Don't Fall For the "Sanctuary" Trap : 6 Questions to Ask to Help you Avoid Fake Animal Sanctuaries

You’re an animal lover and you’re going on vacation.

Like any animal lover, the opportunity to see or interact with wild animals in an attraction, unlike a zoo, that more closely simulates the animals’ natural environment is an exciting possibility!

But, you believe wild animals should be free and understand that many wild animal tourist attractions abuse, mistreat, and exploit their animals for profit, so you make commendable efforts to seek out ethical facilities.

At the top of your list are sanctuaries and rescue centers who rescue their animals from neglectful situations or who are retired from work,  and cannot be released back into the wild.

In your research you visit a well-advertised sanctuary’s glossy website, which makes claims about the high standards of care their rescued animals receive. 

You read a vague, yet compelling back story on the sad origin of their rescued wild animals, who are now living their lives happily and free from harm.

Perhaps there’s a segment on the tragic plight of their species, which is caused by deforestation, poaching, or some other human-caused ill. You figure that there’s nothing wrong with the various face-to-face activities offered at the attraction – elephant rides, cub petting, etc. – because you believe it’s all in the name of conservation and education. The animals are surely better off now than they were before; they’ve been rescued, after all. 

But, just to verify the claims made on the website, you do your due diligence as a responsible tourist and seek out unbiased reviews from other tourists who have already been there. You are relieved to find that, overwhelmingly, their reviews are glowing and you move forward with making your reservation.


Would you, as a potential visitor, question the legitimacy of a sanctuary or rescue center if all the reviews are positive and appeared to support the sanctuary’s claims of high standards of care and contributions to conservation?

Probably not.


And this is part of an insidious problem within the booming industry of wildlife-based tourism.


In 2017, over 1 billion people traveled; international tourist arrivals grew by 7% against the prior year. Wildlife Tourist Attractions may account for 20-40% of global tourism.

Tourists who wish to participate in wildlife related tourist attractions have become increasingly aware of animal welfare concerns – thanks largely in part to general public awareness, and to documentaries like Blackfish.

So, in an effort to avoid zoos and attractions that are known to be abusive, many tourists look to experiences at sanctuaries or rescues.


But what defines a Sanctuary?


The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries defines a sanctuary as:

... any facility providing temporary or permanent safe haven to animals in need while meeting the principles of true sanctuaries: providing excellent and humane care for their animals in a non-exploitative environment and having ethical policies in place, regarding: tours, commercial trade, exhibition, acquisition and disposition, breeding, and more.

Unfortunately, “sanctuary” and “rescue” aren’t regulated terms; many tourist venues intentionally use those terms to lure well-meaning tourists to their parks despite the fact that they can’t prove their animals were actually “rescued”, do not meet established standards of care, breed their animals, or actively engage in neglectful, abusive, or harmful handling and activities.

Additionally, many of these venues promote themselves as eco-minded or conservation based, but actually offer little or no conservation benefits..

 They're most likely engaging in practices that are damaging to the animal, but also damaging to the public perception of the animal and what their actual needs and behaviors are.

To further compound the problem, many visitors to these attractions simply have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, or don’t know what problems or concerns to even look for.

A relatively recent report published in 2015 studied and scored the conservation status and welfare impacts of animals in 24 types of Wildlife Tourist Attractions (WTA) and then compared their findings to tourists’ reviews on TripAdvisor.

Of the 24 attractions studied, 6 WTA’s had net positive conservation and welfare impacts, 14 had negative conservation impacts, and 18 had negative welfare impacts.


In other words, the overwhelming majority of WTA’s studied were bad for the animals.


 However, only 7.8% of all tourist feedback on these WTA’s contained anything negative regarding the welfare or conservation of the animals.

This suggests that poor animal welfare standards and other problems at various WTA’s go unrecognized by tourists, who are not properly educated or equipped with the knowledge to identify them.

