Do some so-called sanctuaries cause more damage than good?

One of the main attractions when on holiday can be learning more about the indigenous, exotic wildlife. There is often a wide choice of “sanctuaries” to visit. How do you ensure that you have made an animal friendly decision and are supporting a genuine sanctuary, rather than a thinly disguised holding facility, making money out of wildlife. The marketing can be misleading so it pays to carry out your research before you visit.

Animal sanctuaries are facilities where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives. While keeping wildlife in captivity is not the best solution, sometimes it is the only way to offer them a second chance at a decent life after being forcibly taken from the wild or rescued from a life of exploitation. There are many reputable sanctuaries working to provide the best possible care for these animals. They have recognised levels of animal welfare and often have additional conservation and campaigning activities running alongside the sanctuary.

What you should know

It can be difficult to identify a sanctuary that is ethical, responsible and sustainable. Many will claim to be a place of sanctuary for rescued, abandoned and injured wildlife. It may even be championed by the national tourist board. However, it is often through reports from travellers that concerns about practices are raised, leading to animal welfare charities carrying out investigations.

Genuine sanctuaries will rescue, rehabilitate and release animals back to the wild where possible. Otherwise, they will provide animals with quality lifetime care. Where wild animals are kept captive for exhibition to the public, reputable sanctuaries should apply the five freedoms. The five freedoms of acceptable animal welfare standards are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst – access to fresh water and a balanced diet representative of that in the wild
  • Freedom from discomfort – a living environment that provides shelter, privacy, mental and physical stimulation
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease – provisions in place to minimise the risk of injury, illness, disease or infection
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour – suitable facilities and enough space to permit natural behaviours
  • Freedom from fear and distress – precautions in place to minimise any likelihood of suffering, stress or distress

It should also be taken into account that animals have evolved to thrive in a natural environment, and therefore additional species-specific considerations may be required to ensure the artificial environment meets the needs of the animal.

Animals in captivity are known to show typical stress behaviour if they feel uncomfortable with their surroundings. This is demonstrated through pacing, rocking, swaying, bar-licking and other compulsive behaviours which may arise as a result of captive environments that compromise (or have once compromised) an animal’s welfare.

A reputable sanctuary will ensure that their animals are not made to perform for visitors. At no time should you be encouraged to have direct contact with a wild animal such as stroking, petting or forced interaction with humans. A human touching or stoking an animal is completely unnatural for the animal and can cause it severe distress, placing both the animal’s and human’s life in danger. Contact with animals can also have disease implications for both humans and animals alike.

Breeding for captivity should not happen in a sanctuary and this could lead to young animals being sent to unregulated zoos and wildlife farms. Animals should not be chained up and where appropriate, they should be placed in large enclosures within a social group suitable to their species.

It is always possible to research a sanctuary before you visit it using online resources like this website. Some sanctuaries are funded by international wildlife charities and will clearly display signs to highlight this support. They may also be members of internationally recognised affiliations such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

What you can do

  • Many overseas sanctuaries receive funding from UK based charities or NGOs. If they claim to receive support from a UK wildlife charity, contact the charity before you go to make sure and find out more, or visit the charity’s website.
  • Each country usually has its own guidelines for animal sanctuaries. Ask to see confirmation of any recognised accreditations or memberships.
  • If you visit a sanctuary and witness behaviour or treatment of the animals that you are unhappy with, voice your concerns immediately to the sanctuary owners, local government, tour operator and any regulatory body and/or charity that the sanctuary claims affiliation with.
  • Many sanctuaries will often ask for a donation rather than an entrance fee for visitors. A reputable sanctuary will be happy to explain to you exactly how your donation will directly benefit the animals.
  • Before booking a trip to a sanctuary, it is worth asking your tour operator, other travellers and local people more about the facilities.

Where does this occur?

Animal sanctuaries exist all over the world. They are particularly common throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Australia and the Pacific Islands, Europe, United States and Canada.

Links to organisations for further information

  • Care for the Wild International