What is a Sanctuary

A sanctuary is a “place of refuge or safety” that provides lifetime care for the animals it has rescued.

Because the term “sanctuary” is not regulated by any governing body, any facility can call itself a sanctuary. This leaves animal-lovers asking themselves: How can I tell if a sanctuary is a true sanctuary (credible) or a pseudo-sanctuary (not-credible)? The answer can be found by doing a little bit of research to make sure that you are only visiting true sanctuaries.

It is crucial to only support sanctuaries that do what is best for the animals. Ethical tourism gives you the opportunity to change the lives of animals in need. We can make a difference through our choices. Make sure to ask the questions below before planning your visit to a sanctuary or an exotic animal rescue.

Click here to view a printable PDF checklist about true sanctuaries.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Are They A 501(c)(3) Nonprofit organization?
    • A true sanctuary will be a nonprofit organization.
  2. Do they breed?
    • True sanctuaries will not breed animals.
    • True sanctuaries are rescue facilities. Breeding animals with unknown genetic backgrounds does not help save the species in any way. These animals have no conservation value and facilities that breed rescued animals are only contributing to the exotic animal problem in the United States.
  3. Do they allow hands-on interaction with animals?
    • True sanctuaries will never allow the public to have hands-on interaction with an exotic carnivore of any age. Allowing hands-on interaction is a danger to the humans and animals.
    • True sanctuaries will only allow team members to handle animals that are sedated for veterinary procedures. If a keeper enters a cage or habitat with an animal that is fully alert, it is not safe and not a true sanctuary.
    • Behavioral training programs that are done behind a fence barrier are not classified as hands-on interactions. A properly managed behavioral training program will utilize tools to safely give rewards to animals. Behavioral training is a bridge-and-reward system that encourages simple actions to enrich the lives of the animals and to assist keepers to assess the health and well-being of the animals in their care.
  4. Do they offer pictures with cubs or cub petting/feeding opportunities?
    • True sanctuaries will not allow any public interaction with cubs.
    • Cubs can only legally be handled through the ages of 1 month and 3 months (or 30lbs). In order to have cubs in this age range, they must be removed from their mothers not long after birth. This is detrimental to the health of the cub and mother. Click here to learn more about cub petting. 
    • On the occasion that a cub is rejected by their mother, a professionally trained keeper should be in charge of feeding the cub(s), in order to track the cub(s) nutrition, formula intake, and health. Allowing the public to feed the animal does not allow for this observation and can cause the cub to be underfed or overfed. If not properly fed the cub can also aspirate on the milk.
  5. Do they buy/sell animals or animal parts (whiskers, claws, or fur)?
    • The purpose of a true sanctuary is to rescue animals in need and give them a safe, permanent home.
    • Purchasing and/or selling animals only adds to the issue of the exotic pet trade. There are thousands of animals in need of rescue.
    • It is illegal to buy or sell animal parts. No facility should be participating in this practice.
  6. Do they exhibit animals at shows?
    • A true sanctuary will never transport an animal off of their property unless it is for veterinary purposes.
    • Transporting animals for exhibit can cause the animal stress and can be dangerous for the animal and the public. Do not visit ‘travel’ animal shows, they are not true rescues or sanctuaries.
  7. Do they have areas that their animals can go to if they want to get out of the weather or away from public view?
    • Animals should have access to shade, water, and a place to get out of public view (such as a den).
    • The only exception is if the animal is temporarily secured in a separate area of their enclosure so that the keeper can safely clean their living space.
  8. Do they spay/neuter or separate animals that live with other animals of the opposite sex?
    • True sanctuaries will either spay/neuter animals that live in mixed male/female groups or separate them to prevent breeding.
    • Some pseudo-sanctuaries will claim to be non-breeding facilities but will allow un-altered males and females to live together, which means they are not a true sanctuary.
  9. Are they members of outside regulating organizations other than the USDA, such as GFAS , TIA, or ASA?
    • Being a member of an outside accrediting organization, such as GFAS, TIA, or ASA, is a simple way to check if a facility is a true sanctuary. GFAS, TIA, or ASA have strict rules to become members (rules which align with the 7 other questions). Being GFAS, TIA, or ASA is not a requirement to be a true sanctuary, it is just a quick way to check. There are other accrediting organizations but not all of their requirements are as strict as GFAS, TIA, or ASA.
    • The USDA only offers the most basic standards of care for an animal. USDA regulations are not adequate to judge a facility by. Every facility open to the public must have a USDA license. This means that a USDA license is not enough to determine the credibility of a facility.

