An animal sanctuary is a facility that rescues injured, confiscated, orphaned or abandoned animals and provides them with short or long-term refuge and, in some cases, rehabilitation. Sanctuaries appeal to some of our best instincts – the desire to protect and nurture, to make good some of the damage and destruction being wreaked on the world’s habitats. Throughout the world there are many sanctuary projects that are doing invaluable work, safeguarding and protecting local wildlife.
Unfortunately, as in so many areas of life, there are also people who are more than happy to take advantage of our better instincts for their own financial gain by operating establishments that fall short of the standards you would expect to find at a sanctuary. These same people are often very clever in the way that they advertise themselves and the work that they do, portraying themselves in a positive, often very misleading, light.
So how then can you tell whether you are actually helping or instead unwittingly contributing to the further exploitation of the animals that you care so much about?
Well, it is not always easy, but there are some things to look out for.
The fact that an organization describes itself as a sanctuary is not always enough. One of the worst cases in recent years of a bogus sanctuary was in Thailand where a so-called tiger sanctuary was closed down following evidence of the abuse and exploitation of the tigers which went on behind the scenes. This example, although extreme, gives us one of the first indications that you may not be dealing with an organization that always has the best interests of its charges at heart. It encouraged the petting and cuddling of the animals, which was only possible due to the fact that they were heavily sedated and mistreated by their carers into a state of submission.
According to the ABTA Guidelines, there should never be any direct physical contact between the public and wild animals in a sanctuary. ABTA’s research, which is based on a wide range of expert opinion gathered from industry, academia and NGOs, has found that, even when they have to be sedated to allow direct contact, wild creatures will almost certainly find this contact extremely stressful. Even staff should restrict their contact with animals to the minimum aside from veterinary care, or for orphaned animals where there is no other option. If you observe a handler that appears to be more hands on than necessary, you have a right to ask why.
There are other practices too, which set apart responsibly managed animal sanctuaries from those with poorer standards of animal care.
ABTA has produced guidelines, in collaboration with the charity Born Free Foundation, on how to meet the welfare needs of specific species. We encourage ABTA members to follow these guidelines when choosing projects for their customers to visit or work in. You can read more information about these guidelines here. They include, amongst other things, ensuring that the animals have easy access to food and water, that their environment is safe and clean, and that they have the ability to seek refuge (i.e. get away from us and other animals whenever they want to). Genuine animal sanctuaries that put the welfare of the animals first should be able to comply with these guidelines.
When visiting a sanctuary, it is also a good idea to ask detailed questions as to where the animals have come from, and whether they have really been rescued. In our view, genuine animal sanctuaries should not be indulging in breeding programs and they should definitely not be involved in the buying or selling of the animals.
This is a key point: It is important to consider how a sanctuary is being financed. Before booking a visit to a sanctuary, we recommend that you do your research to find out how it is financed. If it is not clear how, then this should ring some alarm bells. If a sanctuary has a healthy spread of income streams – including charitable donations, conservation organisations and other credible endorsements – then this is usually a good indicator that they are not reliant on visitor receipts and therefore are not under pressure to increase the number of animals in their care if their space and facilities don’t allow it.
Lastly, look out for the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) symbol. They are an organization that thoroughly vets their members before letting them join and their guidelines are compatible with ABTA’s standards. Any sanctuary that achieves GFAS status will have to abide by a set of minimum standards, which you can read here.
By following these easy steps, you will be able to tell the genuine sanctuaries apart from those places that are misrepresenting what they do, giving you peace of mind that your visit really is helping support the animals you care so much about.
*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by ABTA – The Travel Association, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc. Any cited research is sourced by ABTA – The Travel Association and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.