Feed a lion cub; wash an elephant; pet a tiger; hug a koala; swim with a dolphin … Animal encounters are often the highlight of many trips —after all, who doesn’t want to see, help and spend time with rescued elephants and orphaned lion cubs? But as with anything like this, all is not always what it seems, and many so-called sanctuaries or rescue centres can be among the more controversial experiences around. Likewise, some are perfectly legitimate, but a little research can go a long way.
Journalist Meera Dattani explains what to look out for when visiting such sanctuaries.
There was a time when Thailand’s Tiger Temple near the town of Kanchanaburi attracted thousands of visitors a year, giving them the chance to pet and pose with tigers — tigers who’d been sedated, despite the venue’s claims otherwise.
The sanctuary was closed in 2016, but even now, there’s a possibility it will shortly re-open as a zoo, under a different name.
With the internet at our fingertips, even when we’re travelling, it’s easy enough to research before visiting. One handy tip, in addition to a regular search, is to select the ‘News’ filter under the search bar as that often generates recent newspaper reports. You can also see if the sanctuary is accredited under the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, although that’s by no means an exhaustive list and many reputable places may not be accredited.
The word ‘sanctuary’ has a natural allure, a place that has the animals’ best interests at heart. While many do, there are, for example, elephant ‘sanctuaries’ that place stress on elephants by making them paint or offering elephant rides. Essentially, if the animal is being forced to do something that’s not natural, it’s a realistic bet the place exists purely to draw tourists — and that less-than-kind methods have been used to train them.
Other things to look out for include whether the venue breeds animals. While you may see orphaned baby animals or perhaps an animal was rescued while pregnant, the majority of reputable sanctuaries do not breed—if they do, those babies are highly unlikely to be returned to the wild, and simply exist to perpetuate the sanctuary’s visitor numbers.
The conditions and space given to the animals is another sign. There should be enough room for them to express their natural behaviour — that could mean climbing enclosures, pools, free space to roam, depending on the animal. Areas should be clean and contain fresh drinking water, and animals should look healthy. While that might be hard to judge, instinct goes a long way. If they’re pacing up and down or pulling out their own fur, you can be reasonably sure there’s something wrong.
And while interacting with animals is a key reason for many visitors to go, ask yourself whether that’s natural behaviour for that particular creature. It’s one thing to go to a farm and pet rabbits; it’s quite another to lie down next to what is most probably a drugged cheetah.
If you do come across a place that seems a far cry from what a sanctuary should be, contact Born Free Foundation’s Travellers’ Animal Alert. It’s wise to take photos discreetly if it’s obvious you find it upsetting, as some ‘sanctuaries’ may be run by less than friendly people but words and pictures can help the foundation to investigate further. Animal encounters can be a wonderful part of the travel experience: Just make sure the animals are, to your knowledge, being well looked-after and not simply there to make money from tourism. With everyone’s eye on the ball, genuine sanctuaries can thrive and use tourism as a way to fund their excellent work.
If you'd like to visit responsible animal sanctuaries as part of your next trip, speak to one of our travel designers who can advise and create the perfect itinerary for you.