Is it Ethical to Visit Animals in Wildlife Sanctuaries?

How should you interact, if at all, with animals on your travels? Jennifer Pulling from Animals Worldwide shares the pros and cons of visiting captive wildlife.

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Gorilla looking pensive Photo © Getty Images / Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography

Wild animals should ideally only live in their natural environment but, as we know, biodiversity loss, environmental change and habitat destruction are putting many at dire risk. The need for facilities to care for these animal victims is crucial. In some cases, however, the lines are blurred between animal entertainment and animal rescue; it's up to the responsible traveler to support only those sanctuaries that put the welfare of animals at the forefront of all they do.

Why do animals end up in sanctuaries?

Most often, animals end up in sanctuaries after having been rescued from captivity or abandonment. Fred Tomalin, Head of Development at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi, says: “Some have been orphaned by the bushmeat trade, some have been injured or caught in areas of human-wildlife conflict. Our center provides refuge and rehabilitation for any wild animal facing suffering or danger.”

Another organization helping animals is Pod Volunteer, a non-profit that has been arranging ‘ethical volunteering opportunities’ since 2001. According to its volunteer specialist, Gemma Lay, animals also need to be rescued from abuse at the hands of humans. “[For example], the Elephant Care Sanctuary in Thailand gives refuge to domesticated elephants that arrive with severe health problems, bearing scars of previous abuse.

Ask questions before you visit

Research is vital. Find out what the long-term aims of the sanctuary are. Why does it exist? Where have the animals come from? How does the sanctuary uphold the values of responsible tourism? How does it use resources to invest in its animal care? Read visitors’ reviews online to get a sense of the place before you visit.

Find out whether the sanctuary works with animal welfare charities such as Born Free or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. An award from these or similar organizations reflects a high standard of animal care.

Follow this checklist from World Animal Protection to ensure you're visiting a genuine wildlife sanctuary that prioritizes animal welfare. An ethically run wildlife sanctuary: 

  • Has the best interests of the animals at the heart of everything it does
  • Exists to address specific problems. Whether they provide a new home for animals from inhumane or cruel, captive environments, rescue injured animals from the wild, or rehabilitate animals for release, there is always a reason for wild animals to be in a genuine sanctuary
  • Does not take animals from the wild unless they are injured and it is in their best interests to be moved to a sanctuary
  • Never uses wild animals for entertainment. If you can ride, touch or take a selfie with a wild animal, or see it perform tricks, you are not at a genuine sanctuary.

Does the sanctuary provide entertainment or enrichment?

The Texas-based Bat World Sanctuary is not open for public tours. "Many of our bats have lived terrible lives before coming to us," a spokesperson for the center explains. "Being closed to the public allows the bats the security and privacy they need to recuperate from their previous existence." Visitors can watch the bats on TV screens, but not interact with them in person.

In contrast, many wildlife parks offer close encounters with animals including feeding and holding them. Is that a special experience for the animals, or the humans who visit? Others are effectively moneymaking exercises. These projects may take wild animals illegally and separate babies from their mothers in order to offer 'cute animals' for volunteer and tourist interaction.

If a lion or tiger cub is to be released into the wild, it should have minimal contact with humans. Beware the facility that claims the first but offers the second.

Pod Volunteer’s Gemma Lay reminds us that every animal is different, and every species needs a different type of care. “The teams [we send] work closely with a veterinary team that ensures all aspects of the animals' wellbeing are considered. Volunteers are involved in creating interactive enrichments for the animals to encourage their natural behaviors and provide mental stimulation.” The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre places a high priority on housing animals in species-appropriate enclosures. This means not keeping social species on their own unless for medical reasons, and making sure the animals have access to environments that correspond to their natural habitats. “Our crocodiles have water to bathe in, our primates have plenty of trees to climb, and our servals have long grass in which to hide,” says Tomalin.

Red flags to look out for

Watch out for cramped pens, concrete floors and chainlink fences. The habitat provided by the sanctuary should mimic the animals’ natural environment as much as possible. Beware the sanctuary that allows visitors to touch or hold the animals. No reputable wildlife animal sanctuary allows this kind of interaction.

Visitors to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, for example, must observe its ‘hands-off’ policy, respecting the animals’ natural behaviors and environments. Irresponsible sanctuaries encourage selfies with animals. It’s disruptive and frightening for them, endangering both the animals and their human visitors.

What should you do if you witness abuse?

Capture evidence with photographs and videos. Share on review websites such as TripAdvisor and on social media. No matter how big or small the animals, refuse animal tourism that is purely for human entertainment.

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