animal sanctuary
Ethical Travel Resources

What is an animal sanctuary and how to recognize if it’s real?

Visiting an animal sanctuary is a type of activity that attracts many travelers. However, finding a place that is genuine may not be as easy as it seems.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a farm animal sanctuary in Canada. The truth is, this was something I wanted to do a long time ago.

I believe that visiting sanctuaries is an ethical and compassionate activity to do during a trip, especially for people who love animals. Not only is it something super different, but you can also get to know the wonderful work that these organizations do.

However, you have to be careful. Not all places that call themselves sanctuaries really are one.

In this post, I’ll explain a little about animal sanctuaries, how to recognize them and I’ll show you some certified sanctuaries around that you can find in different parts of the world.

What is an animal sanctuary?

An animal sanctuary provides shelter and home for animals in need to be protected for the rest of their lives. Their main purpose is that, the welfare of the animals and to make them feel safe.

Unlike animal shelters, which receive animals temporarily to be adopted or re-located, a sanctuary offers a permanent home for animals that have been abused, abandoned or raised in captivity and it is not possible to return them to their natural habitat.

It may be the case that a sanctuary has mixed characteristics and also helps animals to recover in order to re-locate them.

This term should not be confused with a wildlife refuge, which is a designated protected area where animals live in their natural habitat without human intervention and where activities such as hunting, fishing or being in close contact with the animal are prohibited.

In addition to caring for animals, another very important mission of sanctuaries is to educate the public. Through talks and guided tours, you can hear the stories of how the animals have arrived and what they have suffered. This helps to raise awareness among the visitors.

Many of these animals have been victims of the tourism industry, indiscriminate hunting, cruelty on factory farms or have lost their home due to the destruction of the ecosystem.

With the raise of eco-tourism many companies have seen an opportunity to change their approach. These places offer activities with animals and pose as sanctuaries when in fact they are not.

How to recognize a genuine animal sanctuary?

For a real animal sanctuary, the most important thing is the welfare of displaced, exploited or abandoned animals.

Therefore, the people who work there will try to avoid situations that can affect the tranquility of their residents.

It is very likely to have restricted visits. Contact with animals may also be minimal or non-existent in the case of wild animals.

A true sanctuary should not leave you alone to wander around the place without supervision. Guides and volunteers are important as they will ensure safety and also their mission is to educate people. Thanks to their work we can learn about the heartbreaking life stories of these animals and how they rescued them.

There are some so-called “sanctuaries” or “shelters” for animals, but they allow people to take photos with a clearly sedated and chained tiger. Other places allow elephant rides or sell meat products when they say they are rescuing farm animals.

If you come across a place that calls itself a sanctuary but their actions do not ensure the welfare of the animals, then that is a red flag.

Things a reputable sanctuary would never do

  • Buy animals
  • Sell animals
  • Trade animals
  • Breed animals to keep in captivity
  • Conduct animal testing
  • Sell animal parts or products (skins, meats, eggs, etc.)
  • Drug animals to be calmed for tourists
  • Train animals to perform tricks or so that people can get close to them,
  • Mistreat animals,
  • Have caged or chained animals,
  • Promote activities with humans,
  • Let people come into contact with animals that are candidates to be returned to their habitat,
  • Allow hunting or fishing on their premises.

Important points to check about an animal sanctuary

Some of these points are very important to consider in order to make an informed decision.

The size of facilities and accommodation for animals

Each animal has a specific requirement. Some will need more space than others, but this point is very important for the welfare of the animal and should be adapted to make them feel comfortable.

Space should be large enough for residents to run, rest, climb and eat without limitations or discomfort.

Do animals have enough space to live normally?

In addition, a genuine sanctuary will do their best to make the environment as close as possible to the natural habitat of their residents. The animals should be able to interact with each other with compatible companions and minimal human interaction.

Animals must have multiple resources that promote physical and emotional stimulation. They should not feel bored or stressed.

Origin of animals

The residents of the sanctuary should not be for any reason animals that the place has bred in captivity, purchased or taken from the wild.

Most of the residents in a sanctuary are animals that have been rescued from situations with great suffering. Many people acquire animals that they then discard and abandon, others have been subject to horrific abuse in circuses, laboratories or farms.

Sanctuaries perform an invaluable mission by giving them a second chance.

A sanctuary should be able to give you clear information and answer your questions. If they don’t want to confirm how their animals got there, or if you see the presence of many young animals all the time it’s not a good sign.

Interaction with visitors

An animal sanctuary will not allow you to approach, touch, hug or take selfies with a wild animal. Especially if the animals will be returned to their habitat.

