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A photo of a tiger cub drinking from a bottle.

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY SKIP O'ROURKE, THE TAMPA BAY TIMES/AP

Rachel Hartigan Shea

National Geographic

Published March 20, 2014

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."

A photo of a tiger at a sanctuary in Florida.
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.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILL VRAGOVIC, THE TAMPA BAY TIMES/ AP

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."

Follow Rachel Hartigan Shea on Twitter.

29 comments
Terri Eather
Terri Eather

Why is this two-week-old Siberian tiger cub NOT being raised by it’s MOTHER?


Why is it being fed INFERIOR milk that will not support the cub of building up a good immune system?


Each Sanctuary needs to be assess on it’s own individual husbandry. There are many Great ones, some OK and there are many many HORRIFIC ones. Most members of the public would NOT be able to tell the difference.

Small things like are the animals being fed a diet appropriate to the species or are they being fed totally inappropiate food.

Is their life full being enriched constantly by new items?

Do they have a large enough areas to walk, run, hop, swim, crawl, play to keep them fit & health both physically & emotionally?

If they produce offspring, do they raise their offspring?

Do they have shelter from weather or humans if they want it.

yvonne warden
yvonne warden

Having grown up with free wild makes we dead against capitivity .Sanctuary should be just that.Zoos and safari parks are being shown for what they are and it is NOT IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE ANIMALS...........

Sil von Kaiser
Sil von Kaiser

forbid touching animals and taking pictures in sanctuaries!

Mark Noonan
Mark Noonan

I disagree with the writer as I also believe the only way to continue to have these species amongst us to be seen is to breed them . I don't like the way zoos are now as the animals have very little room . Allowing people to interact with younger ones is nice but the Sanctuaries should become the new models for what zoos should be with car rides and such to view the animals .

Babu Choorakat
Babu Choorakat

Nice article to learn about the difference and the functioning of sanctuaries and zoos

Allie Tennant
Allie Tennant

If you want to help Big Cat Rescue even more, sign up with AmazonSmile.com and add them as your charity.  A portion of whatever you spend on Amazon will go to BCR.  This is a great way to help and it costs you nothing.

Francine Brewin
Francine Brewin

contact with the animals should not be permitted anywhere. Sanctuaries are rehabilitation centers for animals that  were probably abused by people.  Zoos have evolved a lot over the years and and a window on wildlife for the majority of humans who cannot see them in their wild habitat.  If humans and wildlife could co-inhabit in harmony, there would be no need for zoos.

Zangmo Keebee
Zangmo Keebee

If the animal is in a sanctuary, it means it was in a difficult position to be the animal he was supposed to be: no mum, no food, poaching, etc..

Without your sanctuary he or she would have died and she would not be able to make babies later on, and the little guy would adapt wherever you put him back in the wild with his families.. I hope.. anyway sanxtuaries are a blessing for all and the Nature and the Gods.. Bless you all



Jordan Schaul
Jordan Schaul

Nice article. People often ask me about the mission of zoos and they tend to lump all such facilities together. They rarely ask about the mission of sanctuaries. I'm not sure most could formulate an educated opinion. People also tend to lump all sanctuaries together.

This article elucidates some of the categorical differences between them and may help you become a more informed critic of captive wildlife facilities if that is what you endeavor to do. The problem with "sanctuaries" is that the accrediting bodies don't even agree on what constitutes a sanctuary.
There are probably more facilities that identify themselves as sanctuaries when they hardly meet the generic criteria and some of these facilities are just as bad as "roadside zoos."

I caution you to broadly label facilities based on what they refer to themselves as because it is fairly subjective. I have seen good and bad facilities among zoos and sanctuaries and I urge people to develop their own construct for what they think the mission of these captive wildlife facilities should be and to treat them accordingly.


Jordan Schaul
http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/author/jschaul/

s h.
s h.

We've visited Big Cat Rescue several times.  IMO, it's what other "sanctuaries" should strive to be.  No breeding,  no touching,  no self guided tours.  BTW, I absolutely *H*A*T*E*  zoos.  

Michael Gary
Michael Gary

All of these so-called sanctuaries should be using their profits to buy land in the native habitat of each of the species, and training and hiring local people to be the caretakers in the natural habitat of every wild species.

Keep wild animals wild.

Both zoos and sanctuaries do not keep animals wild.

The animals end up having numerous psychological problems and behavior deviations when they are not in the wild.....

