The Sanctuary Series: What Does an Ideal Animal Sanctuary Look Like?

Explaining the differences between an Animal Sanctuary and Zoo, Farm, Wildlife Center

If you’re following all things ISF, you’ve probably heard the two magical words that get us all excited and buzzing: animal sanctuary!

It’s within ISF’s mission to “positively impact the planet and its creatures,” so we know that building an animal sanctuary will go a long way toward helping animals—while teaching love and compassion to humans in the process. However, when the animal sanctuary topic comes up, there seem to be more questions than answers.

The ISF Creatures Division wants to answer as many questions as we can, so we’re launching the Sanctuary Series, with news and insights on how sanctuaries operate and on their amazing benefits. We’re starting with the basics: what even is an animal sanctuary? How is an animal sanctuary different from a zoo, farm or wildlife center? What would your ideal sanctuary look like?

Animal Sanctuaries

By definition, an animal sanctuary should offer a place of refuge for creatures. While most people agree on that aspect, there is still controversy over what an animal sanctuary actually is, and what parameters it should follow. Not everyone agrees on best practices and the role of a sanctuary, but in the United States, there is an accrediting organization, the American Sanctuary Association. In addition, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits facilities globally.

“True animal sanctuaries do not breed, buy, sell or trade animals or use them for any commercial purpose, and they provide lifetime care,” states Vernon Weir, Director of the American Sanctuary Association. “Most are not open to the public. Zoos do all those things. Sanctuaries exist because there is a surplus of animals with no place to go. It would be counter-productive to engage in breeding given those circumstances. “

There are, however, facilities calling themselves sanctuaries that do breed. In a recent article, National Geographic interviewed an animal sanctuary that breeds animals, including tigers, and allows visitors to interact with the cubs. Some sanctuaries state this is necessary for conservation, and even to enhance the human-animal connection, according to sources quoted in the article.

Aside from the breeding debate, animal sanctuaries can be home to a variety of different animals—wild animals, farmed animals, horses, birds, etc. The difference between a sanctuary and a shelter (with some exceptions) is that shelters offer adoption programs. Some sanctuaries do have an adoption component, which is great when homes are appropriately screened.


According to Weir, zoo collections sometimes focus on animals who attract the public, while sanctuaries don’t care how many of each species they have, or if the animals are ill, old or unattractive. Weir believes that sanctuaries exist for the animal’s benefit. That’s not to say that zoos don’t have their purpose, too. Breeding solely for the sake of having baby animals to show visitors is probably not a good idea for either a zoo or a sanctuary, but many zoos do breed to help endangered species. If a zoo is part of the Species Survival Plan—where genetic history is tracked and animals are qualified to repopulate the wild—the zoo can truly help endangered species.

Wildlife and Rehabilitation Centers

Sanctuaries often take animals needing a lifetime of care, but other facilities plan to release animals once they are ready. There may be gray areas in terms of semantics—sanctuaries, wildlife centers, rehabilitation centers—but in general, rehab centers take care of ill or injured native animals with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. Some of these centers may have a limited sanctuary component, for animals who are not able to be released, Weir says.

Some rehab centers are open to the public, but accredited centers are required to have enclosures and habitats with an area of privacy, should the animal choose to use it, Weir states. “Some animals love seeing humans, others are more skittish,” he explains. “We like to leave it up to the animal to decide. Having public visitors can be a benefit in many ways—not only education, but as a recruitment tool for new donors and volunteers.”


Typically, we do not think of farms in the same way as zoos or sanctuaries, since they are not for the benefit of the animals. Depending on the type of farm, their goal is often to raise livestock for the purpose of food, or to produce dairy, eggs or poultry for consumption.

So, as it turns out, sanctuaries are a complex topic, and there is some debate and overlap with other facilities. Still, many of us can visualize our ideal sanctuary for ISF. Recently, the ISF Youth Division’s MobSTIRS shared their thoughts and drawings on an ideal sanctuary. We hope you enjoy them!

“My ideal sanctuary would be on a lot of land where all of the animals could roam freely and not be in harm’s way. It would have nice, roomy areas for the animals to be and instead of having cages or anything of that sort; it would have big fences in areas where the animals won't feel trapped.” –MobSTIR Rylyn

Sanctuary drawing above by MobSTIR Luke


Video above from MobSTIR Austin




-Elaine DeSimone

​Please see ISF's Terms of Use.

List Title: