Ever since Taiwan debuted the world's first cat cafe in 1998, the demand for cute and cuddly travel destinations has only continued to grow. And while owl cafes and elephant tours have become world-famous opportunities to get up close and personal with animals, they've also highlighted our tendency to forget that animals don't exist for human entertainment.
Two recent tragedies in the news – the Bahama swimming pigs dying from alcohol poisoning, and a baby dolphin who died after tourists used it for selfies – are reminders of what can happen when that crucial fact is ignored. But thankfully, there are plenty of ways to visit your favorite furry friends without harming them. We've compiled a list of some of the best ones:
Zhao Fox Village, Japan
Tucked away in a quiet corner of northern Japan, Zhao Village was founded in 1990 as a refuge for the six species of foxes found in the region. Considered a sacred animal in Japanese mythology, the vulpine canines roam freely among the sanctuary and are well-cared for – and as a result have grown quite friendly towards humans. Pick up a reasonably-priced packet of fox feed on your way in, and the native red foxes and silver Arctic foxes alike will crowd around and follow you for the rest of your visit.
Rottnest Island, Australia
Now famous thanks to its large population of quokkas (a smaller and nocturnal relative of the kangaroo), Rottnest Island is an "A-Class Reserve renowned for its high conservation and community values". Feeding and handling any wildlife here is strictly prohibited, but the curious little quokkas have been known to voluntarily pose for selfies without any bribing required.
Houtong Cat Village, Taiwan
Only a short 30-minute trip from the capital city of Taipei, Houtong is a northeastern suburb home to a large community of friendly and clean stray cats. Local shopkeepers and tourists keep them well-fed and and content, with some of them even getting adopted and equipped with jingling bell collars. They can be found lying on top of store merchandise (as cats are wont to do), along the sidewalks, inside planters, and on top of the roofs. And yes, you can pet them all you want.
Deer in Nara, Japan
In addition to foxes, deer also play a symbolic role in Japanese mythology, and enjoy laws that protect them as important national treasures. Nara is a designated sanctuary for 1,200 free-roaming and friendly deer who like to nibble on special treats sold at the entrance -- as well as your maps (so keep those safely tucked away in your pockets). Miyajima Island is another area near Hiroshima that is famous for their deer population.
Gladden Spit, Belize
Swimming with whale sharks is one of the most coveted snorkeling experiences in the world, and there are quite a few locations to do it. But while the Philippines are popular on Instagram and Honduras is the only place to see them year-round, the Splash Dive Center in Belize gets our vote for the protective measures they take. Divers must stay at least ten feet away from the gentle giants and photography is restricted, but this still allows for a breathtaking and intimate experience with the 40-foot long fish.
Jigokundani Monkey Park, Japan
The macaques of snowy Nagano are famous for their love of bathing in the area's famous hot springs -- just like the humans. They live in the surrounding mountain areas, but are partially fed by park attendants year round so that visitors are able to see the 'snow monkeys' without taking a hike. The monkeys are friendly to a degree, but make sure to follow the strict warnings signs and refrain from feeding them or "making direct eye contact".
Punta Tombo, Argentina
There's no need to visit Antarctica to catch a glimpse of Happy Feet. Approximately one million Magellanic penguins migrate to the Patagonian coast of Argentina every year for mating season, where they gather on the beaches and excavate a network of burrows underneath the sand. You can get very close to these chubby little flightless birds and walk with them along the planks. Cormorants, seals, and sea lions also live here year-round.
Territorio de Zaguates, Costa Rica
Nicknamed the "Land of the Strays", the Territorio de Zaguates is actually a no-kill shelter for up to 800 canines at a time. They've re-homed 5000 dogs in total and allow visitors by appointment to help socialize the pups. A group of volunteers care for all the animals and take what they call their "children" on daily hikes through the mountains As one visitor described it, this is probably "the most amazingly beautiful example of humanity that I have seen in a very long time".
Assateague Island, United States
40,000 people flock to the Pony Swim off the coast of Delaware every year, where 150 ponies are guided across Chincoteague Bay onto Assateague Island for an annual farming auction. But hundreds of wild ponies actually live and roam on this island 365 days a year, and visitors can easily find them playing on the beach.
Rabbit Island, Japan
Okunoshima island was home to many poison gas factories during WWII, but it is now home to hundreds of adorable bunnies. Legend has it they descended from the animal testing subjects in the 1920s, although the government denies that story. You're allowed to bring your own carrots or lettuce, but reasonably-priced rabbit feed is also available throughout the island. Expect to be literally covered in rabbits soon as they hear the crinkle of food packaging.