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November 2004
Animal Sanctuaries and Animal Activism
By Craig Brestrup


Sanctuary is defined, in part, as a place of safety and care for creatures whose only alternative would be an unsuitable setting, suffering, or death. When sanctuary is offered to humans, it often carries religious overtones. Think, for example, of the gathering place for worship within sacred architecture or of the protection provided refugees or people persecuted.

Sanctuary, in short, represents safekeeping under the auspices of transcendent or ethical values. As such it embodies both instrumental good (protection of the threatened) and intrinsic good (something good in itself and an expression of human goodness).

Comprehensive social change involves a triad of intervention, education, and advocacy. In animal activism, sanctuary composes the first leg of intervention. The sanctuary provides an on-the-ground fulfillment of the animal advocate’s central conviction that all life has intrinsic value. Without sanctuaries and other forms of direct animal care, the triad shrinks to a dyad, and animal activism is threatened with abstraction through an unwillingness to put its values into concrete practice. Just as one cannot legitimately “love mankind” while neglecting a suffering neighbor, we cannot love animalia while overlooking the needs of individual animals. In this way of thinking, animal rights is a single movement with many parts, many instruments, many paths to its ultimate goal. Individuals and organizations contribute to this whole so long as they attach their energies to any one or more of the triad’s legs.

A Uniquely Powerful Niche
Sanctuaries and other forms of direct animal care have a uniquely powerful niche to fill when they choose to fill it. When thinking of the foundation of animal activism (or any activism)—intervention, education, advocacy—think about how powerful an organization could be when utilizing all their tools.

Intervention provides shelter and care to homeless companion animals, along with adoption and spay/neuter programs, and sanctuary for wild, exotic, and farmed animals (the last of which may also be adopted).

Education speaks compellingly to the public about the moral dignity and intrinsic value of all life, about the attitudes and practices that violate this value, about the needs and rights of nonhuman creatures.

Advocacy goes to court, joins task forces, walks the hallways of courthouses and state capitals, conducts campaigns to protect particular animals and in the process change perceptions.

The Bedrock of Values and Practices
Animal sanctuaries erect themselves on a bedrock of core values and practices, expressed by the Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS) in the following manner.

Animals are not allowed to breed. Life in a sanctuary is far better than what the animals had before they arrived, but no animal should be deliberately or inadvertently brought into the world to live in other than natural conditions. Such a diminishment of the life that evolution has prepared would be a disservice to the animal and contrary to the message of respect for all life that we wish to promote. Breeding new animals would also occupy already scarce space and other resources and thus be an impediment to rescuing already existing animals.

Animals will not be used in commercial activities. They will not be bought except under very unusual circumstances, sold, traded, or hired out for entertainment or other such purposes not consistent with their natural ways. Public access is restricted and only occurs under conditions of nonintrusiveness and respect for their privacy.

Sanctuaries accept lifetime responsibility for their resident animals. They may, when possible, be rehabilitated and released in an appropriate habitat or transferred to another sanctuary better suited to their needs. Wild animals will not be adopted, but farmed or companion animals may be if standards of care are high and prohibitions on breeding and commercial activity complied with.

Welfare of the animals is always the primary criterion for decision. Emotional, economic, or other needs of sanctuary managers and workers will not jeopardize the best interests of the animals.

Sanctuary Values
Even when a sanctuary lacks a formal education program it recognizes that actions speak louder than words. So it must be vigilant about internal consistency to ensure that all its parts reinforce its whole. For example, if newsletters or public relations materials carry pictures of employees or volunteers interacting with wild animals in intimate, companionable ways, they risk implying that such animals might make good friends and “pets,” and they will diminish the natural awe one should feel in beholding the autonomy and mystery of wild animals, even those whose evolutionarily designed lives have been distorted by captivity. Sanctuary values mandate that, to the extent possible, an animal’s essential nature and proclivities be allowed to thrive. They provide for his/her social, behavioral, and emotional needs, and do not try to substitute human companionship for that of animals of their own kind. And more: Animals will not be given demeaning names, or taught entertaining tricks, or presented to the public in unnatural or caricatured postures or garb.

Unique Synergies
Individuals who are drawn to work in different areas are united by a commitment to animal protection and amelioration of their low status in relation to humans. At the same time they are distinguished by different practical approaches and varying philosophical conceptions. As members of a single organization with multiple tasks and goals, all are enriched by the experience of pluralism.

