Many wild animal sanctuaries and rescue centres are crucial components of wild animal rescues. Apart from providing housing opportunities, they can act as education centres: teaching the public about the animals and their species-specific needs, the reasons why they were in need of help, and raising awareness of both welfare and conservation issues. In this article the terms 'sanctuary' and 'rescue centre' are used interchangeably.
While many wild animal sanctuaries are dedicated to the welfare and conservation of animals, they are not all on par with each other, and some may fall short in putting the animals’ welfare first. This may be due to a lack of necessary resources and expertise to provide adequate shelter, nutrition, and medical care, leading to subpar living conditions for the animals they house. There have also been cases where so-called sanctuaries have been exposed as fronts for harmful, and sometimes illegal, activities such as commercial breeding and trading. Additional concerns may rise when facilities prioritise entertainment value and profit over animal welfare.
Therefore, it is important to be mindful of the way sanctuaries operate, to avoid unknowingly supporting harmful activities and instead support those that genuinely contribute to welfare and conservation. There are some indicators to keep in mind when trying to assess the legitimacy of a sanctuary.
Animal welfare as a priority
In a legitimate wild animal sanctuary, animal welfare should always be the priority. Animals should be housed in a manner that respects their species-specific needs based on the Five Domains model, and enclosures should be designed in a way that best mimics their natural environment with the opportunity to withdraw from other animals and people (visitors). The premises of the sanctuary and the enclosures within should be well-constructed and regularly maintained to prevent animal injury, animal escape, and unregulated access by the public. Quarantine and isolation procedures should be in place for new and sick or injured animals, to protect the individual animal as well as the population. The sanctuary should not take in more animals than it is equipped for, as overcrowding and lack of resources are detrimental to welfare. The sanctuary should work with experienced veterinarians that regularly assess the animals’ health, and that can carry out routine, preventative, and emergency medical treatment. Sanctuary staff should receive regular training to be able to identify welfare indicators of the species they care for. Direct interaction between humans and animals should be strictly limited to care and trust-building activities by the caretakers. Animals should not be forced to perform unnatural behaviours for entertainment, including feeding demonstrations, feeding of animals by visitors, or any hands-on contact or 'selfie-opportunities'. Ethical euthanasia should be included in the sanctuary’s welfare policies.
Transparency, high standards, and record-keeping
A legitimate sanctuary should be run as a non-profit and should have a thorough documentation as well as record-keeping system in place and be transparent about their fundraising processes. Sanctuaries should hold the necessary legal permits, such as operation licenses, animal-keeping permits, building permits, waste disposal permits, employment licences, etc. A sanctuary should maintain and regularly update its policies and standards, and staff should be able to provide answers to questions about the practices of the sanctuary. Sanctuaries should keep up to date with internationally recognised and science-based husbandry standards for each animal species they keep, and, if resources allow, seek membership or accreditation from reputable organisations such as the European Alliance of Rescue centres and Sanctuaries (EARS) or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). The sanctuary should keep up-to-date records of their animals, including those that have been transferred to other facilities, released to the wild, or passed away. Animals in the sanctuary should be individually identifiable through microchipping or other suitable welfare-friendly methods.
Sanctuaries should not engage in breeding unless it is carried out under a legitimate scientific programme for reintroduction or repopulation into the wild. Outside of the scope of official conservation breeding programmes and/or wildlife release projects, animals arriving in a sanctuary should receive species-suitable contraceptive treatment in a manner that best protects their welfare. Any offspring born to animals that are already pregnant when they arrive in the sanctuary, must remain with their mother, unless it is determined that they should be separated due to welfare concerns. The hand-rearing of offspring should be a last resort and needs to follow strict species-specific protocols ensuring the animal’s health and minimising negative psychological impact as much as possible.
Ethical acquisition, relocation and disposal of animals
Wild animal sanctuaries should exist to help animals in need, not to create new, entertainment and/or profit driven facilities. Animals in a sanctuary should be there because they were in need of housing. They should be acquired in a manner that complies with international and national legislation and the sanctuary should not pay to or be paid to acquire the animal. Animals should not be transferred, unless it is deemed necessary for ensuring a better quality of life or for maintaining rescue capacity without diminishing their welfare. Sanctuaries should be able to provide space for the animal for its entire lifespan. Sanctuaries should never participate in the commercial trade of live animals or their parts or derivatives. Dead animals should be disposed of according to national and/or regional legislation. If an animal is eligible for reintroduction to the wild, sanctuaries should prioritise the reintroduction, possibly by transfer to a legitimate rehabilitation programme.
The role of the public and education
While sanctuaries may play an important role in education and raising awareness, the role of the public should never be placed above animal welfare. The objective of a legitimate sanctuary is not to provide entertainment to the public. The sanctuary should maintain distance between the animals and visitors and should not provide opportunities for direct contact, as this may be harmful to animal welfare and may promote harmful behaviour. If there are animals in the sanctuary that are part of reintroduction/rehabilitation programmes, it is crucial that systems are in place to limit interaction with both the public and the caretakers. Any labelling of the animal enclosures should be accurate and up to date. If resources are available, the sanctuary should participate in scientific studies carried out by licensed institutions. The staff should be knowledgeable about the species held in the sanctuary and should be able to answer general public queries with accurate information.
Health and safety
The health and safety of humans and animals should be a top concern for legitimate sanctuaries. Equipment, including first-aid materials and safety devices, should be available for emergencies for both animals and humans. Sanctuary staff should be appropriately trained in the use of available equipment. Plans should be in place, in case it is necessary to evacuate visitors, staff members and/or animals, e.g. in the event of an animal escape.
Environmental concerns and waste
A legitimate sanctuary should be aware of its possible impact on the environment and climate and implement policies to minimise these effects.
Good to remember
Frequent deaths of animals in a wild animal sanctuary can, but do not have to be an indication of bad practices. Animals that are housed in a sanctuary are often rescued from situations that were detrimental to their health and welfare. As a result, they may already be sick or suffering from long-term health complications when they arrive in the sanctuary. Therefore, sanctuaries may experience high rates of animal illnesses and deaths. Also, sanctuaries with a high number of geriatric animals may experience periods of more frequent deaths. Keeping up to date records, maintaining regular veterinary inspections and transparency about animal conditions are positive indicators.
FOUR PAWS sanctuaries
At present, FOUR PAWS runs eleven sanctuaries and partner projects for rescued bears, big cats and other wild animal species in Europe, Asia, and South Africa. Click here to find out what FOUR PAWS does to ensure that it maintains the highest possible standards for the animals under our care.