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The Differences Between An Animal Sanctuary And A Petting Zoo

A person offering a young goat their hand.

Updated July 8, 2021

For many people, the closest experience that they might have had to a living farmed animal outside of an agricultural operation has likely been in the form of petting zoos, either at fixed locations or at farmers markets or special events. Due to the cultural prevalence of petting zoos and the seemingly-benign nature of their operations, many folks have visited farmed animal sanctuaries expecting their experience to be more or less the same. For these same visitors, they may be surprised that sanctuaries are quite different than what they expected!

Here are some ways that farmed animal sanctuaries are not like and should not be like farmed animal petting zoos:

The Purpose Of A Petting Zoo Versus A Sanctuary

Humans typically operate petting zoos for one primary reason: monetary profit in exchange for the enjoyment and amusement of other humans, either directly through the petting zoo or as an additional activity to a larger public event. Although there may be a mandate to treat the animals gently, by and large, the experience is to let humans handle animals, regardless of whether this is something the animals want, or if it is appropriate for the animals to be handled by humans at all. Petting zoos typically offer little in the way of education beyond the basic identification of species.

By contrast, a farmed animal sanctuary should be a nonprofit organization focused on providing individualized care to animals, and centering the residents’ emotional and physical well-being rather than prioritizing human desires. A farmed animal sanctuary should always allow residents to have the autonomy to avoid human contact if they do not wish to interact with humans, and should not allow humans into the living spaces of those who are uncomfortable with or uninterested in human contact. Ambassador residents, who have been known to be more amenable to human interaction, can be a focus of visitor tours. A sanctuary can use visits as a platform to share the plight of animals like their residents, and offer actionable ways for a visitor to help others like them.

The Animals As Individuals

The animals at petting zoos are often bred or purchased specifically at a young age, as younger animals are less likely to be assertive than older animals and are more appealing to visitors. Animals at petting zoos are often fed treats by visitors, regardless of whether this food is appropriate or even necessarily healthy for the individual animal. Animals are moved around often at petting zoos, and are frequently in new, unfamiliar areas, surrounded by an overwhelming amount of humans. These animals are typically treated as anonymous props for humans to enjoy regardless of how they may feel.

At a farmed animal sanctuary, animals should never be bred (or purchased, typically), and a resident would only be younger by chance or rescue need. A younger resident should typically not be seen by visitors until they’ve grown a fair bit and developed a more robust immune system to protect their lifelong health. A farmed animal sanctuary typically shouldn’t allow visitors to feed residents, because many individual animals have specific nutritional needs that must be monitored; if they do allow for limited feeding, a sanctuary should discourage hand-feeding to prevent residents from becoming more food-motivated. 

A farmed animal sanctuary should never take a resident out of their home or away from their family to unfamiliar areas unless it is specifically for their health or safety. Sanctuary residents should always be treated as individuals who have their own stories, needs, and preferences that can be shared with visitors, rather than being treated as an anonymous member of their species.

Safety Protocols

Petting zoos typically have lax health protocols; often they are hosted in areas that also serve food for human consumption, like county fairs and markets. It is not unheard of for children to develop zoonotic diseases from handling animals at petting zoos. In addition, due to their laissez faire approach to animal handling, injuries to both humans and animals are common petting zoo events.

An animal sanctuary should always follow strict biosecurity protocols, ensuring that any residents that might be appropriate for visitors to meet are not exhibiting signs of illness or injury. In addition, visitors should always be accompanied by a trained tour guide or resident caregiver to facilitate safe interactions for both humans and residents, rather than being able to approach and interact with residents unmonitored.

The Outcome For The Animals

Animals at a petting zoo are typically either sold into animal agricultural operations (if the zoo itself wasn’t created by an agricultural entity using their own animals) or sent to auction at the end of a petting zoo’s operational season. This is because the demand is greater for younger, more docile animals that are easier to move, and their individual lives have little value outside of this small window of time.

Animals at animal sanctuaries should either be given lifelong care at the sanctuary (with strict contingencies to ensure their ongoing safety and comfort), or they should be adopted out to compassionate forever homes. At the end of their life, these residents should be given dignified end of life care and consideration.

Ultimately, petting zoos are a place for humans to reinforce the belief that animals exist solely for human desires. A sanctuary should provide an alternative to this harmful belief.

Updated on July 8, 2021

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