Verify that your favorite sanctuary is a true sanctuary, not a pseudo-sanctuary, with this PDF printable true sanctuary checklist.

TrueSanctuaryCheckList Animals are rescued from many types of situations such as private owners, research facilities, law enforcement agencies, the entertainment industry, and zoos. Many animals are often abused, injured, abandoned, and in need of lifetime care. True sanctuaries provide these animals with a forever home where they are given what they need to live the remainder of their lives in a stress-free environment.

Differentiating between a true sanctuary from a pseudo-sanctuary might take a little extra research, but when you visit a true sanctuary you are helping to put an end to the exotic animal trade and also protecting exotic animals from exploitation.

Currently, there are no federal laws protecting big cats from exploitation. Learn more about the proposed “Big Cat Public Safety Act” and how it will put an end to pseudo-sanctuaries and big cat abuse. You can also contact your congressmen and tell them to support the “Big Cat Public Safety Act” here.

Visit the International Fund of Animal Welfare’s Interactive Map to learn more about current laws, cub petting facilities, and how you can help.

What is a pseudo-sanctuary

A pseudo-sanctuary is an animal facility that claims to be a sanctuary, may have sanctuary in their name and even rescue animals, but exploit their animals for profit. They breed their big cats and claim to help with conservation. The truth is endangered species born in captivity can never be released into the wild, are not genetically pure, and have no conservation value to the species. They hide under the disguise of a sanctuary for economic exploitation of animals, gaining the support and trust of the general public through manipulation.

Supporters are easily drawn in by the name “sanctuary” or “refuge” as they believe that they are truly helping a sanctuary and the conservation of big cats. Unfortunately, this is just not the reality. Refusing to visit a pseudo-sanctuary or participate in cub-petting will help put an end to the exotic animal trade.

If a sanctuary formerly allowed hands-on interaction with animals, but no longer does, are they classified as a pseudo-sanctuary or a true sanctuary?

The field of Animal Husbandry (the scientific study of caring for animals) is always changing and evolving. Years ago, handling animals was an accepted practice. As the field has grown we’ve learned, through observation and scientific evaluation, that many of the old standard practices were not in the best interest of the animals. Changing policies to align with current acceptible practices indicates that a facility is doing their best to give quality care to their animals. Judge a facility based off of what they are doing at this point in time, not what they did in the past; the facility has made an effort to improve the care they offer their animals. These sanctuaries need your support so that they can continue to expand and improve the quality of care that they are providing their animals.

What is the Difference between a zoo and a sanctuary?

True sanctuaries and reputable zoos serve different purposes. A sanctuary’s main purpose is to provide a home for animals in need while a zoo is more focused on creating an environment for the public to learn about a variety of animals.

Much like the term “sanctuary”, the term “zoo” is not regulated. Many roadside zoos will use the term “zoo” to draw in visitors. Please be cautious when visiting facilities that are called a “zoo”. Reputable zoos will be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and be USDA licensed. AZA zoos are often members of a regulated Species Survival Plan (SSP), which tracks the genetics and subspecies of animals. Some zoos do rescue animals on occasion but most do not. Before visiting a zoo you should verify that they are a reputable zoo.

What are GFAS, TIA, and ASA and why would a facility be accredited by them?