Take elephants, for example, one of the most popular and sought-after animals at WTA's.

From World Animal Protection Australia's report Taken For A Ride

It can be difficult for an untrained person to identify signs of distress or discomfort in elephants. Apart from the typical stereotypical swaying, distressed elephants do not always display distress that clearly. Elephant body language can be difficult to interpret and is not comparable with the body language of domesticated animals we are familiar with.


Even the most well meaning tourist, lured by an attractions’ promises and commitment to the conservation and protection of the species in their care, can miss the signs of neglect, abuse, or substandard care.

To further illustrate the disconnect between perception and reality, let's consider marine parks.

Ever since the release of Blackfish, public awareness of how detrimental marine parks like SeaWorld are to the health and well-being of their animals is widely known and accepted.  Attendance at marine parks around the world have plummeted.

And yet, a visit to the TripAdvisor page for Sea World, San Diego yields almost 4,000 “Excellent” reviews and 2,100 “Very Good” reviews out of around 7,500 total reviews.  Even when mainstream opinion decries the captivity or marine mammals like whales and dolphins, many are still blind to the damage it causes.

This just perpetuates the cycle of misinformation and funnels more tourists to these types of attractions.

Simba the lion lounging at his home, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, which is the only accredited wildlife sanctuary in Malawi.   In addition to serving as a sanctuary for many animals who cannot be released back into the wild, Lilongwe has a rescue and rehabilitation unit,  an emergency wildlife response unit, and leads clinical interventions and veterinary research through their program One Health. They are very transparent in everything they do, and provide annual impact reports.

 How to Identify A Fake Sanctuary or Rescue

Again, even though a “sanctuary” may make all sorts of wonderful claims, and tourist reviews are mostly positive, one must be aware that a lot of mistreatment happens behind the scenes, which can be hard to detect to the untrained eye or unsuspecting tourist, as well as many hidden costs, like cruel training methods, or separation of mother and baby.


Here’s a check list of questions to ask  when considering a visit to a rescue or sanctuary


1. Do they offer direct contact with their animals?

elephant riding.jpg


A selfie with an animal might seem pretty harmless.

Perhaps you’ve been enticed by a “rescue” in Africa where you’ll volunteer to hand raise “orphaned” lion cubs for the purpose of “conservation," or yearn to trek through the jungle atop an elephant's back.

Unfortunately, these are the most obvious indications that a sanctuary is not reputable.

Stay away from any attraction that offers direct interaction with animals.

The general rule is that if you can hug, ride, touch, or take a selfie with a wild animal it is NOT legitimate, or does not have the welfare of the animal as their paramount priority.
Take elephant riding, which remains a popular tourist attraction; a simple Google search will yield countless opportunities to take a jungle trek atop an elephants back in places like Thailand and Bali.

What many tourists to these venues don’t know, is that any elephant performing tricks, or allowing humans to ride their backs, endured an awful training process literally referred to as “The Crush,” because the entire process is intended to break their spirit so that they comply with commands.  

From World Animal Protection Australias’ report Taken For A Ride

The few minutes a tourist spends with an elephant during a ride do not reveal the true life of the elephant or what it has endured previously regarding contact with tourists and giving rides.
For example, shows offering elephant painting may seem harmless. But getting an elephant to paint requires extremely intensive training to get the animal to obey the mahout during the performance. While it is easy to understand that elephant painting or playing football is not a natural activity for elephants, the venues rely on the ‘cute’, exotic and novel factors of these activities. “
Although the brief interaction of riding allows the tourist to appreciate the elephant’s bulk and beauty it disguises the daily boredom, physical hardship and relentlessness of tourist treks. It also hides the confinement endured at other times.



2. Do They Breed Their Animals?

The entire purpose of a sanctuary is to give animals, who cannot be released back into the wild for various circumstances, a place to live the remainder of their life in comfort in an environment that resembles their natural habitat as closely as possible.

