There has been some media coverage about a recent lion attack on a young intern at a big cat facility in California. The details of what occurred are yet to be investigated and uncovered, and our thoughts certainly go out to the family of the young victim of this horrible tragedy. However, it made us think about the importance of being able to identify TRUE sanctuaries, not only for donors and supporters, but especially for those potential volunteers and interns who are looking for that unique opportunity to gain knowledge and experience working with animals.

Internships and volunteer opportunities are a great way for individuals to build their resumes, gain practical experience, and learn from experienced caregivers as they pursue a career path in animal husbandry and/or advocacy. However, individuals must make sure to closely examine the organizations to which they are applying to not only ensure the most rewarding, fulfilling and educational experience, but also to ensure that the organizations are reputable, responsible, and safe.

Fortunately, the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) in conjunction with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) has begun to identify and accredit primate sanctuaries across North America and hold organizations to high standards in categories ranging from financial stability and quality of care to safety protocols. GFAS has evaluated and accredited animal sanctuaries around the world against such high standards. However, not all animal facilities and organizations participate in oversight and accreditation procedures, and therefore must be examined for warning signs by individuals themselves. 

What are some of those warning signs that indicate an animal facility is not a TRUE sanctuary and may not be a reputable or safe organization with which to associate as you pursue your career with animals?

First and foremost, safety should be a top priority. Despite the strong desire individuals have to directly interact with wild exotic animals, a reputable and safe sanctuary will not allow interns and volunteers to have hands-on interaction or contact with dangerous and unpredictable wild animals (i.e. primates, big cats, bears, whales, etc.). This type of contact is simply not worth the risk and therefore should not be permitted for the safety of the human individuals as well as the animals themselves.

In addition, responsible and reputable sanctuaries will not take their dangerous exotic animals (primates, big cats, bears, etc.) off-site for “educational” purposes, including school visits, TV appearances, etc. There are much safer ways to educate the public about various exotic species, including videos and photos that show the animals in their habitats and interacting with their fellow species. Those facilities that insist on exposing the public to unpredictable and dangerous exotic animals for “educational” purposes reveal their lack of commitment to the safety of the public as well as the safety of their animals.

TRUE sanctuaries do not breed and take necessary steps to prevent reproduction among their residents. Sanctuary communities are well aware of the existing need for the placement of animals of all species into sanctuaries from pet situations, laboratories, and entertainment. Breeding new animals that fill those spots and add to the number of animals in captivity is irresponsible. In many cases, these babies are often hand raised by humans and denied the maternal bonding and skill development crucial for healthy growth and the prevention of abnormal stereotypical behaviors.

As you begin to look for internship or volunteer opportunities, keep in mind that not all animal organizations are equal. A nicely designed website with colorful pictures can be deceiving. It is important to at least examine a sanctuary’s mission statement, look for GFAS accreditation, and look for a hands-off policy so that you can be confident that your internship or volunteer experience is not only educational and fulfilling, but also at a facility that is reputable, safe and responsible. If you have any doubts or questions about a particular facility, you can always ask a well-known reputable organization their opinion.