Animal sanctuaries like Japan’s fox village, Sri Lanka’s elephant orphanage and South Africa’s cheetah breeding centers are an iconic part of travel to certain areas, beckoning tourists with the opportunity to get an up-close view of wild animals. Tourist dollars can help meet the expenses of animal care, but not every “sanctuary” benefits the animals. For those who want a window into the native wildlife, how can eco-conscious travelers make sure their money goes to conservation instead of exploitation?

Zoo or Sanctuary?

It’s important to know the differences between facilities. Wildlife sanctuaries care for unreleasable animals for life, with minimal to no human interactions. Wildlife rehabilitation centers treat hurt or abandoned animals with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. They may have limited human interaction with experts and volunteers. Zoos keep wildlife for educational exhibition and scientific conservation.

Look Before You Leave

Adorable foxes are hard to resist, but make sure you do your research before visiting any animal sanctuary. Photo: Adobe Stock

Research your destination before you go. Just as zoos can be accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, there are accrediting bodies for sanctuaries. The American Sanctuary Association works in the United States. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits sanctuaries around the world. In the U.S., Charity Navigator can confirm whether the organization is registered as a nonprofit.  

Does the sanctuary’s website try to sell an experience or educate the reader? Read the reports of travelers who have gone before you. Their experiences give important clues about how the sanctuary operates.

Read the Signs

Whether you’re reading travel blogs or standing at the gates of the property, look for signs that a wildlife center is providing quality animal care.

  • Sanctuaries do not sell experiences like animal performances or physical interaction with the animals, such as photo ops.
  • Sanctuaries do not breed their animals. The efficacy of captive breeding for reintroduction to the wild is questionable, and many breeding centers operate for profit and sell animals for pets.
  • Sanctuaries are transparent about the origin of their animals. Barring serious injury, animals should not be obtained from the wild.  
  • Habitats should be appropriate for the species. They should be naturalistic, allowing species-appropriate levels of socialization and activity. Animals should be able to avoid the gaze of visitors.
  • Signs of distress in animals can include pacing, repetitive behaviors and shedding out of season. Red flags include visibly ill animals, underweight or obese animals, fur that’s dirty and matted, and bald spots.

When in Doubt, Skip It

Many people believe that keeping wild animals in captivity is never a good idea. But sanctuaries are the only alternative to euthanasia for animals that cannot be released to the wild. The best sanctuaries are more concerned with animal welfare than with tourist experiences. If there is any doubt about the quality of care or true purpose of a “sanctuary,” avoid a visit. When you get home, donate the money you saved to an animal conservation organization you trust.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.