Genuine sanctuaries and rescues do not permit animals to breed unless the group is destined for release to the wild.  They provide short or long-term refuge and rehabilitation and,where necessary, lifetime care.  Claims that breeding programs help to prevent extinction are dismissed by most conservationists.

For example, International Animal Rescue, a registered non-profit, has an orangutan facility which rescues endangered orangutans who are often victims of the wildlife pet trade, or of habitat loss due to the proliferation of palm oil plantations. They provide medical care, rehabilitation, and slowly integrate them with other orangutans until eventually releasing them back into the wild.  The standards of care are meticulous, and rehabilitation can take years. Although the orangutan is endangered, they do not engage in breeding.

Breeding diverts precious space and resources away from rescuing other animals who need help, or who need to live the remainder of their lives in a sanctuary.

A sanctuary or rescue that breeds their animals is typically motivated by profit, and despite claims of breeding for conversation, may actually be harming the species.  Most conservationists actually dismiss those claims. 

Captive breeding gives public false sense of security regarding species' survival and diverts attention away from  the threats wild populations face.

Furthermore, breeding diminishes money and momentum that could be used for saving wild habitat or funding programs to prevent human animal conflict.

On the other end of the spectrum are "rescues" looking for volunteers to help raise orphaned animals for "conservation."

If you're at a venue with an unusually large number of baby animals, like lion cubs, it's worth asking where the animals have come from.

  A true rescue or sanctuary will be very transparent, and is happy to provide you the back story of all their animals. 

It is not likely that there is a constant influx of orphaned animals that need to be cared for. As is the case in cub-petting operations in South Africa, where affiliates of canned hunting operations lure unsuspecting volunteers to raise their "orphaned" lion cubs, which have actually been bred, factory farm style, to be sold for  hunters to kill it despicable canned hunts. 


3. Are the Animals Used As Entertainment or Performing Tricks?

It's not easy to look at, but this is the training process many elephants endure so that they will defer to humans.  Is this worth your elephant ride?

It's not easy to look at, but this is the training process many elephants endure so that they will defer to humans.  Is this worth your elephant ride?


Wild animals are not meant to interact with humans, let alone perform tricks. As with elephant riding, animals who perform tricks were most likely subject to stressful or cruel training methods.  Is all that really worth watching an elephant paint a picture or a monkey dance?


4. Are handlers using negative reinforcement or abusive tactics on the animals?

 Do the handlers strike or prod the animals with implements, like bull hooks, in order to get them to cooperate during their interactions with tourists?  Is food withheld unless they perform a particular trick?

A legitimate sanctuary does not harm or withhold food from their animals.


5. are the animals allowed to engage in natural physical and social behaviors?

The welfare of an animal in captivity is strongly dictated by how closely their environment mimics their environment in the wild

Good welfare for animals exists when an animal’s nutritional, environmental, health, behavioural and psychological needs  are all being met

If the animals are interacting with humans and performing tricks, one can surmise that, for most of the day, they are unable to engage in natural behaviors.

Additionally, it's important to observe the overall condition and space of their habitat. Use your gut here. If the conditions seem poor to you or if you think it looks dirty or inadequate then you're probably right.

Most of the time, it is not acceptable for an animal to wear chains or be tethered to anything. If you see that the animals are chained, it is a good indication that it is not a legitimate sanctuary or rescue.  But, sometimes, there is good reason an animal might be chained. If you see an animal who is chained, it's worth it to ask why.  Again, a sanctuary will be transparent and should answer your questions clearly. 

 Animals should be grouped with other members of their species, as well as other compatible animals.  If they are social animals, as is the case with elephants, they should be able to  socialize with one another and should not be in isolation.


6. Is it accredited by the global federation of  animal sanctuaries?

Frosty & Apollo relaxing at their accredited sanctuary home, The Big Cat Rescue in Florida, United States.

Frosty & Apollo relaxing at their accredited sanctuary home, The Big Cat Rescue in Florida, United States.


