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Sanctuary vs Captive Facility: Key differences you need to know

What comes to mind when we use the term ‘captive facility’? What about the word ‘sanctuary’? It’s likely that two vastly different images of the animals in these places appeared in your mind when you read those words. 


A captive facility immediately brings to mind animals in cages and small enclosures, substandard care, and a general sense of lacking well-being. A sanctuary elicits thoughts of care, compassion, a love for the animals. 


But, does calling a captive facility a sanctuary make it more ethical? 

It’s not surprising that it has become confusing for tourists and visitors to understand the difference between a sanctuary and commercial captive facility, or when facility owners themselves blur the distinction between what is ethical and unethical. 


In South Africa, a facility may call themselves a sanctuary without having to actually comply with international sanctuary standards. In essence, a zoo, petting facility, or even a breeding facility, might choose to add ‘sanctuary’ to their name, dubiously making the public believe they are operating as a rescue or place of refuge for abandoned, abused, or neglected animals. 


According to NEMBA, a sanctuary is considered a facility that provides permanent care to threatened or protected species, like for example lions, that could not sustain themselves in the wild. However this definition is far too broad and does not encompass a no breeding, no interaction or no trade policies, higher standards of care, including living conditions, veterinary care, and other examples that improve an animal’s quality of life. This loophole allows commercial facilities operating for profit to call themselves sanctuaries even though they are breeding, are still buying and selling animals and the animals are used for entertainment purposes. 


The truth, unfortunately, is that more often than not, these facilities are operating for commercial gain under the guise of rescuing and homing the animals in their care. The reality is that in South Africa we only have a handful of genuine sanctuaries who operate purely for the care of their animals. In these sanctuaries, the animals are not bought and sold; there is no breeding; no interaction; the animals have options to hide from tourist views; and no activities are conducted that negatively impact the well-being of the animals. 

To make this distinction clearer, we need to first look at the non-negotiable criteria to which genuine sanctuaries should adhere:


  • A genuine sanctuary does not breed with any wildlife: Breeding predators, such as lions, tigers, and other big cats, has long been established by experts as a practice that does not contribute to conservation in the wild. These animals could never be successfully released into functioning ecosystems and would therefore simply be added to the captive life cycle. There are only a few examples of breeding wild animals for genuine, wild conservation purposes.

  • A genuine sanctuary does not trade in animals: the buying and selling of wild animals between facilities is not allowed as a sanctuary. Unfortunately, many captive facilities claim to have ‘rescued’ their animals, making it vital that visitors question the authenticity of these claims: Where were the animals rescued from? Under what circumstances? Was money exchanged for the animals? Were they bred initially for commercial purposes? Will they have a forever home?

  • A genuine sanctuary does never allow human-animal interactions: it has been established by welfare experts that human-animal interactions with wild animals is harmful to their well-being. The stress caused by a stream of paying visitors to touch, feed, and cuddle is unnatural and damaging to the animal’s welfare. In addition, once they are too big and dangerous to play with, they are often sold to another facility to become part of the life cycle of a captive lion.

  • A genuine sanctuary provides a lifelong home for animals: the animals in a sanctuary are often rehomed from abusive and neglectful conditions and given a second chance. They are placed in the biggest possible enclosures that mimic natural conditions, including lots of trees or shrubs, natural hiding spots, water, varied and quality food, etc. Wooden platforms and concrete places to sleep are not natural or adequate by any means. Captive facilities create conditions that to make the viewing of the animals as easy as possible. In many cases, the animals rarely have a chance to retreat, adding further stress to their living conditions. Many captive facilities rely on cheap sources of protein, such as chicken carcasses or donated older meat, to keep costs to a minimum.

So, if a facility calls themselves a sanctuary, what warning signs should we look out for?


  • Physical / hands-on interactions: hand feeding, petting, and walking are activities sanctuaries would never engage in. Even if only the owner or caretaker interacts with the animals, this is still a sign that people’s interest is prioritised over the animal’s well-being.

  • Enclosure size and quality: each province has set guidelines regarding the minimum enclosure size for lions and other big cats. This does not mean to say provincial guidelines have the animals’ welfare at heart, but small enclosures that do not allow for freedom of movement are a serious red flag. The cleanliness is also important – are there bones, feathers, and old pieces of meat and faeces lying around? Are the enclosures or cages bare, lacking in trees, climbing opportunities, and natural hiding spots? What is the substrate the animals live on?

  • Feeding quality: what does the animals’ diet consist of and how often are they fed? Is feeding part of the tourist experience? Do the animals look obese or extremely thin? Is their diet largely unvaried and consists solely of donated dead chickens, this is a major health concern.  

  • Behaviour: snarling, pacing and other repetitive stereotypic behaviours, such as mouthing or chewing at fences/bars, self-mutilation (plucking, biting, etc), swimming in circles, excessive sleeping, and swaying are signs of severe distress. 

  • Health: do the animals have scars and/or injuries, such as cuts and bite wounds, which can be from fighting? Are they surrounded by flies? Do they appear to have missing fur and black patches on their bodies, which could be mange?

Why is this so problematic?

The sad reality is that genuine sanctuaries exist due to the abusive and exploitative conditions in the commercial captive predator industry, including circuses and zoos globally. While genuine sanctuaries do great welfare work for the animals in their care, their existence should not be necessary if wild animals were not kept in captive conditions in the first place and particularly in neglectful and abusive situations. 

 In addition to the welfare concerns of wild animals in captivity, another reason these blurred lines are so problematic is that it misdirects necessary funds and attention from genuine conservation initiatives. 

When well-meaning members of the public donate resources, time, and funds, or just pay entry fees, to commercial captive facilities portraying themselves as sanctuaries, genuine conservation efforts lose out. In the absence of a commercial captive predator industry, more funding can be made available for genuine wildlife conservation on the ground. 

It falls upon us to critically and consciously wade through the muddy waters created by captive predator owners and influencers who misdirect our attention through the use of misleading language to pull at the heartstrings of those who unknowingly support illegitimate sanctuaries and conservation efforts.