Sanctuary or Scamtuary
An Animal Rights Article from


Nicole Paquette, Esq., Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Born Free USA

You have probably received fundraising appeals from animal "sanctuaries" claiming that they have just rescued a starving tiger living in deplorable conditions in the basement of someone's home. The appeal urges you to pledge money to help pay for the rehabilitation of this desperate tiger. By your simply contributing $25 or more, the sanctuary says it can provide the tiger with the proper care and treatment necessary to live out her life in comfort, and be able to rescue more animals in the future.

Your heart goes out to this poor tiger and your hand reaches for your checkbook. But wait...before you send your hard-earned money to save this animal you must ask whether you are contributing to a sanctuary that is actually helping to reduce the wild and exotic animal trade by rescuing animals and providing a true haven, or to a "sanctuary" that in fact facilitates the trade by breeding more animals and displaying rescued animals for profit.

There are "sanctuaries" out there that claim to help rescued animals. However, many also breed the animals or support breeding programs, exhibit the rescued animals for entertainment purposes, and/or support the keeping of exotic animals as "pets". These facilities -- also known as "scamtuaries" or pseudo-sanctuaries -- play on people's desire to help abused, abandoned, or neglected animals.

A True Sanctuary

A sanctuary is a nonprofit organization described in Section 170(b)(1)(A)(vi) of the Internal Revenue Code 1986, and its subsequent amendments, that operates a place of refuse where abused, neglected, unwanted, impounded, abandoned, orphaned, or displaced exotic animals are provided care for their lifetime or released back to their natural habitat. Before donating money, it is important to do a little investigating into the organization, keeping in mind the qualities of a true sanctuary:

NO commercial activity involving animals occurs (including, but not limited to, sale of animals, animal parts, by-products, offspring, or photographic opportunities; no public events for financial gain and/or profit);

NO propagation or breeding of animals occurs in the facility for financial purposes;

NO unescorted public visitation is allowed; no direct contact between the public and wild and exotic animals is allowed; animals are not to be taken from their enclosures or off sanctuary grounds for exhibition or education; and

NO activities are conducted that are in conflict with the animals' inherent nature.

If you find yourself deciding whether or not to make a donation to a sanctuary, do some research on the Internet and call to determine whether it:

(1) breeds its animals for profit

(2) supports private possession of exotic animals

(3) sells its animals to other facilities

(4) provides lifetime care for the animals (i.e. Do its animal residents live out the remainder of their lives at the sanctuary or do some or all of them get transferred or sold to other facilities?)

(5) allows for photographic opportunities or public events for financial profit, or uses the animals in any other type of entertainment activity that is not inherent to the animal's nature (i.e. forcing an animal to perform tricks, jump through a hoop, etc.).

If the "sanctuary" answers yes to any of these questions, you should consider finding a different facility that does not profit from or support the wild and exotic animal trade as the recipient of your money.

In addition, before you donate, ask the facility to send you information, such as an annual report or evaluations that have been conducted by any of the nationally recognized charity watchdog services. These "watchdog" organizations' purpose is to help donors make informed giving decisions. Their independent evaluations assure the public that a nonprofit organization, such as a sanctuary, is properly governed, that its program is consistent with its statement of purpose, that its funding is sound, and that the bulk of its annual expenses is devoted to programs/work protecting animals. For further information, see  and Charity Watch. You can also research a nonprofit organization's latest Internal Revenue Service Tax Return (Form 990) at GuideStar.

It is easy to be taken in by a psuedo-sanctuary's slick PR or a good sales pitch. But many sanctuary owners started out as individual exotic pet owners and gradually acquired more and more animals. Some pseudo-sanctuary owners are really animal collectors who simply formed a nonprofit organization and began referring to themselves as a sanctuary. It is true that many psuedo-sanctuaries have rescued animals from deplorable conditions. Oftentimes, however, rescued animals are taken out of one bad situation and placed into one that is equally bad or even worse.

Dispelling the Myth

Don't be fooled by a sanctuary's claim that it is a legitimate rescue facility based on the fact that it has an exhibitor's license from the federal government under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). This is the same license all zoos possess. All exhibitors, whether municipally owned zoos, or roadside zoos, circuses, or sanctuaries that exhibit animals to the public, must have an exhibitor's license. With a Class C license, these facilities may breed and sell offspring, they may broker offspring bred by others, though the major activity of a Class C license must be the exhibiting of the animals. Possessors of wild and exotic animals often sidestep existing state or local laws that prohibit possession of these animals by becoming licensed exhibitors under the AWA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the AWA through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Licensed exhibitors are subject to routine unannounced inspections, re-inspection due to previous violation(s), and complaint inspections. Although the AWA requires that inspections be conducted annually, not all facilities are reviewed that frequently. APHIS employs approximately 100 field inspectors to perform compliance inspections at approximately 12,000 facilities per year (a figure that includes more than 2,600 licensed exhibitors). Inspectors note many deficiencies at these facilities each year, but less than one percent are charged for violations, and an even smaller number have their license suspended or revoked. Quite simply, the AWA does not go far enough in providing proper protection from abuse and neglect, and for public health and safety.

Most captive wild animals can never be returned to the wild. However, since they are being bred in mass numbers in the U.S. and are kept as pets, exhibited to the public, and housed in facilities that do not properly care for them, there is a desperate need for true sanctuaries that are able to provide lifetime care for these animals. The problem lies in the definition of the term "sanctuary". Be mindful of the differences between actual rescue organizations and "scamtuaries", and be sure only to support genuine sanctuaries.


Return to Animal Rights Articles