Wild animal sanctuaries exist to provide exceptional lifetime care to wild and exotic animals who were orphaned or injured in the wild, rescued from inhumane or illegal conditions in captivity, or are no longer wanted by someone who lost interest in an exotic pet. Visiting a sanctuary can be a rewarding and inspiring experience. It’s heart-warming to learn about the individual animals and the often-sad situations that they endured for years and to see how they have blossomed, healed, and thrived after being relocated to a place where dedicated caretakers address their unique and challenging needs.
Safe havens that are dedicated to nurturing wild animals who were abused, neglected, or suffer from chronic health problems deserve support, but beware of self-described sanctuaries or rescue facilities that are not true sanctuaries. Reputable sanctuaries adhere to a strict code of ethics that prohibits:
- Breeding, buying, or selling animals or animal parts
- Public contact with animals
- Exhibiting animals off-site
- Keeping animals in crowded, outdated, inhumane, or unsafe conditions
One way to determine if a sanctuary is on the up-and-up is to check if it is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). GFAS only accredits facilities that provide superior care, have knowledgeable and experienced employees, and are fiscally responsible.
Many facilities call themselves a “sanctuary” or “refuge” but violate the guiding principles of legitimate sanctuaries. These phony or pseudo-sanctuaries are more interested in profits than saving animals and solving problems and may actually be mistreating animals in the process. What’s especially troubling about phony sanctuaries is that—through deceptive marketing—they prey upon the benevolent spirit of people who want to contribute to the rescue and care of wildlife in need.
A facility that buys animals to rescue them fuels the exotic animal trade—the very industry that created a need for so many wild animal sanctuaries in the first place. Just as an animal shelter for domestic pets would not buy puppies from a puppy mill to “save” them, a legitimate sanctuary does not buy wild animals.
No responsible sanctuary makes a bad situation worse by breeding animals. Phony sanctuaries often breed animals and use animals for various entertainment purposes while making misleading claims about the facility’s mission in an effort to attract visitors and obtain donations from people concerned about wildlife.
Animal care is a poorly regulated industry, so do some homework before visiting any wild animal facility that purports to rescue and provide refuge to animals. Look at the facility’s website and social media pages. It doesn’t matter how popular they are or how many great reviews are posted or how many celebrity endorsements they have—if you see that the facility offers animal encounters and allows visitors to pet, play with, ride, and otherwise handle wild animals, your research is over because this is the surest and most common indication of an illegitimate sanctuary. These practices are not only dangerous for the public, they’re harmful to the animals. In the event that a wild animal bites or scratches someone during an encounter, the animal may be placed in quarantine for disease observation or even euthanized. In some cases, people can spread diseases to animals. For example, the viruses that cause common cold sores and measles in humans can be deadly to several species of primates.
If baby animals are used for public handling, it likely means that the facility is breeding animals. Regardless of where the babies were born, they are removed from their mothers within days of birth and discarded when they quickly grow too large to be held and petted by the public. These facilities are often vague or evasive about where their animals come from and where they end up.
Pseudo-sanctuaries that post photos of visitors interacting with wild animals also send a dangerous message by falsely depicting unpredictable and potentially dangerous wildlife as trained, docile pets. That damaging imagery is what inspires many people to acquire exotic pets in the first place.
A facility that advertises that it can supply ambassador animals for special events, such as fairs, festivals, birthday parties, weddings, and company picnics is not a sanctuary. Transport, prolonged confinement in portable cages, and exhibition at crowded, noisy venues is stressful to wild animals. Similarly, no true sanctuary would put on shows featuring wild animals performing circus tricks.
Today’s savvy travelers recognize that wild animals should be housed in natural habitat enclosures. Avoid places where photos depict crowded conditions or dilapidated barren cages on concrete. A sanctuary operator may have the best of intentions, but they are doing more harm than good if they take in animals without having the necessary resources. Some sanctuaries whose animal acquisitions exceeded the space, staffing, and funding they had to provide proper care have been forced to close, creating a burden for other rescue operations. While it may seem instinctual to visit and financially support a sanctuary that is constantly struggling, keep in mind that a facility that suffers from poor management is unlikely to change unless the management changes—no matter how many resources are made available.
A responsible sanctuary educates the public about the perils wild animals face in captivity and in the wild without subjecting animals to harmful conditions. Be sure a wild animal sanctuary you decide to visit is truly dedicated to giving animals in need the very best that captivity can offer and is not exploiting them—and you—for monetary gain.
Alex, a tiger who had been abandoned in a small, filthy cage with no food or water in Kansas, now lives at the GFAS-accredited Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, where he enjoys lounging in the tall grass. The sanctuary offers prescheduled guided tours once a month. Photographer: JP Bonnelly
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