Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals?

What to know before you visit an animal sanctuary.

Randy Sterns, head trainer and president of Dade City's Wild Things in Florida, feeds a two-week-old Siberian tiger cub.

Noelle, a three-and-a-half-month-old tiger cub with saucer-size paws, strains at her pink-and-purple leash. She seems to know what's coming as animal trainer Kelsey Johnson pulls out a warmed bottle of specially made formula. The cub suckles it greedily, and three visitors to Dade City's Wild Things, a Florida sanctuary and zoo, are called up one by one to get their pictures taken as they stroke the thick fur on her back, their faces alight with amazement.

For the next 15 minutes, the visitors get to interact with the rambunctious cub while Johnson attempts to corral it. A blur of orange-and-black motion, Noelle pounces on a squeaky toy and plays tug-of-war with a stuffed toy pig. When she leaps onto Johnson's shoulder with her teeth bared, the trainer flips the tiger over and roars in her face to chastise her. "It reminded me she was a wild animal," says Briana Greene afterward, awed by her encounter with the young predator.

Animal lovers go to wildlife sanctuaries because they want to see animals up close and because they believe sanctuaries are in the business of taking care of animals that have nowhere else to go. Nobody knows exactly how many exotic animals now live in captivity in the United States, though it's estimated that there are at least 5,000 tigers—more than exist in the wild. What is known is that many of these animals end up in wildlife sanctuaries when they become too expensive and too dangerous for their owners to keep. (See "Wild Obsession.")

But there is serious disagreement about what exactly a sanctuary is and how the animals in its care should be treated. Greene's close encounter with Noelle—born and bred at Dade City's Wild Things—is an example of what animal welfare activists believe is a real problem with some wildlife sanctuaries: They undermine the very mission they were meant to serve.

Here are some questions to consider before you visit a sanctuary.

What's the difference between a sanctuary and a zoo?

Sanctuaries promise to take in and care for any animals that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and to keep them for life. Sanctuaries occupy a "gray area," says Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federal law regulates the ones that, much like zoos, exhibit animals to the public. Those are inspected at least yearly for compliance with the Animal Welfare Act: The animals must have sanitary conditions, sufficient enclosures, proper vet care, appropriate feed, and the like. However, private sanctuaries that don't exhibit animals aren't regulated by the federal government.

Zoos are created specifically to exhibit animals to the public. They collect animals, taking into consideration conservation needs, the potential for scientific research, and which species the public likes best. Zoos buy, sell, trade, borrow, loan out, and breed animals. Many animal welfare advocates believe that zoos, even those with scientific and educational aims, exploit animals by keeping them in captivity and exhibiting them to the public.

What level of animal interaction is on offer?

The controversy over sanctuaries often comes down to how much the animals are used to draw in a paying public. "It's an absolute no-no for us to allow public contact with big cats," says Adam Roberts, president of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), which accredits rescue facilities. Whether a place offers, as Dade City's Wild Things does, the chance to pet young wild animals, feed adults, or swim with young tigers, Roberts believes the practice is too dangerous for people and animals alike.

Kathy Stearns, the founder of Dade City's Wild Things, vehemently disagrees, arguing that human contact, especially with young animals, is part of their training—and beneficial for an animal in captivity. "When the animals interact with people," she says, "that means that when they need medical treatment, the doctors can get close and do what they need to do."

Is there evidence of breeding?

Breeding wild animals, and buying and selling them, adds to the problem of unwanted animals that sanctuaries were created to solve, says Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association (ASA), another accrediting body. "We were founded in 1998 because at that time there were a lot of places calling themselves sanctuaries. But when we investigated, we found out they were breeding or selling animals or using them for commercial purposes." The trouble with facilities that allow visitors to interact with cubs, he says, is that they need to breed or buy a constant supply of cubs.

"This is where I get controversial," says Stearns. "Animal sanctuaries do not totally agree about breeding." She breeds her animals at Dade City's Wild Things to produce young offspring, including Noelle the tiger cub and a baby lemur that was born the day before Briana Greene's visit. She argues that breeding the animals, especially the tigers, is necessary for conservation. "If we don't breed them, we are not going to have any left."

That argument tends to be dismissed by conservationists. Privately held tigers are too crossbred and inbred to be useful in maintaining genetically diverse subspecies, which are adapted to very different habitats, from the tropics to Russia's frozen north. "It's important to keep those adaptations when breeding animals," says Tara Harris, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's Tiger Species Survival Plan. "Sanctuaries have no idea of the pedigrees of their tigers beyond the basic information of whether they're brothers and sisters."

Bengali, an 18-year-old tiger, explores a new 2.5-acre addition to Big Cat Rescue's sanctuary for exotic cats in July 2013 in Tampa, Florida.

So what does a true sanctuary look like?

"It sure doesn't have a sign saying, Come see our tiger, the most vicious creature on the planet," says Tim Harrison, who runs a rescue operation called Outreach for Animals. "Sanctuaries should be a place for animals to retire. The animals should be respected, and not treated as a prop or an object."

Accrediting bodies like the GFAS and the ASA recommend that enclosures be roomy, with plenty of species-suitable objects for the animals to interact with. Behind the scenes, several vets should be on call, and there should be enough financial stability to ensure lifetime care for the animals. The public should not be allowed to wander freely through the property, as if it were a zoo.

To see a sanctuary that has been cited as a model, travel 40 miles southwest from Dade City's Wild Things to Big Cat Rescue, which lies on the outskirts of Tampa. There aren't any cubs; every animal is spayed or neutered when it arrives. The enclosures are large and leafy, and it's often difficult to spot the cats among the vegetation. Here, visitors can't touch the cats during the carefully orchestrated tour, which highlights the terrible situations from which the animals have been rescued. "I'm asked all the time if this is enough space for a tiger," says Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue. "No, it's not. But it's way more than anywhere else."

"It's like we're not the most important creatures here," says Kim Roberts, a self-described dog person who was visiting the sanctuary for the first time after living nearby for years. "The animals are."

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