Adhering to strict rules and regulations to become a true sanctuary is important to ensure the proper care of the animals, as well as the intentions of the facility. One of the best ways to recognize a true sanctuary from the rest is through a governing body beyond the USDA.

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)

The purpose of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ (GFAS) is to ensure that animals in captivity receive the highest standards of care during rescue, rehabilitation, and the rest of their life. They are the only globally recognized organization for certifying that a facility meets the GFAS Standards of Excellence and recognizes those as a true “sanctuary.”

GFAS offers two levels of memberships within their organization: verified and accredited.

Accreditation is a much more rigorous screening process where the sanctuary is under compliance with the operational standards of GFAS in terms of governance, staffing, finance, education and outreach, safety policies, protocols, and training. The benefit of accreditation is that it indicates that sanctuaries are meeting the best possible standards in animal care. Accreditation provides clear objectives and measurable outcomes to assess performance and how to make improvements. Accredited facilities must not only meet the requirements of verification but also the more rigorous standards of accreditation. Visit GFAS’ website to learn more about their requirements and to find out if your favorite sanctuary is GFAS verified or accredited.

GFAS requires that facilities demonstrate:

  • “Adherence to standards of animal care including housing, veterinary care, nutrition, animal well-being and handling policies, as well as standards on physical facilities, records and staff safety, confirmed by an extensive questionnaire, site visit, and interviews.”
  • “Ethical practices in fundraising.”
  • “Ethical acquisition and disposition of animals.”
  • “Restrictions on research – limited to non-invasive projects that provide a health, welfare or conservation benefit to the individual animal and/or captive animal management and/or population conservation.”
  • “The existence of a contingency plan, if the property where the sanctuary is located is not owned by the sanctuary or its governing organization.”

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is accredited by GFAS, which means that we have met GFAS‘s standards for verification and accreditation.

Tigers In America (TIA)

Tigers in America (TIA) is an independent organization dedicated to helping identify and support true sanctuaries across the country. TIA’s focus is to help rescue tigers across America from abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and to get them into true sanctuaries. They also help approved facilities build new enclosures so that they can take in additional tigers. They solicit support from like-minded foundations and corporations to help raise awareness about the condition of captive tigers in America. Visit Tigers In America’s website learn more about them and what they do to help big cats in the USA.

TIA Evaluates Sanctuaries for:

Animal Requirements –

  • Number of animals – More than 10 tigers rescued
  • No buying, selling, or trading animals
  • Proper veterinary care offered
  • No public interaction with animals
  • No breeding or cub handling
  • Offers animals a forever home

Personnel Requirements –

  • The facility has at least 20 acres of land
  • Has permanent staff
  • Has an education program
  • Has an awareness program
  • Has a volunteer program
  • Has large enclosures

Revenue – 

  • Has been open for 5 or more years
  • Is a 501(c)3 Non-profit
  • Can prove long-term viability
  • At least $500,000 a year in revenue
  • Can prove fundraising efficiency

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is a member of TIA. TCWR has worked closely with TIA to rescue over 100 animals in the past few years and has helped TCWR build multiple enclosures so that all of our animals could live in big, spacious, natural habitats.

American Sanctuary Association (ASA)

The American Sanctuary Association (ASA) exists to assure the humane and compassionate care for these animals by setting standards for their care, accrediting sanctuaries that meet these standards, networking with member sanctuaries, assisting in the rescue and placement of homeless animals, supporting legislation that protects animals, educating the public, and reaching out to other segments of the rescue community.

ASA Requirements for membership:

  1. Facilities do not breed the animals in their care.
  2. Do not participate in commercial activities or allow guests to wander the facility without an escort.
  3. Are a non-profit organization.
  4. Have all licenses and permits required that they are up-to-date.
  5. Have policies that will outline and provide acceptable responsibility for the lifetime care and welfare of animals.
  6. Have an emergency plan for animal escapes.
  7. Provide proper veterinary care for their animals.
  8. Have a humane euthanasia policy for animals who are severely injured, terminally ill or suffering supervised by a veterinarian.