“The internet is the perfect place to create change. So many people can be reached so quickly that it is now easier than ever to get a message across. If you’re passionate about an issue, you shouldn’t stay silent.”

An online petition calling on Thomas Cook to stop promoting dolphin-swimming trips has gathered more than 160,000 signatures since it was started in September 2016. But this isn’t your average case of pointless online petitions. The young woman behind the campaign has been successful in getting Thomas Cook’s attention – and even forcing them to release a new Animal Welfare Policy.

The IPF spoke to Katie Bashford, the 23-year-old behind the viral Change.org petition, about how it all came together – and what it takes to create change in a digital world.

Describing herself simply as someone who is “passionate about ending the exploitation of animals”, Katie told the IPF:

“I’m a big believer that if you see something unjust you should speak up against it, no matter how scary that may be.”

Why dolphins?

Although many animals around the world are subject to the harsh world of wildlife tourism, Katie explained that she was particularly stunned at the treatment within the dolphin tourism industry. She stated that many of the dolphins used in the dolphin swimming activities are captured from the ocean “in the most horrendous way”, noting that this was particularly the case in Taiji, Japan.

“Many tourists think that swimming with dolphins is a fun experience for all involved, including the dolphins, but that is simply not the case. Dolphins are highly intelligent, social animals, who think and feel in the same way we do.”

Katie told the IPF everything she knew about how they capture dolphins: After finding a dolphin pod, hunters bang sticks on the side of boats to disorientate the dolphins and then drive them into a shallow cove. Once in the cove, dolphins are trapped by nets. The attractive ones are selected for the entertainment industry, the rest are slaughtered.”

She went on to explain that the dolphin tourism industry puts the mammals on a diet of frozen fish, laced with anti-depressants – and continue to eat this for the rest of their lives. Katie realised that this was a stark contrast to the lives they live in the ocean, where they have large families and can travel up to 100 miles per day.

“Instead of the ocean, they now live in a tank, separated from their family and all they have known. They are forced to participate in constant human interaction. No tank, no matter how big can ever replicate the ocean, simply because there are no walls in the ocean.”

The campaign that created change

Within hours of launching her petition on Change.org, Katie’s dolphin tourism petition had begun to create a social media buzz. Even Emmerdale actor Nick Matthews was urging people to sign the petition.

It wasn’t long before Katie received a response from Thomas Cook, who told her that they had commissioned animal welfare experts, Global Spirit, to conduct an independent audit of the animal attractions that they offer – and that they were currently reviewing their findings. Unsatisfied with their response, Katie dismissed it as “inconclusive” and urged people to continue putting pressure on them.

“Thomas Cook reiterated that all their animal tourism attractions conform to ABTA guidelines,” Katie said at the time.

“Whilst I’m pleased there are some auditing measures in place, these guidelines are very vague and do not really address the issue that a wild dolphin who may roam up to 40 miles a day in the wild will never be happy or fulfilled in a tiny tank, where they are forced to constantly participate in unnatural human interaction.”

On 11 November, Katie hand-delivered her petition to Thomas Cook Headquarters in London, United Kingdom. Change.org also provided them with a USB stick containing the names of every single person who had signed and commented on the petition.

Finally, on 13 December, Katie got an early Christmas present from Thomas Cook. They launched a new animal welfare policy.

In a statement published on their website, Chief Executive, Peter Fankhauser, said: “We know that the animal attractions we sell are an important part of the experience customers enjoy on holiday. But I also want to ensure that, in providing those attractions, we are living up to our promise to put our customers’ interests at the heart of all that we do. That’s why Thomas Cook is today launching a new animal welfare policy – one that takes a much stronger approach to ensuring the welfare of animals in the attractions we sell.”

Katie has described this as a “small step in the right direction”, adding that “improving animal welfare can never be a bad thing”. However, she noted that she “fundamentally disagrees with the concept of captive dolphins” and noted that, by continuing to sell tickets to dolphin parks, Thomas Cook continue to be “complicit in fuelling the demand for this cruel industry”.

What next for Katie and dolphin tourism?

When I started this petition, I never could have imagined how big it would get. It fills me with so much joy to know that there are so many people out there speaking up for the dolphins and demanding change.”

Her supporters have given her the boost she needed to keep going with the campaign and Katie has now teamed up with Dolphin Freedom UK to continue raising awareness – “until all the tanks are empty”. Personally, Katie believes that awareness and education are key to stopping the demand for dolphin tourism. 

Following the success of her Change.org petition, she had one final word for young people who might think online petitions can’t create real change: “The internet is the perfect place to create change. So many people can be reached so quickly that it is now easier than ever to get a message across. If you’re passionate about an issue, you shouldn’t stay silent.”