All of these activities are extremely stressful for animals and dangerous to humans. Any accident could happen. In many cases, the only way for these animals to be so calmed is because they are drugged or have been brutally abused to let tourists touch them.

Many of these sites are actually petting zoos or prisons in disguise. Their main purpose is to make a profit and entertain tourists instead of taking care of the animals.

Farm animal sanctuaries are a bit different, it is allowed to approach the animals and that actually is a good thing.

Getting close to farm animals creates a positive experience for visitors. This helps them feel closer to them and to see them as sentient beings. But likewise, the contact is still monitored. Animals should not be startled or cause stressful situations. A guide should always be present to monitor the interactions.

Just make sure that it is a true sanctuary for farm animals and not a petting zoo for economic purposes. In those places, they just breed animals for visitors or kids to play but the animals will eventually be taken to an abattoir. The place should be able to give clear answers about the origin of the animals and whether the “sanctuary” is their permanent home.

In all cases, visits are minimal and in many places, it is only allowed upon prior authorization or on certain days or times.

Certifications by a recognized organization

Check if the site has any kind of certification. The main organizations that offer accreditations for animal sanctuaries are the Global Federation of Animal Shrines (GFAS) and the American Sanctuary Association.

Accredited sanctuaries go through a very rigorous process in which they are assessed regarding having the right physical space, resources and also that they carry out the necessary procedures to provide an adequate quality of life according to the type of animal they have.

However, some sanctuaries can also be genuine even if they are not accredited. It may be the case that some are not yet accredited but are working on that goal.

Animal Sanctuaries and Certified Shelters Around the World

Well, since I’ve shared all the things that you have to take into account to visit an animal sanctuary I want to show you some places. These sanctuaries and wildlife centers are already certified by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries.

Many of them also have volunteer programs so in case you have enough travel time it’s a very rewarding thing to do.

Africa

Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center operates the world’s only sanctuary for Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can one day return to the wild.

The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary aims to provide shelter for life for orphaned and mistreated chimpanzees in West and Central Africa. Many are confiscated for tight and unnatural living conditions, and many arrive with horrific injuries suffered by abuse at the hands of humans. In Sweetwaters, they have a chance to start over.

Asia

Yayasan IAR Indonesia manages not only a rescue center for orangutans but also a facility that is the largest rescue and rehabilitation center for macaques in Java and the world’s largest center for slow lorises. YIARI makes valuable contributions to the efforts of habitat protection, reforestation and sustainability in Indonesia.

They are on a mission to end the breeding of bears for bile in Vietnam and China. They also provide an animal sanctuary for rescued bears and fight to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity. In addition, they also carry out work to end the trade in dogs and cats for food in China and improve the welfare of pets.

Central America

ARCAS is a Guatemalan NGO committed to preserving wildlife and its habitat. They originally created a rescue center in the Peten region to care for and rehabilitate wild animals confiscated from smugglers in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

ARCAS has now opened additional program areas on the Pacific coast of Guatemala and the altiplano, branching out into other very necessary activities including marine turtle conservation, protected areas management, environmental education, ecotourism, and reforestation.

Rescate Animal is a wildlife rehabilitation facility that was founded in 1995 and is based on 36 acres of natural forest in Alajuela province, Costa Rica. They have two release sites in Golfito and the Nicoya Peninsula. The mission of Rescate Animal is to protect and restore the biodiversity of the country through the rehabilitation of wildlife and the breeding and reintroduction of endangered species.

Europe

Goodheart Animal Sanctuaries is committed to providing a safe home and excellent individual care for as many farm animals as possible. They also work on educating the public about the plight of farm animals so that people can make more compassionate decisions.

North America

Woodstock Farm Sanctuary envisions a peaceful world rooted in respect and justice for all living things.

They rescue farm animals and give them care and shelter. They connect animals with people to promote veganism and advocate for animal rights in partnership with other social justice movements.

A sanctuary for chimpanzees, monkeys and farm animals with past lives in biomedical research, zoos, and other situations. Their mission includes sanctuary, education, and conservation

The Elephant Sanctuary operates on 2,700 acres in central Tennessee. They are the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically around the needs of Asian and African elephants retired from the show and exhibition business.


I hope that this post has been helpful in case you want to visit an animal sanctuary and to not fall into a tourist trap. Many companies take advantage of compassionate people who care about animals.

Furthermore, always use your instinct. If a place has a bad vibe and the animals do not look happy, or the organizers of the sanctuary do not want to give you clear answers, it’s very likely that they are hiding something.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend visiting a real sanctuary. It is an amazing experience that will add something very rewarding for your trip.

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