All the zoos and sanctuaries are doing, is providing entertainment and jobs for humans....


robbie butler
robbie butler

most of these santuaries are vast wich means theres no problems also zoos are alright the help animals like the red panda snow leapord etc  but the small santuaries do and can cause problems  but why not focus it on small santuaries and dont blame the large ones  also i think the idea of privates zoo is wrong many animals are miltreatead  and illegal in a country                                                                                                                                                                                    also im  getting sick of atheists                                                                                              writing articles on nat geo  alot lately

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

lets put it like this; the further away from animals that we are in "being human" or whatever you want to call it, the worse it is for them ..

Kelly Ryann
Kelly Ryann

This was an amazing and very informative article. I am going to school to be a Veterinary Technician, and my lifelong goal and dream has been to open A Big Cat Sanctuary of my own, specifically for the reasons stated above. It absolutely SICKENS ME to see and hear about what these so called "sanctuaries" do to these poor, misused animals. Once I get all of my certifications and financial needs in order, I hope and plan to be one of those TRUE SANCTUARIES that WILL make a difference, and give these animals the lives that they deserve (outside, of course, of their natural habitats), since we are now their only true advocates.

Martine henriksen
Martine henriksen

Oh my God!

After this I'm never let myself get near a zoo. Well, now that I actually think about it, I just realized that this thought I had before, so technically I already know it. 

Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher

A really good big cat sanctuary is Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.  They do not breed the cats, they have trained biologists as staff members and run a fantastic intern program.  They rescue cats from other rescues!  http://www.turpentinecreek.org/  Any place the breeds tigers or offers experiences with cubs is NOT a legit sanctuary.  

April Bencze
April Bencze

A model sanctuary in my eyes is the Wildcat Sanctuary ( http://www.wildcatsanctuary.org ) They do not breed, or exhibit the cats they take in. 


Any place that breeds wild animals in their sanctuary is not contributing to conservation, they are bringing more animals that should be wild borne into captivity. They will never truly be wild, why would you want to conserve a wild species in captivity? That is counter productive.  It will not be the same creature you are 'conserving'. If you want to conserve a species, protect it's habitat, any way you can. Focus your efforts on public awareness and conserving natural habitats and crack down on poachers and trophy hunts, NOT breeding in captivity/'sanctuaries'. 


Sanctuaries exist to give those animals - who should be wild - a halfway home to Iive out the rest of their lives in as wild an environment as possible. Such animals who cannot be rereleased back into the wild due to a variety of reasons, are given a habitat - a sanctuary - where they can spend the rest of their lives, NOT on exhibit for profit, NOT being bred and adding to the problem of wild animals in captivity, and NOT someone's domesticated pet or trophy. 


Just my take on the issue.



Liz Ellaby
Liz Ellaby

I'd like to know more about how the pictured tiger cub can be taken from its mother if they are kept "wild" and how drinking formula from a bottle interferes with their natural upbringing.

Oswalda Pinto
Oswalda Pinto

Big Cat Rescue is not classified as a sanctuary by FWC. FWC does not delineate between zoos

and other types commercial activity such as sales or privately run exhibits for the purposes of

permit issuance. Big Cat Rescue holds a valid exhibition/sale permit.

http://www.rexano.org/BCR/FWC_Sanctuary_BCR.pdf

Cady Scarborough
Cady Scarborough

@Mark Noonan  But if we breed them captively, it's inbreeding. Which, as the author states, doesn't give them a wide genetic diversity. It also opens a market for exotic animals to be bought as pets.

Sarah Jesness
Sarah Jesness

@Liz Ellaby  Sometimes tiger mothers, especially first-timers, will not take care of their cubs. (this occurs both in the wild and captivity) When this happens in zoos, the keepers have to hand-raise the cubs. Sometimes when abandoned tiger cubs are found on wildlife reserves where wild tigers live, specialists will take the cubs in and raise them, but I don't know much about how that's done.


I don't know if that's the case at Dade City's Wild Things, though. If the place is making money off of visitors coming to hold or pet the baby tigers, I wouldn't be surprised if the cubs were taken and hand-raised to make them better suited to such encounters.

Sarah Jesness
Sarah Jesness

@Cady Scarborough @Mark Noonan  Animals can be bred in captivity without inbreeding. When zoos do breeding programs, they keep track of the lineages of the animals to ensure the breeding pair isn't too closely related.

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