Jordi Casamitjana, former sanctuary co-director, discusses what is the difference between a genuine true animal sanctuary and a zoo in disguise. 

I knew straight away.

When, after hitchhiking through the British Isles looking for a job as a zoologist, I crossed the gate into Murrayton House, in Cornwall, I knew that would be my home for some time. One of the drivers who gave me a lift mentioned it when I ask if he knew anywhere where they could employ someone like me. 

The house was impressive. It was a gothic mansion built in 1854. The beautiful gardens were on a long slope with a nice pond at the bottom, not too far from the sea. There were many people like me, visiting. And about twenty people working there, showing visitors around. But what made that place so special was not the human primates that lived there. What made the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe special was, naturally, the colony of twenty woolly monkeys (Lagothrix lagotricha) living alongside the keepers.

That driver was right. They seemed to need someone like me — or I least I convinced them that they did — so I became a volunteer, then a long-term volunteer, then a full-time keeper, then a senior keeper, then the Research and Rehabilitation Coordinator, and eventually a co-director (at that time the sanctuary was run as a co-operative). And thanks to my work there I managed to visit the Amazon rainforest several times — which was amazing.

I eventually left when the plan to return all the sanctuary’s monkeys to the Brazilian Amazon had to be cancelled after discovering a virus in the Cornish population. I worked — and lived — there from 1995 to 2000, but the sanctuary, which was founded in 1964 by the music teacher Len Williams, is still there. It has been renamed Wild Futures, and now keeps several species of monkeys besides woolly monkeys. But when I was there, was it really a sanctuary, despite the name? We had a Zoo Licence under the Zoo Licensing Act 1985. Was it a zoo, then?

As vegans like myself do not support zoos but we do support genuine true animal sanctuaries, what is a sanctuary and what is not is a question worth dedicating an article about. 

What Is a Sanctuary?

Photo By Giedriius via Shutterstock 1937293360

In its common usage, the noun “sanctuary” has two main meanings:  the “protection or a safe place, especially for someone being chased or persecuted”, and “a place where animals can live and be protected, especially from being hunted or from dangerous conditions”. Obviously, in this article, I would be looking at places that fit the second definition. However, there is a difference between being able to live in a place and having a fulfilled healthy life, and there is also a difference between being protected from a particular threat and being protected from all threats. And there will be different interpretations about how dangerous may be a situation animals need protection from.

A place where animals can live a healthy fulfilling life with the right environment and companionship for them, protected from all humans and the threats they can bring (disease, harm, distress, etc.) as well as from all other external threats the animals are not naturally equipped to deal with, would be what I would call a “proper sanctuary” under the common definition. On the other hand, a place where animals barely survive, are physical and mentally unhealthy and are exposed to all sorts of threats they cannot properly deal with (such as disease, harm, and distress caused by humans or other animals) because they are kept captive against their will and cannot go to a safer place, that should not be called a “sanctuary” because it fails the spirit of the basic definition. I don’t even think we could call it a “bad sanctuary” because this definition is not based on how well people trying to help animals are doing it, but on whether they actually help them in the way a sanctuary should help them. Any place labelled as a “safe haven” for someone will not be actually a safe haven if that someone is not really safe. 

In some cases, a sanctuary can just be land where wild animals can enter or leave at their will, but humans are not allowed to enter or disturb them in any way. For instance, in the 20th century, the League Against Cruel Sports bought several pieces of land in the south of England to transform them into sanctuaries. This only meant that, with the land, they acquired its hunting rights, and they banned hunting there. So, when a fleeing fox, a stag or a hare enter those sanctuaries, the hunters in pursuit were not allowed to follow them — although they often trespassed and did it anyway. Vegans can easily support these types of sanctuaries where the animals can leave when they please. 

What about the sanctuaries where animals are kept captive? For those, the common definition above is not very useful for vegans trying to decide if they will support a place self-described as a sanctuary without having detailed information about the lives of the animals kept captive there. We may need to get more technical and look for more official definitions from governments or institutions dealing with this issue. 

In the UK, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 deals with most of the issues regarding animals under the care of people. Under this law, if you are responsible for animals you have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to ensure their welfare needs are met. It uses the term Animal Welfare Establishment (“AWE”) as an institution responsible for the animals in its care and as such is also liable for prosecution. Specifically defines AWE as “A person, organisation or establishment who holds themselves out to receive vulnerable animals on a regular basis, whether companion, farmed, wild, protected or other animals, with a view to rehabilitating and either rehoming or releasing (back to the wild), or providing long-term care.”

