Petting Zoos and Sanctuaries...what's the difference?

If you’ve ever visited a petting zoo and an animal sanctuary, you might be wondering what’s the difference? On the surface they may seem to serve similar purposes – to provide animals with food, shelter and care. But a closer look at the two reveals very different organizations with very different motivations, methods and objectives.

Put in the simplest way, in petting zoos the animals are there for us. In a sanctuary, we are there for the animals. When we look at how the animals are acquired, how they are cared for and how they are allowed to live their lives, the differences become clearer.

Intake procedures

Because petting zoos are “for profit” and sanctuaries are, generally, not, petting zoos want to have animals on display that will bring in customers. In order to do this, zoos will buy and sell animals, as well as breed animals so they have a steady supply of babies on hand which are always crowd-pleasers. There is little regard for the rights of the individual animals and over-crowding and abandonment, or worse, of older, less “appealing” animals can happen.

A sanctuary, on the other hand, is there for the sole purpose of providing a safe home, both physically and emotionally, for the animal for the rest of their natural life. Before an animal is brought to a sanctuary, such as Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, many things must be considered including the ability to care for the animal both financially and in terms of space, food, shelter and healthcare without any compromise to the residents already living there. You can read more about the intake process at HEEFS in our May 2019 newsletter.

Interaction with the animals

Petting zoos are entertainment and encourage people of all ages and comfort levels to interact with, and feed, their animals without any concern for the stress that this puts on an individual resident, not to mention the health concerns associated with overfeeding and an unbalanced diet.

At a sanctuary, the animals are encouraged to live their life on their own terms with help from human caregivers when necessary. Food is strictly monitored for the health and well being of the animal and interaction with the public, if this happens at all, is strictly at the discretion of the animal.

Safety…yours and theirs

There are many other differences between petting zoos and sanctuaries, such as the level of care taken to ensure animals are free from diseases that can transfer to other animals and to humans and, when infected, that the animal receives the proper treatment and is housed away from everyone else. These health protocols are far more developed and adhered to in a sanctuary setting than in a petting zoo. In petting zoos, sick animal can very easily be replaced with a “similar” animal and all is good. In a sanctuary, the safety, health and well-being of all residents, as well as volunteers, staff and visitors, is at the forefront of everything we do.

We would encourage you to find a local sanctuary and volunteer, or go on a tour, if they are offered. Supporting local sanctuaries is a great way to truly help animals live their best life. For another perspectives on sanctuaries versus petting zoos, you can check out what Full Circle Animal Sanctuary has to say.