Animal sanctuaries: 5 ways to tell the good from the bad

As we move towards a sense of normality, many of us will be looking for fun ways to  fill our days during the summer months. A classic day trip idea may be to visit your local zoo or  animal sanctuary. Sanctuaries can provide a safe home for animals  who have been abused and/or taken from their wild environments. But are all sanctuaries a force for good?

Image Credit: Valeriia Miller

Sanctuaries can also provide a good opportunity for people to learn about both local and exotic wildlife and what we can do to help our wild animal populations. 

The difference between sanctuaries and zoos is that sanctuaries promise to take in and care for any animals that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and to keep them for life. Meanwhile, Zoos buy, sell, trade, borrow, loan out, and breed animals.

 Often, sanctuaries host more unusual species and  may offer experiences that are not available at zoos. This doesn’t mean that all sanctuaries are good, though. So, how can you tell a good sanctuary from a bad one?

It is more difficult than you might think. Some seemingly harmless activities can actually be very detrimental to a sanctuary’s inhabitants, or even for  the species as a whole. So, I’ve compiled a list of my top five things  to look out for when looking for a good sanctuary.

It is more difficult than you might think. Some seemingly harmless activities can actually be very detrimental to a sanctuary’s inhabitants, or even for the species as a whole. So, I’ve compiled a list of my top five things to look out for when looking for a good sanctuary.

1. Does the sanctuary allow guests to interact with the animals?

This is a common occurrence which is often overlooked by guests. Sanctuaries should be providing as natural conditions as possible for their animals, and this includes minimal contact and interaction with humans. This interaction can occur through feeding and petting experiences with non-domesticated species.  

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like an issue. Animals need to be fed, right? Of course they do, but this should not be done by guests and only by sanctuary staff. Allowing guests to interact with wild animals promotes the notion of keeping wild animals as pets, which is extremely unethical and is often how animals end up in sanctuaries in the first place. 

Additionally, some animals, such as sloths, have been known to die from stress induced by human interaction in sanctuaries. So, if an institution is offering interactive experiences, it may be best to avoid a visit. 

2. How are the animals kept? What kinds of enrichment are they offered?

Enrichment refers to the way the enclosure is designed to keep animals physically and psychologically stimulated, as they would be in the wild. Appropriate enrichment varies depending on the species, but typically includes pools, climbing structures, real plants, and foraging puzzles (for example, providing foods which require processing, like nuts).

An easy way to tell if an animal is receiving proper enrichment is to look for signs of boredom and stress.  Well-worn pacing paths around the perimeter of the enclosure can be a sign of boredom, and self-mutilating behaviours can be a sure sign of stress, such as excessive scratching or biting. 

If you see animals showing signs of stress and boredom, you should report it to the keepers and, if necessary, to a wider body like PETA so that something can be done about it.

Sanctuaries should provide a stress-free environment for their animals, and this includes an enclosure which replicates their natural habitat as much as possible. The main enclosures should not have concrete floors, as this can cause health issues including disease transmission and muscle damage. 

Instead, they should opt for what is known as “bioflooring” which essentially means it is made of natural materials, like wood mulch. The enclosure should also offer spaces for animals to be out of sight from guests if they want to be. 

Image credit: Alexas Fotos

3. Do they breed animals?

Good sanctuaries should not breed animals; their purpose is to provide a home for animals that need one. By breeding their animals, they would increase the captive animal population, which only benefits themselves. Additionally, a breeding program would deplete resources and take up space in the sanctuary unnecessarily. Though zoos may have successful and useful breeding programs, they have no place in a sanctuary environment. 

4. Are they a non-profit organisation?

Many animals housed in sanctuaries have been previously exploited for profit. Sanctuaries should only be working to care for their animals and educate the public, so profit should not be at the forefront of their work. The quickest way to tell if a sanctuary is non-profit is to check their website.

5. What message are they promoting?

A good sanctuary will educate visiting guests on the issues facing wild animals, and what we can do to help them. They may offer opportunities to donate to specific causes, or the options to sponsor the animals in their care, to pay for their upkeep and to the species in the wild.

They should also promote activity that prevents animals from ending up in sanctuaries, such as fighting against the exotic pet trade. Social media is a great place to scope out a sanctuary’s message before deciding to visit. Photos of guests holding animals are a sure sign that a sanctuary might not be doing the best for the animals in their care. 

Overall, we need to support sanctuaries in their work to provide safe homes for animals who need one. But supporting sanctuaries with bad practice is counterproductive in the fight against animal abuse. Hopefully, you can now make a more informed decision about which sanctuaries you choose to support in the future.


Image Credits: Christopher Carson on Unsplash

About the author: Megan Huntley is a Social Media Assistant for WILD. She is also an Environmental Geography student at the University of York and can be found at @megs_huntley on Instagram.  

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