Wildlife Sanctuaries Vs Zoos

The Difference Between Wildlife Sanctuaries & Zoos - What to look for? 

As we are traveling, or sometimes in our own country, we are tempted to explore the exotic wildlife nature has to offer. It can be challenging to do this without going through an organisation that offers this experience. Many organisations such as zoos or sanctuaries allow an encounter between humans and animals. This can be educational for people, and it can also bring support to animals, if it is done right…

When is it considered OK to keep animals out of their natural habitat?

The reason why animals are taken out of their habitat can vary. One reason is if this can provide with better conditions and a better life than in the wild. Examples of this can be if the animal has been kept captive; It, then, has been rescued from captivity and is now unable to survive in the wild. Another reason can be conservation; If an animal is threatened to be extinct by unnatural causes such as hunters or imbalances in the eco-system. Some people work to keep the animals safe from such threats. This can be done in sanctuaries or sometimes also in zoos. However, there are stories telling us that not all sanctuaries or zoos have the animals’ best interest at heart.

Wildlife sanctuaries

The idea behind a sanctuary is to create a safe space to protect species. That, otherwise, would be threatened in their own natural habitat. The animals should not perform any act to satisfy humans. Moreover, they should be able to keep as much of their past identity as possible. This can be done for example through keeping their interactions as much as possible with species that are natural for them. Avoiding stress and a traumatic transition for the animal.

Sanctuaries can do wonderful things for our wildlife. This can also be a great chance to contribute through volunteer opportunities. However, keep in mind, there are examples of organisations using the word “sanctuary” to create credibility. In this way, they make people believe that they are doing something good for animals, when actually they have alternative motives. If you want to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary make sure it runs in a responsible & ethical way.

Canned Hunting

In South Africa especially, organisations are claiming to be sanctuaries that take care of lion cubs. They have volunteers to take care of the lions. They claim that the lions are orphans that they have saved and are now raising. This is not always true; Lions are born captive, and taken away from their mothers at only a few days old (Usually lions stay with their mothers for two years). The mother will keep having babies, and the babies are held captive in small cages and bad conditions until they are old enough to look impressive.

When they are about three years old, they are sold to hunters. The hunters book online which lion they want to shoot, and the lion is kept within a closed area so the hunter is guaranteed to find it and shoot it. In this way, the hunter gets its trophy, as well as an experience of having hunted the lion. It is a very barbaric way of hunting as the lion has no place to escape thus no chance of survival. This is a very popular activity. It is now estimated that more than 8,000 captive-bred lions are currently being kept in more than 250 intensive lion breeding facilities for the purpose of being hunted.

What to look out for?

If you would like to give back you can sign up as a volunteer. This is a beautiful gesture that can make a difference for many. With the risk of signing up with an organisation that does not have the animal’s best interest at heart. Again, look for signs of responsible & ethical sanctuaries. Registered non-profit charities work to know which organisations are legitimates and which ones are not. Thereby, they will usually partner up with legitimate animal programmes. You can check if the charity is registered by looking it up on charity commission for the country where the charity is based. If they are bigger corporate companies promoting the animal organisation, they might be making profit in some way. Perhaps move on to another organisation just to be sure.

Also look into the programmes policy on volunteers handling animals! Legitimate, rescue and rehabilitation projects will not allow volunteers to handle the animals or use them as photo props. The majority of work should be hands-off, both for the animals' safety and the volunteers'. Generally, volunteers help with general duties to help care for animals such as preparing food for the animals, cleaning enclosures, making enrichment for enclosures and general maintenance on enclosure & around the sanctuary.


Zoos have over the past decades received a lot of criticism for keeping animals captive. There is an ongoing discussion between animal protection organisations and zoos regarding zoo keeping. Animal protection activists or organisations might argue that it is wrong to keep animals away from their natural habitat; That it violates the animals' right to live in freedom. That they don’t have enough room, and that animals bred in a zoo will become imprinted on humans; And this will change their behaviour. Also, they will usually not have access to the same diversity of nutrition as in the wild, and therefore live shorter lives. As well as stress that can be caused due to noise and interaction with children and people.

It is definitely worth being critical towards captivity of animals for the sake of entertaining people. However, zoos sometimes also keep animals so that they can bring positive contributions. If you are planning on visiting a zoo, some zoos contribute to conservation through educating people about animals, as well as doing research on animals that they simply cannot do in the wild.

What to look out for?

You can check if the zoo is collaborating with the animal protection organisation in the country you are in. Examples of this can be American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), The British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), or The Zoo and Aquarium Association Australia (ZAA). These organisations make sure zoos contribute with species-specific research for each animal. They also reduce their number of animals though no-breeding policies.

Research, and go for it!

Remember, just because someone call themselves a sanctuary, this does not necessarily mean that they are working towards the welfare of the animals. If you are traveling to visit a wildlife sanctuary, do proper research beforehand; And check out the registration of the organisation promoting the animal programme. With proper research done, it is possible to make a great contribution through volunteering and donations, and enjoy a wonderful adventure.