Animal Sanctuaries

Tourists on an elephant ride in Sri Lanka as the guide carries a bullhook. Both practices are red flags for visitors looking for an animal sanctuary that’s ethical.

From cat cafes to diving with Great White sharks, animal tourism can be found all over the world. For people who care about animals and want to support rescue efforts, sanctuaries and wildlife rescues may seem like appealing and compassionate alternatives to zoos. The goal of sanctuaries should be to rescue, rehabilitate and release as many animals as possible, but unfortunately this is rarely the case. Since sanctuaries and rescue centers aren’t regulated in developing countries, many companies intentionally try to come off as ethical to lure well-intentioned tourists to their parks. From a short visit, It can be difficult for visitors to discover that most of these places actually engage in neglectful, abusive, and harmful practices. Here are some steps you can take to find a place that’s actually for the animals.

No Touch Policies

The general rule is that if you can hug, ride, touch, or take a selfie with a wild animal it is not legitimate. If a “sanctuary” offers elephant rides or photos with cubs in your lap, you can immediately tell that the welfare of the animal is not their priority. When cubs grow up and become too unpredictable to interact with tourists, they are sometimes sold to private hunting agencies where their habituation to humans makes hunting them much easier than wild ones. If not sold, they are drugged so they can be more easily controlled. Reputable organizations will have a minimal or no-contact approach to their wildlife.

No Tricks or Training

Wild animals aren’t obedient, and usually can’t be trained unless there is negative reinforcement- which means whips, shackles, food deprivation or other questionable methods. Shows offering elephant painting may seem harmless- but getting an elephant to perform that act requires extremely intensive training to get the animal to obey. The training process is called the ‘phajaan’ or ‘crush’, where the baby is taken from its mother and roped into a small bamboo cage with sharp bamboo in the side so it cant move. It is beaten, stabbed with the sharp bamboo, starved, dehydrated, and sleep-deprived until it submits to the captor’s demands.

Handlers use a training process called ‘phajaan’ to “break” the elephants’ spirit and make them submissive to their owners. About half the baby elephants that endure this cruel process die.

Living Conditions

Real sanctuaries allow animals to live in as close to their natural environment as possible. This means giving them the choice of when and how to interact with humans – and letting them hide whenever they want. Cramped pens with concrete floors and chain-link fences are red flags.

Check For Accreditation

Check whether a sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries before deciding to visit. They are an accrediting organization that requires member sanctuaries to observe a strict code of ethics and meet animal-welfare standards. Sanctuaries accredited by GFAS never breed or sell animals, and they allow rescued exotic animals to live out the rest of their lives in peaceful, spacious, natural habitats with members of their own species.


Breeding wild animals in captivity adds to the problem of unwanted animals, which sanctuaries were created to solve. A problem with unethical facilities which allow visitors to interact with cubs and other larger animals, is that they need to breed or buy a constant supply to keep visitors coming.

Wild animals should ideally only live in their natural environment but 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. Unfortunately with the lines blurred between animal entertainment and animal rescue, it’s up to the traveler to research and support only those sanctuaries that put the welfare of animals at the forefront of all they do.

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