What Defines An Animal Sanctuary?

A graphic with two pencils and the words "An animal sanctuary is..."

A member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff has given this resource a full review and provided updates where necessary, as of February 25, 2022.

If you are an animal advocate, or aspire to be one, when you think of the term “Animal Sanctuary”, many images or fond memories of past visits may come to mind. You might have a general conception of what a sanctuary does and does not advocate for, how they treat visitors, or the level of care provided for their residents. However, reality does not always align with our expectations!

As a term, “animal sanctuary” does not carry a strict legal or regulatory definition. This is especially true for farmed animal sanctuaries. The United States federal Animal Welfare Act doesn’t recognize or suggest unique “farm sanctuary” standards. Thus, farmed animal sanctuaries fall under basic USDA agricultural guidelines in the United States.

Perhaps due to this lack of formal and legal definition, there are a wide variety of organizations across the world that have chosen to use “Animal Sanctuary” as a description for their mission.

What's In A Name?

Many organizations who may have near-identical missions might use completely different words to describe themselves, and many organizations that have vastly different missions and philosophies might have almost identical names! When looking at an organization that involves animals, it’s important to critically look at their mission and practices, rather than solely the words that they use to label themselves.

So when we at The Open Sanctuary Project talk about sanctuaries, how are we defining an animal sanctuary? And what kinds of organizational decisions may fall short of our criteria? Here are some guiding philosophies to think about:

Quantity of Residents and Species Does Not Define Sanctuary

Sanctuaries come in all shapes and sizes, and can be found in all kinds of places. While you might automatically think of rural spaces and wide open places when it comes to sanctuaries, you can find them in urban centers too! Similarly, when you think sanctuary, you might think: cows, sheep, and horses, oh my! But in addition to this common model of sanctuary, a sanctuary can be focused on just a single species. You also might imagine a sanctuary to have a large number of residents. But a sanctuary can be as small as a single caregiver and a single resident, such for example, in the case of an urban microsanctuary, where one person lives with a single resident, perhaps even in an apartment.

More On Microsanctuaries!
If you’re interested in microsanctuary, consider exploring the Microsanctuary Resource Center, whose principles may provide additional illumination on the question of sanctuary on a smaller scale.

You might ask, if you can’t define a sanctuary around size, is there something different about what they do that defines them? The answer is…yes, and no. It’s about both what they say, and what they do! It’s about whether the organization in question maintains a culture, philosophy, strict policies around compassionate care, AND conducts their day to day actions in a manner to ensure their residents are not subjected to any kind of exploitation. Which brings us to the next part of our discussion!

Animal Sanctuaries Should Be A Place Of Non-Exploitation

The most important thing an animal sanctuary needs is a culture, philosophy, and strict policies in place to ensure that their residents are not subjected to exploitation, and day to day practices that reflect these positions. By “non-exploitation”, we mean that residents (or other non-resident members of their species), and anything that comes off of or out of them, are never used either to generate profit or to perpetuate a culture of animal exploitation or harm.

Some specific examples of this exploitation may include:

Where’s The Line?

We understand that it can sometimes be difficult to find public support for animal sanctuaries, and that it may be tempting to generate funding for an animal sanctuary with what may be perceived as “lesser” exploitation. If there’s ever a question of whether an activity is inherently exploitative, a sanctuary should ask themselves, “Who does this action primarily serve?”

If the answer is “humans,” it’s very likely exploitative to a resident. Even if this action generates income that goes directly back to a sanctuary’s residents, does the perpetuation of a species’ commodification ultimately serve that resident’s species outside of sanctuary grounds?

For more information about how an animal sanctuary can avoid harm to animals, check out our resource here.

Animal Sanctuaries Should Not Be Motivated By Profit

Animal sanctuaries, whether legally designated as nonprofits or not, should not be profit-driven enterprises. The primary purpose of a sanctuary should always be to provide sanctuary to animals in need. If a sanctuary does sell non-exploitative products or services, the profits should be used for the benefit of the animals and others like them rather than personal gain.

Check out our resource here on ways that an animal sanctuary can raise money in a non-exploitative fashion!

Animal Sanctuaries Should Put Their Residents’ Needs First

Residents at an animal sanctuary must be prioritized wherever possible and practicable. This philosophy should be one of the guiding principles of how a sanctuary develops, organizes, and operates. Some examples of prioritizing residents at sanctuaries include:

Residents Of Animal Sanctuaries Do Not Serve A Purpose

In a sanctuary, no resident is assigned a “purpose” of any kind and they are not required to serve any larger function. Instead, it is the sanctuary’s primary goal to serve a purpose: providing residents with the best compassionate care available.
Fundamentally, in both philosophy and in practice, in a sanctuary residents are considered to be unique and valuable individuals, whose autonomy and comfort are prioritized first and foremost. A sanctuary space is a safe place for them to live out their lives with all of the compassionate care that is required – from vet care, to appropriate food and shelter, to enrichment – to allow them to thrive.  

Animal Sanctuaries Should Take In Residents Responsibly

Sanctuaries should prioritize taking in animals who are in immediate need of a safe place to live out their lives, with a well-crafted internal rescue policy to help guide the decision-making process.

Sanctuaries Should Not Breed More Animals

There is an overwhelming need for sanctuary across the world. An animal sanctuary should not breed residents (either intentionally or “accidentally”), or hatch eggs (i.e. breed birds) on sanctuary grounds. Mammalian residents should be spayed (if appropriate and recommended by their veterinarian) or neutered shortly upon arrival to the sanctuary unless it is too risky to perform the procedure, and additional precautions must be implemented so that these unaltered residents do not have babies. The exception would be taking in residents who are already far along in a pregnancy.

For more information on this topic, check out our resource here.

Animal Sanctuaries Should Have Responsible Visitor Policies

Animal sanctuaries are by no means required to allow visitors on their premises, but should they choose to allow for tours or visits, they must be crafted with the residents’ best interests in mind. A sanctuary should be a resident’s home, where they feel safe, not a place where they’re exhibited to the public for entertainment. All residents should be allowed to ignore tours or visitors, should they choose to do so. They should not be coerced into interacting with visitors, as a sanctuary is not and should never be a petting zoo. Resident living spaces should be designed with the residents in mind, rather than a potential visitor’s enrichment (though there are certainly ways to give visitors a good experience while prioritizing residents!).

If providing tours, residents should always have their personal stories shared when appropriate, and be talked about as individuals rather than strictly as an anonymous collective. There should be an educational component to sanctuary tours, so that visitors have a clear idea of what has necessitated the creation of the sanctuary and how they can help be a part of the solution!


The Truth About Sanctuaries | Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries

What Is A Microsanctuary | The Microsanctuary Resource Center

Why We Need Animal Sanctuaries | Live Science


Read this resource in Spanish here!

Read this resource in French here!

Read this resource in German here!

Updated on March 16, 2022

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