To relieve yourself of any doubt, go to a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries, which is the only globally recognized organization for certifying that a facility meets the GFAS Standards of Excellence and recognizes those as a true “sanctuary.” Facilities around the world come to GFAS for guidance and support in achieving and maintaining accreditation.

.  In addition to meeting safety and operational practices , applicants must meet rigorous standards of care written for each animal in order to receive accreditation.

Please note that lack of accreditation does not necessarily mean a sanctuary is not legitimate. But, you can rest assured that any sanctuary with accreditation is.


Try it yourself : is this attraction a legitimate sanctuary?

Read the information and use the six questions to decide

Elephants greet dinner guests at the Mason Elephant Lodge

Elephants greet dinner guests at the Mason Elephant Lodge


 The Mason Elephant Lodge in Bali does a great job marketing itself as a rescue center and claims, without any evidence to support it, that their standards of care are world renowned. According to their attractive website, they acquired their elephants through Sumatran work camps.  I reached out to them for more detailed information on how they acquired their animals, but did not receive a response.

They have subsequently bred their elephants, adding four additional to their herd. This fact is proudly noted on their website, which states their breeding program is for conservation purposes.

The park offers extensive opportunities for direct interaction with their elephants, including elephant rides. In fact, guests are urged to take advantage of the "elephant chauffeur" service, in which guests are "picked up" by elephants at their doorstep.

Despite numerous "Excellent" reviews on TripAdvisor (759 at the date of publishing, to be exact), there are some telling negative reviews as well.  Many visitors to the park express dismay at the condition and treatment of the elephants and several noted that the elephants wear chains often, have been seen demonstrating stereotyping behavior, and are poked with bull hooks.


 Answer the 6 questions

1. FAIL They offer interaction with their animals

2. FAIL They breed their animals

3. FAIL In addition to elephant rides, customer reviews have noted that there is elephant painting and elephant football.

From a recent review on TripAdvisor :

The elephants are chained up to 2 foot long chains alone all day until they are needed for rides. During the ‘Elephant Introduction’ they started by explaining that the elephants weren’t treated like circus animals here but then went on to make them paint, crush coconuts and other little unessesary ‘tricks’.

4. FAIL Handlers have been seen using negative reinforcement.

From another recent TripAdvisor review:

Riding the elephants in the water is poor. I refused to do this when I saw the handlers pick axing the poor animals on their heads when they wanted it to do certain things. In closer inspection you can see the scarring on their poor heads. Breakfast. Terrible unless you like flies all over your food. The ride also terrible. Wanted to get off half way through it. the handler cleverly hides this pick ax under his belt. When the elephant gets tired he stabs the poor thing to make it move again

5. This is the only question that is unclear without visiting a park or seeing photos . We do know, however, that the elephants are often chained and isolated from each other. That knowledge alone is enough to fail this question.

6. Mason Elephant Lodge is not an accredited sanctuary.


The verdict: Not a legitimate sanctuary. Don't go!



A recently released investigation of wildlife tourist venues in Bali  ,which includes the Elephant Mason Lodge, uncovered extremely poor welfare standards at ALL wildlife venues.

Sadly, this is no surprise.

Ashley from World Animal Protection Australia noted,

The reason we focused on Bali (as you may have guessed) was because as the number one tourist destination for Australians, many of them who love animals and want to experience these majestic creatures up close.
We found the majority were simply not aware of the cruelty behind the scenes to make these elephants perform. Bali also has the worst welfare rate of the South East Asian countries and all of their venues were extremely poor welfare.



Ultimately, the choice of where you choose to spend your money is up to you.  But hopefully this provided enough information to help you make a more informed and ethical choice.

If you think you've been to an attraction where animals are suffering, report it! Use this reporting tool, from Born Free Foundation. Additionally, put pressure on local governments to implement or more strictly enforce laws to protect captive animals by calling or writing and sharing on social media.