, the handler, and the maltreatment of animals is a blurred and confusing one.
Marrakech – An orange tree was growing in the courtyard of the hotel I was staying at in Marrakech. The manager told me that if I looked down on it from the terrace, I could see a chameleon. I looked over the same leaves and branches a thousand different times without any luck.
I was told that Marrakech is the “must see” location in Morocco for all its eye-catching busyness and unique stimulation. I was also told to keep an eye out for monkeys who wander the streets in Marrakech. I am typically not one for all-things-chaotic, but something about the vibrant frenzy of culture made me understand why Marrakech is a “must see.”
I was oddly fascinated by the unfamiliar grittiness of the souq. I stepped in blood-stained cobblestone from gutted fish, smelled the stench of chickens chained to boxes, pushed my way through dozens of locals and tourists alike all trying to make their way out of the maze and into the open square.
The attention I received was unlike anywhere else I had been. In Jemaa El Fna, women under umbrellas yelled at me to come and get a henna tattoo. Vendors with trays of sunglasses told me I needed some even though I was wearing my own. Jars of crystallized mint were placed under my nose several times each with the accompanying question, “Do you know what this is?”
A “pet shop” owner placed a small chameleon on my arm and let it crawl free. Gerbils, rabbits, and tiny turtles were all on display. Exotic birds were let loose and flew in a formation high above the market and circled back around to their places on the ground.
Flies swarmed around the syrupy sweets in glass cases, and juice bars upon juice bars with vendors screamed at us to try their juice from their heightened stands. Who would be able to decide where to go when they are being pulled in every direction?
Thank goodness my German friend was with me to pull me away from stepping on loosely lying snakes and literally watching my back as a charmer tried quietly draping a snake around my neck when I was justifiably distracted.
I stared at the city-dwellers perched in terraces drinking tea who were watching the sky mesh orange, pink, then dark behind the Atlas Mountains, stars hanging above the Koutoubia Mosque.
Candle-lit lanterns scattered patterned light across the floor of Jemaa El Fna as crowds circled around storytellers, musicians, gambling games, eating smoked street food, and dancing.
In the moment, I was completely overwhelmed, and I will admit that it is difficult for me to describe the experience in a pleasing light. The historic market never stopped to breathe, and neither did I. It was only after the fact that I truly appreciated Marrakech in all its chaotic, goofy, hectic wonders. That is, apart from the monkeys in Marrakech.
We saw monkeys chained by their necks and dragged across the entirety of the square. When a tourist came to snap a photo, the handler tugged on the chain, not to encourage the monkey to perform, but to force the performance through discomfort.
I thought about the “pet shop” and how gerbils, hamsters, rabbits were crammed in cages together. Tiny turtles were piled on top of each other in bins. I was convinced the snakes were sedated as they lie limp on the ground and unenthusiastically rose up to the sound of the oboe. Exotic birds were held hostage and only flew at the swat of their handler’s hand at the unmistakable waft of tourist money.
I could not help but feel sympathetic toward all of the enslaved animals in Marrakech, and as I expressed my concern to my German friend, he responded, “That’s just how life goes.”
A pastry vendor told me “This is Africa. No one has any money here.” I find it perplexing that those who are struggling to put food on their table resort to what I see as animal cruelty as entertainment for tourists who have pockets full of cash. And it works. Tourists are spilling money to have a monkey placed on their shoulders or see one forced to do a flip, have a snake wrapped around their neck, or watch birds fly and return on command.
I later learned that even if I had stepped on the snake, my chances of getting bitten were minimal. Most snakes’ fangs have been removed and mouths sewn shut. Their tongues flick out through a small gap left for them to consume liquid, but they will not last long after that. As for the “charming,” the snakes rise from the ground, not entranced by the oboe, but because they know the charmer will feed them drops of food after they rise for the tourist.
The monkeys, called macaques, are taken from their natural habitats in the nearby Atlas Mountains as babies or adolescents and are forced to wear shirts, diapers, and suffocating metal chains.
I have never been particularly fond of monkeys in general, and maybe that is because they scare me with their almost human-like characteristics. I also think that is why seeing them in chains, locked in cages, forced to do acrobatics, as tourists took photos with hanging jaws made my insides churn.
In the last few years, Morocco’s High Commission for Water and Forests has implemented several domestic laws on macaque conservation such as the prohibition of “capturing, hunting, possession, sale, and hawking” of the monkeys.
However, with such high tourism rates in Jemaa El Fna, authorities do little to enforce these laws. Since monkeys are considered an opportunity for tourist money and part of cultural history, authorities are lenient in allowing handlers to show off their monkeys.
Caught in the exotic and free-spirited mirage hovering over Jemaa El Fna, the tourist looks past the ugly. I specifically remember walking past a gaunt woman in torn clothes who reached her thin arms to the sky, weeping and crying out for help. Children with sunken eyes and matted hair carried tissues to sell in hopes of money.
The competitive spirit of Jemaa El Fna might be amusing at first, but it is truly a desperate and unfortunate environment as the same products are sold by thousands of different vendors, and the same animals are abused all for the tourist’s eye and the money that will buy them dinner.
In Marrakech, I was torn by a moral dilemma. Who is crossing the line of morality? Was it the handler who entertains the ignorant tourist with what could be seen as animal abuse to survive? Was it the tourist who chalks it all up to cultural differences? The relationship between the tourist, the handler, and the animals is a blurred and confusing one.
There are many accounts that face the same moral dilemma. In August, a video captured a British tourist lashing out at a chicken vendor in Tangier for what she considered was animal abuse. The chickens were kept in small cages, and she tried to break them open.
In response to the video, a spectator replied, “I pity this poor salesman who was just trying to make a living, only to be subjected to awful name-calling and gestures!”
While the tourist believed she was promoting animal rights and informing an “ignorant” population about the poor treatment of animals, her actions were received as “ignorant” instead.
On TripAdvisor, a commenter stated the view that “some animals are needed to help people make a living. However, there is no excuse for barbaric cruelty.”
Another traveler commented, “Marrakech is a real hot spot for abusing animals and it breaks my heart to see that tourists are encouraging and supporting animal cruelty.”
I cannot help but express my concern for the treatment of animals in Marrakech, but I am caught retracing the circle of who is to blame. Though cynical, do I blame the handlers who rely on animal entertainment to make a living? Do I blame the tourist, who gives money to experience something “exotic” like never before?
I find that there is no single side to blame, because both parties actively feed into the other. My sympathy is divided between the unfortunate situation of the animals and the situation of their handlers that drives them to exploit another living thing.
As a tourist myself, I believe there is no way to fully understand another culture in its entirety and I fear imposing my own Western ideals. In the end, I felt that all I could do is acknowledge that I felt uneasy about the situation and move on.
I searched the orange tree once again when I got back to my hotel. There, in the treetop among the young, green leaves, was the chameleon camouflaged and hiding from onlookers like me. I told myself if I were a chameleon, I would hide up there too, escaping the chaos and confusion from down below.