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
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.
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.
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
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
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 (www.taosanctuaries.org) and author of Disposable
the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets (Camino Bay Books).