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Planning a visit to an animal sanctuary? Be sure to do your due diligence and research your destination extensively before you go to ensure you’re visiting a legitimate wildlife sanctuary – not a harmful facility that partakes in animal captivity and cruelty for profit. True wildlife sanctuaries support wildlife conservation and the dismantling of the illegal wildlife trade and always hold the animals’ health and well-being as a top priority.
According to zoologist Dr. Jordan Schaul, sanctuaries provide lifelong or temporary care for animals due to injury, illness, or abandonment. “An organization that propagates animals for exhibition isn’t a sanctuary. Placing a monetary value on wildlife perpetuates the commercial trade in wildlife and incentivizes people to breed animals,” he says.
In much of the world, there are few or no regulations on animal sanctuaries — buzzwords like center, foundation, refuge, orphanage, rescue, and rehabilitation facility can trick visitors into entanglements with animals kidnapped from the wild. “A roadside zoo can call itself a sanctuary,” Melissa Groo, associate fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers, says. “A sanctuary rescues abused, abandoned, or injured wildlife in need of lifetime care, while roadside zoos and photo game farms exploit wildlife strictly for profit. It’s easy to purchase and exhibit exotic animals with a USDA exhibitor license costing as little as $10.”
How to Identify an Ethical Animal Sanctuary
Look for the sanctuary’s mission statement which will explain why the facility exists. That might include rehabilitating animals, reintroducing and restoring animals back into nature, or providing lifelong or temporary care. To tell if a wildlife facility is ethical Groo recommends looking for accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or American Sanctuary Association. These third-party organizations have rigorous standards of sanctuary management and animal care. Be skeptical of for-profit businesses; most sanctuaries are non-profits. “The vast majority of organizations that provide care for wildlife are designated as a 501(c)(3),” Dr. Schaul says
“Before visiting a captive wildlife facility, see if an educational message is delivered during public tours,” says Carson Barylak, campaigns manager at International Fund for Animal Welfare, a global non-profit dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing animals. “Legitimate sanctuaries deliver a strong educational message with each tour, explaining the complex needs of rescued wildlife, dispelling myths about the exotic animal trade, and highlighting actions to make positive change for animals.”
Look at photos to see if people are posing with the animals or touching them — major red flags – or if there seem to be a lot of baby animals around. “True sanctuaries don’t breed animals as they have no conservation value and can’t be released to the wild, nor can their offspring,” Barylak says. “Facilities that offer photo opportunities often speed-breed animals, discarding them after their ‘useful life’ or when they get too old to be profitable. This intensive breeding — including inbreeding to obtain rare coat colors — further promotes animal suffering. Discarded animals may be sold into the private pet trade.”
Avoid Operations That Sell or Exploit Animals
Organizations that buy, sell, auction, lease, or trade animals have profit as their motive — not the animal’s wellbeing. Buying animals, even to rescue them, supports the trade in wild animals. Some big cat programs have been accused of calling themselves sanctuaries courting ecotourists, while actually breeding animals for so-called “canned hunting experiences” where people pay to kill captive animals in small enclosures.
A legitimate sanctuary won’t force animals to travel, perform, or exist in captivity for entertainment. Keeping animals chained up and in small spaces causes systemic physiological and psychological suffering. Circus animals perform through fear, not enjoyment, and are routinely subjected to violence and brutal training methods with weapons such as whips, bullhooks, and electric shock devices.
“Animal breeders, dealers, and traffickers will continue to engage in exploitative activities as long as they’re profitable,” Barylak says. Existing animal protection laws are insufficient as animal shows go nearly unchecked as they move between jurisdictions. The Big Cat Public Safety Act was recently introduced in Congress to protect big cats from further abuses. The proposed To End Suffering Of Animals In Traveling Acts bill would make it more difficult for false animal sanctuaries to thrive. The bill seeks to amend the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling performances.
Consider a Farm Animal Sanctuary
A 2020 Faunalytics study reveals that sanctuary tours can influence people to change their attitudes, beliefs, and even their diet in support of farmed animals. The study suggests that farm sanctuaries play a key role in the growing movement to shift toward a more sustainable and humane food system. Farm sanctuaries allow people to meet animals that have been categorized as farmed animals and are raised for human consumption. “What touches people is a safe but intimate encounter with a rescued animal. It’s a poignant reminder to be better stewards of nature and friends to other sentient species,” Dr. Schaul says.