From petting cheetah cubs in South Africa to feeding and washing elephants in Thailand, animal sanctuaries are a haven for tourists to get closer to nature and immerse themselves in the culture of the country. In these hotspots you can pay to get photos and even touch the animals. Zoos and sanctuaries can be found in every country in which you can volunteer. Behind the scenes, what many tourists cannot see is the cruelty established in these institutions. Whipping and malnourishment are some of the experiences which the animals endure, being exploited as tourist attractions. Sanctuaries differ from zoo’s because they offer a chance to hold animals which have been mistreated and abandoned previously. They rehabilitate and care for the animals, whereas zoos offer them as an exhibition. So how can you judge which animal sanctuaries are truly ethically charged?
Looking at the activities offered is the first point of call to decide how ethical the sanctuary really is. If it involves putting the animal under lots of stress and captivity (such as privately enforced photos or riding on the backs of animals) these activities either include animals being painfully obligated into receptivity; or they are put under strain to undergo these events. Close contact with animals is a red flag as ethical organizations will not usually allow this.
Aim to support sanctuaries which offer natural opportunities to interact with the animals, with feeding times or educational opportunities on the culture of the animals. Animals should be treated as more than an exhibition or prop but shown respect.
Small and limited spaces do not allow the animals to move freely about as they would in their natural environments. Look for well-built, open areas which allow the animal to habituate to the sanctuary lifestyle and have an enjoyable relationship with the animals around them. Often unethical zoos and sanctuaries contain overcrowded, congested environments, making life for animals stressful. Remember that sanctuaries are a place for wild animals to be cared for and so they need the space to fully live.
Many sanctuaries will offer opportunities to adopt and explore conservation projects which are supported by the institution. Ensuring that there is sufficient evidence and whether the projects are acknowledged can effectively produce a more ethical sanctuary, which gives the opportunity for tourists to make a change without harming the animals. These sanctuaries are more likely to offer valuable volunteering projects and involvement with real conservation and ecotourism, rather than benefiting tourism and business profit.
A sanctuary which breeds their own wild animals is not ethical and is often illegal in many countries. Sanctuaries are made to save endangered species and solve the problem of unwanted animals, whereas breeding contributes to the number of wild animals in captivity. Breeding may also contribute to the problems where inbred animals are created through crossbreeding in captivity. The naturality of this reproduction is put under question and the breeding is not always known to be completely ethical for the benefit of the species.
As a volunteer, it may be hard to see the reality of sanctuaries, when every sanctuary claims to be entirely ethical in its name. Animal lovers may look to these sanctuaries for a way to have a positive effect whilst travelling, but this type of volunteering may be doing more harm than good. By applying thoughtful choices into the sanctuaries chosen, ecotourism becomes far easier to achieve. Avoiding the sanctuaries which put animals under stress and don’t offer the options of conservation can help to achieve a better world for the animals’ welfare.