This definition allows us to divide sanctuaries into two: Those who rehabilitate animals back into the wild and those that do not. The former are clearly intended to help the animals and they keep them at the sanctuary only temporarily to allow them to recover from a physical or mental ordeal. As they are temporary animal residences aimed to help specific individuals with their specific problems, and if all goes well the animals would be able to resume their lives without any other human assistance, these sanctuaries — often called rehabilitation centres — are well within what most ethical vegan support.

But what about those sanctuaries that keep animals captive for the duration of their lives? Ah, that’s another story. That is when the line between a sanctuary, a zoo, an open farm or even someone’s backyard becomes a blur. We will need the definitions of those institutions that deal with sanctuaries.  

What Is a True Sanctuary?

A group of monkeys in a cage

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Woolly Moneky at The Monekey Sanctuary-Wild Futures (c) Jordi Casamitjana

Several umbrella organisations deal with animal sanctuaries at a national or regional level. There is an American Sanctuary Association (ASA), and the European Alliance of Rescue Centres and Sanctuaries (EARS). But I want to look at it from an international point of view, covering all sanctuaries in any jurisdiction. Luckily for me, one organisation covers all that. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) accredits sanctuaries based on worldwide standards of excellence. This is what it says on its website: “Not all sanctuaries are created equal. Animal care is a poorly regulated industry, and thousands of organizations worldwide that describe themselves as ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘rescues’ do not provide quality or humane care for their animals. For all people invested in the welfare of captive animals, including donors, grantmakers, supporters and legislators, there is a shared desire to differentiate true sanctuaries. Through our evaluation process, GFAS can ensure that those designated as GFAS-Verified or Accredited uphold the highest standards for the animals in their care. Any organization that meets our eligibility criteria may apply to receive GFAS Accreditation or Verification.” They use the following definitions:

Sanctuaries provide lifetime care for animals that have been abused, injured, abandoned, or are otherwise in need. These animals often come from private owners, research laboratories, government authorities, the entertainment industry, and zoos.

Rescue Centres temporarily care for animals with the goal of placing them in permanent ownership/foster care with approved members of the public, or with accredited or verified sanctuaries. Rescue Centre animals often include domestic equines, farmed animals, birds, and reptiles.

Rehabilitation Centres temporarily care for wildlife so that they can be returned back to their native environments. This includes facilities that provide transitional support as part of a reintroduction protocol, which serves as an important conservation tool.

This is what GFAS specify a “true sanctuary” should be doing:

Must have a non-profit /non-commercial status and endorse the following policies:

  1. No captive breeding (with a potential exception for only those organizations having a bona fide release/reintroduction program to return wildlife to their native habitat).
  2. No commercial trade in animals or animal parts.
  3. No tours allowed that are not guided and conducted in a careful manner that minimizes the impact on the animals and their environment, does not cause them stress, and gives them the ability to seek undisturbed privacy and quiet.
  4. Animals are not exhibited or taken from the sanctuary or enclosures/habitats for non-medical reasons, with some limited exceptions for certain animal species, such as horses, under approved circumstances.
  5. The public does not have direct contact with wildlife (with some limited exceptions as outlined in the Standards for some birds and small reptiles).

In addition, organizations must demonstrate:

  1. Adherence to standards of animal care including housing, veterinary care, nutrition, animal well-being and handling policies, as well as standards on physical facilities, records and staff safety, confirmed by an extensive questionnaire, site visit, and interviews.
  2. Ethical practices in fundraising.
  3. Ethical acquisition and disposition of animals.
  4. Restrictions on research – limited to non-invasive projects that provide a health, welfare or conservation benefit to the individual animal and/or captive animal management and/or population conservation.
  5. The existence of a contingency plan, if the property where the sanctuary is located is not owned by the sanctuary or its governing organization.

Well, that’s more like it. That would easily help to tell apart most zoos from most sanctuaries. And it can also tell apart “backyard” situations where private individuals “collect” animals as their own exotic (or otherwise) “pets”.  

