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Monday, August 19, 2013

Sanctuary "Solutions"

I was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in" she said "I'll give you shelter from the storm".

~ Bob Dylan

I had a coworker once who used to intern at a big cat rescue in Texas.  She used to talk all the time about “the sanctuary”, getting misty-eyed with nostalgia.  Sure, the staff were psychos who treated the interns like dirt.  Sure, there was never enough money for even the basics.  Oh, and sure, the owner/operator insisted on going in with many of the cats, resulting in at least one mauling (after which the cat involved was killed).  But you got to work with big cats!  And it was better than a zoo… it was a SANCTUARY!

Click on any news article about zoos and scroll to the comments section.  Seek out the animal rights folks clamoring for an end to zoos.  They will generally offer one of two solutions – release the animals back into the wild (and we all know how well that will work out), or send them to “sanctuaries.”  To respond properly to the second suggestion, I feel that I must quote from The Princess Bride: 

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…”

Despite the noble-sounding title, defining a sanctuary can be incredibly difficult.  Some of them are just what the name would suggest – havens for animals that have been rescued from homes where they were mistreated, abused, neglected, or were otherwise not receiving proper care.  These are the good ones.  Others are simply animal hoarders who like to collect cats, primates, or other exotic pets.  Some are shady zoos with skilled marketers. Others are worse still.  They breed animals (something a true sanctuary would not do), sell them to high bidders (thus worsening, not alleviating the problem of unwanted exotic animals in America), and continue to hide behind the highfalutin banner of “sanctuary.”

For the sake of argument, we’ll discuss the good sanctuaries only.

It’s important that zoo critics realize that sanctuaries are not “the answer” to their objections about zoos.  From the way that many folks bandy it about on the internet, you would think that an animal in a sanctuary lived a life almost identical to that of its counterparts in the wild; infinitely preferable, at any rate, to life in a zoo.  Let me make this point clear: animals in sanctuaries do not necessarily have a better life than zoo animals; in fact, it is my experience that animals in conventional, accredited zoos are more likely to have larger, more natural enclosures, environmental enrichment, suitable veterinary care and nutrition, and more socially appropriate groups.  Zoos can be accredited by AZA, CAZA, BIAZA, or other organizations.  Sanctuaries answer to USDA alone (and USDA standards are not hard to meet).  It’s not that the sanctuary folks don’t care.  It’s just that the zoos tend to have more money/resources (being more established institutions) and have the advantage of being able to draw upon their colleagues at other zoos for experience and advice.  As a result, many sanctuaries open up to the public in order to support themselves… sound familiar?  A tiger in a sanctuary is still going to be living in a cage.  Sure, it may be cared for by folks who mean well and want to give it the best possible life, but the same could be said in the zoo.

Sanctuaries DO have a place, and it’s a very important one.  Many of the rescued pets and other exotic animals in need of homes are unsuitable for life at a zoo.  A capuchin that thinks it’s a person (diaper and all) will not be easy to integrate into a more naturalistic zoo troop.  Accredited zoos may be unwilling to take in these rescued exotics for reasons of their own.  A hybrid pet tiger (or one of uncertain origin) is useless for Species Survival Plans.  Every zoo spot taken up by confiscated American alligators is one that cannot be used by Cuban crocodiles, tomistoma, or other endangered crocodilians.  If, on the other hand, a zoo were to suddenly close its gates and, in accordance with the wishes of animal rights activists, send all of its animals to sanctuaries, the sanctuaries would fill up fast.  There would be no room, then, for the truly needy animals in search of good homes.  Euthanasia would be the likely result.

I realize that I probably come across as somewhat down on sanctuaries in this.  It is not my intent, and I really do salute the very honorable work that many of them do in caring for animals in the direst need.  It’s just that they need to be seen for what they are – facilities that keep animals in captivity, just like zoos or aquariums.  To pretend that they are anything else is dishonest.  To pretend that they are “the solution” to zoos is ridiculous.  


  1. As the director of a "true" sanctuary, I agree. We do the best we can to give animals that have not, and likely will not be accepted by a high quality zoo with a noble mission (not to be confused with a roadside "zoo" that poses as a sanctuary).

    We always face the issue of "enabling", giving failed private owners an "out" for their animals. Some sanctuaries require an owner to give up "all or nothing" to stop the cycle one by one.

    If zoos - given their many resources - were to begin taking in the numbers of animals in sanctuaries (over 1,000 tigers to begin with), that would surely encourage private owners even more! Look at the numbers of unwanted domestic animals dropped at shelters these days. If the well-funded zoos were available options, who wouldn't seek shelter for their animals there?

    What I believe the "good" zoos need to do is to focus on reviewing and defining their own missions, and motives. There are plenty of issues in even the finest accredited zoos related to using animals in less than noble ways. This rubs the educated public the "wrong way" and may be some of the reason they don't recognize that the best zoos can provide more to animals than most sanctuaries. If the well-funded zoos were available options, who wouldn't seek shelter for their animals there vs. a sanctuary?.

    At the end of the day, all the "good guys" really need to keep working to refine the definitions, characteristics, and qualities that help clarify our shared missions, and where our missions differ. Not just to define a "true sanctuary", but also a "zoo" that is focused on science, habitat conservation, and species survival.... NOT entertainment and profit.

  2. Well said and I would elaborate a bit. I have been an elephant keeper for over 30 years working in zoos. When AR groups sing the praises of Sanctuaries for Elephants they always point out that they have hundreds of acres for the elephants to roam where Zoos have much smaller exhibits. This is true but all that acreage does not mean that the elephants are going to use it. They are like most animals even though they are very intelligent are going to hang out by the barn or close by. That is where there keepers are and where the food is. They dont necessarily use the space they have. It is a proven fact that elephants, when they have all the food and water they need, will not walk miles and miles a day just for exercise. Elephants are smart...why walk if I don't have to...they are going to move around but not like elephants in the wild that need to look for food and water.

    Elephants as they age, need lots of care just like we do. That can be very expensive. It could require lots of medications, vet treatments, foot care, special diets etc etc.. And can you imagine the cost if an elephant has to be immobilized for any reason..These things are all challenges that zoos face daily too, just they usually have the resources or the contacts to handle the situations .

    All in all Sanctuaries are no different than Zoos, they are just marketed as nirvana!