By Dr Chris Draper, Performing Animal Welfare Society 17th April 2022

Zoo Awareness Weekend is a vital opportunity to view zoos with a critical eye, unswayed by the endless hype PR from the zoo industry. And at the same time, we should take this opportunity to become better acquainted with sanctuaries and how they might – and might not – help solve the problems caused by zoos.

Requests to rescue and rehome wild animals from zoos (as well as from circuses, the pet trade, and more) come in thick and fast to animal charities worldwide. There are seemingly endless situations when animals need to be rescued from zoos: abject cruelty and suffering in shocking captive conditions, wars, natural disasters, financial crises, closure and many, many more. If any other animal industry had this many failures and cast-offs, serious questions would be asked. But the zoo industry seems to skate along relatively unchallenged.

And to where should these animals be rehomed? Very often you will hear the answer: “to a sanctuary”. Sounds simple enough. But what exactly is a sanctuary?

It is a term that is used - and misused - widely to describe many animal-keeping facilities, but it has no legal definition. It is used by many worthy rescue centres, but it can also be used by the most unscrupulous and exploitative captive animal facilities – even zoos.

It is high time we cleared up this confusion, so that when people say “sanctuary” they mean “genuine sanctuary”. Poor-quality or fake sanctuaries (“pseudosanctuaries”) undermine the concept and harm the reputation of genuine sanctuaries.

I am proud to sit on the Accreditation Committee of GFAS, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. GFAS works to accredit animal sanctuaries based on worldwide standards of excellence, and considers sanctuaries to be facilities “providing temporary or permanent safe haven to animals in need … providing excellent and humane care for their animals in a non-exploitative environment and having ethical policies in place, regarding tours, commercial trade, exhibition, acquisition and disposition, breeding and more”.

Among other things, genuine sanctuaries do not facilitate the captive wildlife trade by selling or buying wild animals, nor use up valuable sanctuary space by permitting their animals to breed (with carefully-considered exceptions for releasable animals). By recognizing, encouraging, and accrediting the good folks, I hope that we can leave the bad guys in the dust.

Nonetheless we should remember what genuine sanctuaries can do – and what they can’t.

Unfortunately, the amount of space for rescued animals in genuine sanctuaries pales into insignificance when compared to the vast number of wild animals suffering in zoos. It is clear is that rescue to sanctuaries cannot be the only solution for animals in zoos. However, I am convinced that genuine sanctuaries are very necessary parts of the solution.

It should go without saying that good sanctuaries enormously improve the lives of the animals they rescue. However, it is tempting to go too far and think of sanctuaries as a sort of nirvana for animals. Some sanctuaries, even some great sanctuaries, sometimes refer to rescued animals coming “home”, or being “free” at their sanctuary: neither are accurate. Sanctuary life for wild animals is still captivity – the “least worst” type of captivity we hope, but still a fundamental mismatch between wild animals and their environment: the lack of choice, opportunity, and freedom that comes with keeping animals behind barriers. Moving a wild animal from a zoo to genuine sanctuary is a good thing for the animal compared to its previous existence, but in some ways we are just making the best of a bad situation.

And this bad situation can be made worse when otherwise decent sanctuaries unquestioningly house animals that zoos simply no longer want. Genuine sanctuaries strive to make themselves redundant; they work to tackle the reasons that wild animals are in captivity in zoos and needing to be rehomed in the first place. Without this, they are simply “mopping up” the problems caused by zoos, and - in a sense – enabling them to continue unfettered.

Since retirement to a genuine sanctuary is only an option for a very lucky few animals from zoos, it is vital that – as a minimum – the onus is on the zoo industry to be more accountable for their animals, from birth to death.

Breeding programmes should be scrutinized for their value and effectiveness, capture from the wild should be a thing of the past, and zoos should be made to justify how they can meet the welfare needs of every animal they keep; while a detailed rescue plan (including funds) should be in place for every zoo in advance of the next crisis.

Dr Chris Draper
Chris is the COO of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which cares for elephants, bears, big cats and other animals rescued from zoos, circuses and the exotic pet trade. He has more than 20 years’ globally unique experience in the fields of animal welfare science, advocacy, and animal sanctuary management. He previously served as Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity at the Born Free Foundation, an international animal welfare and conservation organization, where he was responsible for its captive animal research and advocacy program, animal rescues, and its global network of animal sanctuaries. He studied zoology and primatology at University College London and later completed a Doctorate at the University of Bristol focused on the implementation of animal welfare legislation and assessment in zoos. Dr. Draper sits on the UK’s Government-advisory Zoos Expert Committee, the UK’s Wild Animal Welfare Committee, and the Accreditation Committee for the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.