No Breeding Allowed is the Key

Photo By Tim West-Heiss via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1282222858)

From all the above conditions, “non-breeding” is the most important. If animals are not allowed to breed at the sanctuary at all, that is a very good sign that this may be a true sanctuary. If they do allow breeding, and they are open to the general public who pay an entrance fee and then wander around at their leisure, this is clearly a zoo (although to be officially licensed as a zoo, in some countries you will need to be open more than a particular number of days a year, and you should keep animals not normally domesticated in that area). 

The Government of Wales has a Code of Practice for Animal Welfare Establishments. This is what it says about breeding: “As a principle, AWEs should not exist to breed animals. It is recognised that pregnant animals may come into an AWE and a decision should be made on an individual case by case basis in conjunction with a vet as to whether to allow a pregnancy to continue. Unneutered animals of breeding age should not be kept with unneutered animals of the opposite sex. In accordance with specific veterinary advice on an individual basis, the AWE should have animals neutered, as appropriate for the species.”

EARS’ rules also don’t allow breeding. They say the following: “Appropriate measures must be taken to prevent propagation and to have species appropriate contraceptive programmes in place. All sanctuaries and rescue centres should aim to achieve a zero birth rate for all animals housed at their facilities. It is acknowledged that: (a) there is limited technical knowledge of contraception for some species; (b) when separation is the only preventative option, this method can be compromised when animals arrive in large numbers; (c) in the case of confiscation and whilst the government maintains ownership of the animal the Partner is obliged to follow the decision of the responsible governmental body and may not be allowed to implement permanent sterilisation; (d) some countries will not allow wildlife to be permanently sterilised; and (e) when part of recognised programmes, breeding may contribute to endangered species conservation.” 

ASA’s rules also don’t allow breeding (except as part of an approved USDI endangered species survival program) or any use of animals for any commercial activity that is exploitive in nature (such as allowing free-roaming public access to the animals or the sanctuary, using sanctuary animals for exhibition, using sanctuary animals for entertainment, buying, selling, trading or auctioning animals or their body parts, or any other activity inconsistent with the humane care and welfare of the sanctuary’s animals). The rules also may this as an exception of the ban of commercial activities: “some zoological facilities assist in the rescue and placement of unwanted animals. A case-by-case evaluation will allow ASA to accept those that can be a valuable asset and eliminate those that are involved in the surplus breeding and trade in animals.”

Therefore, both EARS and ASA also allow the “conservation excuse” for breeding and other exceptions that zoos could exploit, so any facility accredited by them may not be what GFAS classes as “true sanctuaries” — and what I would consider an establishment I would support.

For me, a place that sells itself as a rescue centre or a sanctuary keeping some non-breeding animals they have rescued will still be a zoo if they keep other animals they breed and “exhibit” them to the public as any zoo does (even with the conservation excuse). Zoos with sanctuary-type sections or departments are still zoos because what rules them out as sanctuaries is not what they do in those sections, but what they do in the rest. But they may still claim they are sanctuaries. 

I remember many years ago, when I was working for an anti-zoo charity, I investigated a zoo that rescued some animals but bred others, and it was fully open to the public as a normal zoo. They did not like at all that my investigation’s report described them as a zoo because they wanted to be described as a sanctuary, but I did not change it because I felt they were indeed a zoo.

Which True Sanctuaries Are Vegan-Friendly?

A group of animals stand near each other

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Pigs at FRIENDS animal santuary, UK, (c) Jordi Casamitjana

For an ethical vegan like me, sanctuaries that are just land where animals can enter to find refuge from humans and leave when they please, are not in conflict with any aspect of veganism. Rehabilitation centres that only keep wild animals in captivity temporarily and then return them into the wild when recovered should not be in conflict either — as long as they were treated properly when they were there and are released on the right spot.

Concerning sanctuaries that keep animals for the rest of their life, would “true sanctuaries” (accredited or not), as defined by GFAS’s rules, be OK for vegans? Well, for me personally, that’s not enough. I note that rule 1 allows some breeding for only those organizations having a bona fide release/reintroduction program to return wildlife to their native habitat. Before supporting any accredited sanctuary that does that, I would like to check whether such releases are done under captive breeding programmes of “exotic” animals run by zoos and whether my understanding of “bona fide” is the same as GAFS’s. Most likely, I would not be satisfied, but I would have to evaluate this on a case-by-case basis.

The other problem is rule number 5, which allows some birds and small reptiles to be in contact with the public in some special circumstances. For me, that would be a deal-breaker. If they allow such contact (which would be for the benefit of people, not the animals involved, and can cause the animals distress if it is not done because the animals seek such contact, but because their “keepers” forced them into it) then you are not a vegan-friendly sanctuary to me — as this would be animal exploitation.