The actual presence of rescued animals along with their individual stories provide unique motivational impetus and help keep workers’ “feet on the ground.” The smell and sound of animals and the labor in caring for them help to banish abstraction and fuel pragmatism. If one source of the conflicts between animal advocates lies in the inability of our animal “clients” to speak for themselves (to tell us when we get off track), then workers’ proximity to animals may help to sharpen their senses and to hear and see messages from the wordless realms, from the actual reality of animal being, that convey direction and insight.

Animals in sanctuary evoke public interest and concern and provide “case histories” on which to build educational and advocacy themes. They are the living, visible victims of some humans’ cruelty or disregard and the beneficiaries of other humans’ compassionate actions.

One form of internal inconsistency among animal activists shows as variants of misanthropy and internecine, holier-than-thou squabbling. We are sometimes inclined to preach compassion toward every species but our own. Alternatively, working under harness to one wagon can become a laboratory for tolerance and the practice of kindness toward people in general as well as toward allies who happen to see things differently.

A Very Different Integration
How can the animals be “used” and the messages communicated, whether as embodiment, image, or word, in ways that do not violate sanctuary values? This is a controversial issue. It swirls around the matters of supposed “ambassador” animals used in educational programs, of human contact with captive wild animals, and of public access to the sanctuary.

This isn’t the place to discuss these questions in depth, but rather to offer one vision of how it may work. To begin, this is only a problem in sanctuaries for wild animals. With farmed or companion animals we do not face these dilemmas, for those animals are thoroughly integrated into human society, often to their dismay, as the uses to which they are put may result in suffering and death. When allowed to live and enjoy the companionship and partnership, their presence in sanctuaries and uses for educational purposes are noncontroversial and valuable. For example, by allowing the public to meet the animals, farmed animal sanctuaries have turned countless people away from eating meat.

Wild animals in sanctuary, however, require very different integration into programs. When not captive, wild animals are distinguished by their autonomy and the separateness they usually choose to maintain in their relations with humans. Even in settings where they recognize that the people around them are not looking at them as prey or competitors, wild animals generally remain wary and maintain their boundaries.

The inherent wildness of these animals will always surpass our ability to understand; and what their deprivation through captivity means for them remains equally indecipherable as their lived experience, but various of their behaviors in captive settings reveal that they find infringement of their freedom a great insult to their integrity. How else to explain breeding problems in zoos (including killing of young by their mothers), the dull idleness seen in their eyes, self-mutilation, and repetitive behaviors?

And beyond this, what can we know of the meaning to them of people invading their territory (even its terribly diminished version within sanctuaries) or handling them as they would never allow when free? So potential stress to the animal along with the indecipherable mysteries of what captivity means to even well-adapted captive animals suggests sensitivity and conservatism in exposing them to outsiders. Throw in the double messages that may be sent (e.g., honor animal integrity but look and touch; wild animals ought not be “pets” but here is this peaceful guy on a leash) and there are abundant reasons for caution in drafting these animals into educational efforts.

Video transmissions to remote monitors, limited and well-managed guided tours, and viewing from a distance are ways in which the appeal of animality can be drawn upon for its positive effects on those whom we would educate while remaining consistent with sanctuary intent to protect and honor the animals.

Words Made Flesh
Sanctuary animals stand for all animals. It is they who have suffered and they for whom we work. The immediacy of their presence and their individual biographical narratives exemplify the range of human potentiality, for better or worse. They are the concrete, irrefutable witnesses.

Their losses cannot be wiped away (although they can be mitigated by life in the sanctuary), but they may be at least partially compensated for by their conversion into instructive examples of human behavior gone wrong and from this we may derive themes for corrective ways of being.

The sanctuary provides a model of right relations between ourselves and the rest of the animal world. When it moves out from this to focus on sources of the problems (one of whose symptoms is animals needing sanctuary) through education and advocacy, it may help create a model for more potent and united efforts for change. The dimensions of the challenge we face are immeasurable and vast, so we must be comparably creative in response.

Craig Brestrup is the former President and Executive Director of the Association of Sanctuaries ( and author of Disposable Animals: Ending the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets (Camino Bay Books).


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