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What Makes a Good Animal Sanctuary

What Makes a Good Animal Sanctuary

by Vanessa Gagne on

We are currently faced with the ever growing issue of coexisting peacefully with wild animals. As humans exponentially intrude onto natural habitats, the living conditions of native animals are threatened. There are many dedicated organizations and governments working to mitigate this conflict all over the world. But what happens when the issue surrounds animals that people live and work with on a daily basis?  In the past several decades a movement of awareness has begun to filter throughout Western culture; that of animal welfare. Today we see sanctuaries popping up all over the news and social media, whose mission it is to rescue and rehabilitate wild animals and those that may have not received good enough care at their previous facility.  But this raises the question, what makes a good sanctuary?  

The first and most important aspect of a good sanctuary is the level of care and attention given to basic animal welfare. Is each animal’s needs being met according to their natural history?  For example a very large part of maintaining an elephant’s health is caring for their feet. This involves the proper grounding for natural foot wear, the filing and trimming of nails and cuticles, and the maintenance of the foot pad. Right after foot care comes skin care. An elephant must be able to either bathe themselves or be bathed to allow for proper exfoliation.  Immediately thereafter they will want to scratch on logs or posts. Finally they will finish it off with a nice dusting to protect their skin from the sun and biting insects. Coupled with feet and skin is nutrition. Elephants need a proper diet to maintain their healthy weight. An overweight elephant will wear their feet unevenly while a malnourished elephant can grow brittle and misshapen nails and foot pads.

(Dr. Kushal teaching mahouts foot care using the traditional hoof knife, the kukri)


Second, and equally as important, is the ability to provide mental stimulation. Through training, human interaction, and enrichment within the enclosures, elephants can be provided the mental stimulation they need. Elephants are mega herbivores that spend 20 hours of their day foraging and eating. That being said, being able to occupy that amount of time during a day can be a lot of work for a keeper or mahout. However, that can easily be attained through the use of structured training sessions, exercise and a variety of foods to forage.  

(Elephants with their mahouts at the ECC in Laos)

After the basic needs and mental stimulation requirements comes the further action component. What is that establishment doing to further the cause for that particular species? The topic of elephants in human care has an endless spectrum of underlying issues. Be that as it may, how can elephant sanctuaries best help elephants that are in danger or in bad conditions at other establishments? Shedding light on the raw reality of life in the wild for Asian elephants is essential for not only awareness of what is at stake, but it also helps people understand how fragile most of these
out of balance ecosystems are. A facility with the foresight to see the importance of breeding would stand out as one that does not want to see elephants go extinct.  

(Mom and calf at the ECC in Laos)


After assessing a facility and its mission by this outline, being able to determine an honest, straightforward program may be a bit easier for those that cannot visit every single one they hear about. Being called a sanctuary does not guarantee it means it is a safe or clean option for the rescued animal. What does matter is a desire to provide a sustainable future for that animal and create a life where it will thrive.  

Vanessa is a board member and the secretary of the Asian Elephant Support, all photos were provided by her.

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  • This is a great article, very informative. Thanks.

    Scott Anderson on

  • Wonderfully written from a clearly educated and caring professional.

    Chris on

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