If you’re like me, you grew up with visions of “Shamu the killer whale,” jumping and flipping in jubilee as plastic-poncho-covered humans cheered, but in the last decade documentaries such as Blackfish and Food, INC. have shed light on the skillfully sheltered reality of animal abuse in agriculture and tourism alike.

And if you’re like me, you’ve also been convinced to make lifestyle changes that better accommodate the livelihoods of our animal friends. Maybe you’ve cut out meat, rescued a puppy, or visited an animal sanctuary in the name of animal welfare. There are so many ways to better support animal life, and in turn, our planet. Today, we’re focussing on how you can find an ethical animal sanctuary while traveling.

Want to visit an ethical animal sanctuary? Check out the best wildlife sanctuaries in the U.S., or read about Nepal’s Chitwan Tiger Sanctuary. Want to get involved? Find out three ways you can help protect the world’s species.

one elephant stroking the trunk of another in the water

What is an Animal Sanctuary?

An animal sanctuary is a facility whose purpose is to provide life-long humane care to rescued animals. These animals may have been injured in the wild or harmed in captivity, necessitating the intentional care of experts. Though the word “sanctuary” elicits images of peacefully grazing speckled cows or playful elephants splashing in a pool, it is sometimes abused to attract good-intentioned tourists. With some simple guidelines and intentional curiosity, you can decide whether a sanctuary is for the animals or not. Here’s a few things to consider before handing over your cash to animal tourism.

Disclaimer: In no way is this article meant to shame those who are employed at sanctuaries that are ill-intentioned. I understand that many must break from their values in order to provide for their families. This is not a shameful act, but an act of survival. I wish for a world in which people do not feel obligated to participate in harmful systems to stay alive. Animal abuse not only harms the animal, but the abuser as well. A more extreme example of this can be read about here.

cows grazing along mountainside

  1. Check if the sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is an organization that evaluates sanctuaries for the quality of care they provide to their animals. To be accredited, sanctuaries must meet this set of strict criteria. If the location is GFAS-approved, go for it! Visit this page to find a GFAS-approved sanctuary near you.
  2. If the sanctuary is not accredited, call their office or search their website for photographs of the property and tourist engagement. Then answer a few questions. For a thorough breakdown of these questions, visit PETA.
  • Are tourists allowed to touch the animals?

Unless the animals are domesticated or rescued farm animals, touching or posing with an animal is harmful.

  • Where are the animals from?

If the site purchases, trades, borrows, or loans animals, this is a clear indicator of abuse. Unless a sanctuary is involved in encouraging the reproduction of an endangered species, avoid locations where animals are bred as well.

  • Are the animals provided an environment where they can engage in natural behavior?

Research the type of animal the sanctuary is caring for and decide whether the sanctuary provides a proper environment for the animals to socialize, play, explore, and sleep just as they would in the wild. If there is any indication of cages, chains, or abusive tools such as bullhooks, then opt out and make a report to PETA.

  • Are animals exhibited, or do they stay in their habitat without interruption?

Sanctuaries that relocate their animals into cages or other enclosures for human entertainment are not prioritizing the health of the animal. Visitors should only be permitted to observe the animals in their permanent habitat from a safe distance.

  • Do the animals have access to proper nutrition and veterinary care?

I think it goes without saying that any animal sanctuary claiming to be a safe haven for their inhabitants should have a strong healthcare program that tends to the welfare of their animals, especially since sanctuary animals are often rescued with pre-existing injuries or illnesses.

In sum, when searching for an ethical animal sanctuary, look for a location where tourists are encouraged to admire the animals undisturbed in their natural (or nature-mimicking) environment from afar, and where emphasis lies on the health and wellbeing of the animals over the potential economic benefits of tourism. Bring your zoom lens or binoculars and admire the creatures doing their thing!