And finally, rule number 9, which limits research to non-invasive projects that provide a health, welfare or conservation benefit to the individual animal and/or captive animal management and/or population conservation. In this case, if the claim is that the research is for conservation reasons, I would like to be sure that this is not a euphemism for “captive breeding programmes”, that such projects are not run by zoos or people working for them, and that no animal is “sacrificed” in any way for the wellbeing of the species (for ethical vegans the wellbeing of individual animals is always priority over the status of species, which are just abstract concepts created by humans for classification purposes). Otherwise, I would not support such establishments.

I also would like to know where the animals come from. If they have indeed been rescued, I want to know from where, because if they have gone from a better situation to a worse one, that’s not a sanctuary at all. For instance, if the animals were just taken from the wild without a genuinely good reason and now the establishment claims that it must keep them for life. Or if the place is just a “storing” facility for zoos’ surplus animals and still owned by zoos or is part of the zoo industry. Or it is just a research centre that moves some animals from one research setting to another, but they are still part of the vivisection industry. Genuine sanctuaries tend to have rescued their animals from zoos, circuses, farms, labs, commercial enterprises, research centres, breeding facilities, or people keeping them as “pets” — and, on occasions, from “bad” sanctuaries or true sanctuaries that had to close.

The last piece of information I would like to know before offering my full support would be whether the true sanctuary is run by vegans and uses mainly vegan staff and volunteers. If they do, that would be a very good sign and I would probably be very happy to support them if the standard of care given is very good and there have not been any complaints regarding other important issues (such as the environment, human rights, law, etc.). If they are not run by vegans, I would like to know why, and if I think that my support could help those running them to become vegan, I would consider it — and what I mean by support is giving a donation, visiting them, promoting them, etc.

Most of the sanctuaries I have visited since I became vegan twenty years ago are vegan-run farm animal sanctuaries that keep domestic animals rescued from the animal agricultural industry. As these are domestic animals genetically modified after generations of artificial selection, they are no longer equipped to live in the wild. And if they were released, they would be at the mercy of carnivorous humans who may kill them and eat them as they will not receive protection from wildlife legislation. So, these animals must be kept in captivity for life. Whether these sanctuaries are accredited by GFAS, ASA or EARS is not that important to me. If they are run by experienced ethical vegans, this is telling me that their standards are likely to be higher than those who designed these accreditation rules (vegans would not have allowed the exception of GFAS’s rule number 5). Therefore, an accredited vegan-run farm animal sanctuary will be the most vegan-friendly sanctuary there is — at least in theory. 

Was the Monkey Sanctuary a true sanctuary when I was working there (I was not a vegan then, by the way)? Probably not. At the time we were allowing the monkeys to breed with the intention to return them into the wild with stable multi-aged social groups, and as I was part of that rehabilitation project (and this is why I travelled often to Brazil), I can say that was indeed a genuine bona fide reintroduction program to return wildlife to their native habitat, nothing to do with zoos (all the keepers opposed zoos there). So, point 1 was within what I would consider acceptable. 

The problem was point 3. We were open to the public half of the year, and I think we allowed non-guided visitors in because, although we gave talks and there were always keepers around to protect the monkeys from visitors, I am not sure that, on all occasions, we minimised sufficiently the impact on the monkeys of such visitors — who in busy days often wandered around at their leisure.  This is, of course, subject to interpretation, but in all honesty, I think then we were more of a zoo than a sanctuary (although we were an unconventional anti-zoo zoo that probably looked after its animals better than any zoo). After all, all the monkeys present at the sanctuary then had been born there, a situation that you would never find in a conventional sanctuary.

However, since I left, things have improved. There is no longer breeding of any monkeys allowed at the sanctuary (as the discovery of the virus mentioned earlier made the rehabilitation plans impossible), and I believe the way visitors are dealt with is better now. I think that, for the last twenty years or so, it has become a true sanctuary, looking after many primates, most of whom are rescued from a worse situation, following all the rules for true sanctuaries. And, in fact, they are one of the few UK fully accredited GFAS sanctuaries. So, I am looking forward to visiting them again.

I have seen many places with the term “sanctuary” in their name.

I don’t let them fool me with their self-created title. I know what a true vegan-friendly sanctuary is. 

I hope now you will too.

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.