What’s the Difference Between a Zoo and a Sanctuary?
Zoos and sanctuaries might seem fairly similar from the outset but there are quite a few differences between them. Although they both look after wild animals in purposefully built enclosures, they source their animals in very different ways and have different reasons for keeping these animals. Some of the different aspects are also controversial because they involve a moral debate regarding the treatment and wellbeing of animals. While this issue can be quite complex, we’ll do our best to go over the main points simply and to look at why this debate exists. So, let’s get right into it and take a look at the similarities and differences between zoos and sanctuaries!
What Do They Have in Common?
As previously stated, zoos and sanctuaries are fairly similar as they keep and look after animals in enclosures which reflect the animal’s natural habitat. The animals are fed a diet to reflect their natural eating habits in the wild and they are cared for according to their specific needs. Some zoos and sanctuaries are government funded, run by charities or private organizations and some charge an entrance fee or simply ask for donations. Fundamentally, zoos and sanctuaries might not be easily differentiated solely from an outside point of view. Although most places will have either ‘zoo’ or ‘sanctuary’ in its title to distinguish itself from the other, the divide isn’t always so clear. Some zoos might act more like a sanctuary because of the way they source their animals or how they look after them, but this might not be obvious unless you know the differences.
What’s the Difference?
We know there are a few similarities between zoos and sanctuaries but it’s now time to have a look at the differences. Although these differences might not appear obvious at first glance, you’ll begin to notice them more regularly after learning what to look for.
Firstly, sanctuaries keep and look after animals which have been harmed or previously kept in captivity but, most importantly, they care for animals which are not healthy enough to live independently in the wild. Sanctuaries can also be used to keep animals which have been imported as illegal pets, at least until they can be returned to the wild (if possible). Alternatively, zoos often take animals from their natural habitat in the wild where they would otherwise live happily and healthily. However, it must be noted that some zoos also rescue animals from harmful homes, or from owners that can’t look after the animal any longer. Another difference is that zoos sometimes breed their animals to ensure they can keep that species as a feature in their facility. This differs greatly to sanctuaries as they will never purposefully breed their animals purely for financial gain or to capture public interest. From these few instances alone, it becomes clear that sanctuaries focus on letting their animals live as independently as possible, whereas not all zoos provide their animals with the same treatment.
Another main difference between a zoo and a sanctuary is their facilities for containing animals. Most sanctuaries have ample room to let their animals roam freely and some will even have additional space away from public view so their animals can have some privacy. Some particularly shy, injured or elderly animals might live entirely away from the public view if their caretakers think public observation could cause them distress. In some zoos however, this form of treatment isn’t always possible as most animal enclosures are always exposed for public observation. However, this isn’t the case with all zoos as some may have enough room and space available to provide their animals with the same level of care. This is because correct animal care is a priority in sanctuaries, whereas public entertainment isn’t as important.
This brings us to the fundamental difference between zoos and sanctuaries – the reason for their existence. Sanctuaries are used to look after injured, elderly or endangered animals that are not fit to return to the wild as they cannot live independently. On the other hand, zoos most often look after healthy animals which are kept in order to provide entertainment or education to the general public. While education might not immediately seem like a negative aspect of zoos, animal rights advocates would argue that it is not sufficient reason to keep healthy animals in an enclosure. Instead, they would argue that animal education is possible without removing an animal from its natural habitat just to be kept in a cage. This also proves why sanctuaries are seen in a positive light by animal rights activists as they are only used to look after and nurture animals which could not survive alone in the wild. Sanctuaries can also return animals to the wild if the animal has recovered suitably and is capable of resuming life safely and healthily without human intervention. From this example alone we can begin to understand the moral differences between a zoo and a sanctuary.
Are All Zoos Bad?
By this point you might be wondering if zoos are bad after learning the differences between zoos and sanctuaries. Unfortunately, the issue here is far too complex for a simple yes or no answer. All zoos are different and some will have adequate room and enclosures to provide all their animal’s needs, but this isn’t always the case. Some of the previous examples we have given are generalized and don’t represent every zoo, but rather the majority.
In the United States of America, some zoos with these facilities and other exceptionally high standards of animal care may be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA provides this accreditation to zoos which meet their standards of acceptable animal care, in recognition of their work and to distinguish them from other lower quality zoos. Zoos with lower quality care and standards (often referred to as ‘Roadside Zoos’) are one of the main factors contributing to the negative view and stigmatization of all zoos. While most Animal Rights activists and advocates do not accept any zoo as a suitable home for wild animals, it must be understood that some zoos work extremely hard to ensure their animals are cared for and nourished suitable and that they have the best quality of life.
What to Look out For
While most zoos and sanctuaries can be easily differentiated by their title, there can be some level of crossover in zoos which you can look out for. As we’ve just learned, zoos typically look after animals which have been taken from their natural habitat. However, this isn’t always the case, especially with the recent growth in animal rights movements and the increase of animal care and welfare standards. In some large, high-profile zoos, there has been a rise in transparency regarding their animal’s origins and descriptions. This means that popular zoos often attempt to source more animals in the same way as sanctuaries and provide the same level of care and rehabilitation if possible.
If you’re in a zoo, lookout for the descriptions around each animal’s enclosure as this is typically where you’ll find information regarding where the animal came from and why the zoo is looking after it. If there isn’t any mention of rescuing, rehabilitating or protecting it (such as protecting an endangered species or from an endangered habitat) it could be that the animal has been taken from its natural habitat unnecessarily. You could also speak to a zookeeper or look in a brochure or online for this information.
Checking for accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is another way to ensure the zoo you’re visiting (or going to visit) maintains high standards of animal care. If you’re visiting a zoo abroad then a quick online search should tell you if the zoo is regulated and if they have accreditation from a similar organization.
Although animal rights advocates would argue that any zoo should be avoided, even accredited zoos, we can’t suggest that you avoid them altogether. Some zoos do lots of charitable work to ensure animals are being looked after all over the world and most aim to provide their animals with the best care possible. The only zoos we suggest you avoid are unregulated or unaccredited zoos which do not provide their animals with sufficient care and treatment. Afterall, it isn’t right that some animals should suffer just for public spectacle, especially when an organization benefits financially form the mistreatment of its animals.
Zoos and Sanctuaries might appear similar from the outside but there are a few differences which set them apart. Now that you’ve learned the differences, you’ll know what to look out for and how to ensure you’re visiting a responsible zoo that looks after its animals appropriately. While we can’t suggest boycotting all zoos entirely, we’ve discussed some main things to look out for and how you can decide if a zoo is worth visiting or avoiding.