If you haven’t seen it (or the many memes), surely, you’ve heard about it. In the recent Netflix docuseries Tiger King, we learn about the life of exotic animals bred in captivity in the US. If there’s one thing the show has taught us about the relationship between tourism and wildlife its that many travellers prioritise animal entertainment over welfare. Sadly, the mistreatment of animals is fuelled by the increasing demand by tourists and because this demand is so high, these animals continue to be used for profit in some of the cruellest tourist attractions on earth. The problem is, for most travellers who want to interact with wild and exotic animals, they simply aren’t aware. There is a fine line between the reality of genuine animal sanctuaries compared to what is essentially an exploitative petting zoo.

Tiger King barely scratches the surface of the suffering these animals endure and the extensive networks of cruelty involved in breeding and selling wildlife menageries. Since the release of the seven part series additional undercover footage of how the cats are trained behind the scenes (warning: it’s graphic) have been published by the Humane Society of the US.

safari south africa

So, what is an animal sanctuary?

Animal sanctuaries act as a place of refuge for any animals that have been abused, neglected, injured or abandoned and keep them for life. “Sanctuaries should be a place for animals to retire.” says Tim Harrison from Outreach for Animals. The animals must have sanitary conditions, sufficient enclosures, proper veterinary care and appropriate feed.

An animal sanctuary does not buy, trade or loan out it’s wildlife.

The issue with some animal sanctuaries is that they undermine the very purpose they were meant to serve. By prioritising tourism over taking care, as a result, animals endure a lifetime of cruelty and abuse in captivity.

So, why do we visit them?

Animal lovers visit wildlife sanctuaries because they want to see animals up close and they believe sanctuaries are in the profession of taking care of animals that have nowhere else to go. Sounds like a better life right?

The reality is that some are beaten into submission, deprived of food and water or trapped in concrete cages. It’s important to remember that “no reputable animal sanctuary allows any kind of hands-on interaction, and that includes posing for photos with animals. Such interactions […] endanger both them and the visitors” Peta.org.

Drakenstein Lion Park

The truth about tiger and lion sanctuaries

Despite what we’ve witnessed on Tiger King, big cats are not able to adapt to an existence in a cage. Tigers are solitary, territorial animals and normally have a home ranging almost 300km². It’s true that tigers are endangered, but breeding tigers in captivity is not the answer. For starters, breeding tigers in captivity serves no conservation purpose. All breeding leads to a life in captivity, deprived of interacting in the wild and utilising their natural instincts. Countless years of inbreeding also leads to genetic deformities and lifelong health issues.

In fact, tiger breeding has been linked to the illegal trade in tiger products, which encourages the poaching of wild tigers as well as the abuse of tigers in captivity. In captivity, a tiger’s natural behaviours and movements are extremely restricted, causing stress, boredom, and frustration. Tigers often show stereotypical behaviours, such as pacing and panting when kept in captivity, which is a strong indication that the animal is experiencing stress. 

We also need to be aware that cubs in the wild stay with their mothers for up to two years, not taken from their mothers at birth.

Above all, “it’s an absolute no-no for us to allow public contact with big cats,” says Adam Roberts, president of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). This includes tiger selfies, cub petting and walking with tigers.

my personal experience at a lion sanctuary

On our year abroad, we visited the Drakenstein Lion Park sanctuary in South Africa. We were impressed by the education offered and the ‘hands off’ approach for tourists to interacts with the lions. The guide who accompanied us throughout the park shared the stories of where the animals had comes from (mostly circus, road shows and private owners). The lions seemed well looked after, but I did notice some were pacing within their enclosures.

the truth about elephant sanctuaries

Greenwashing can occur in many places in the tourism industry and so called elephant sanctuaries are no exception. Just because a venue claims to be a sanctuary, rescue centre or retirement home for elephants, don’t assume it means animals receive a higher welfare.

Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for shows or unprotected close tourist contact (including bathing) will have undergone traumatic training. This involves living in isolation, deprivation of food and water, and in many cases repeated beating until they can be controlled by fear.

If you can touch an elephant, ride, bath or watch it perform, chances are the elephant has been subjected to cruel training and is living in poor conditions.

Here is a list of the accredited venues in Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal you can feel comfortable visiting, as approved by World Animal Protection.

elephant ride sri lanka

my personal experience at an elephant sanctuary

I have to be honest with you. In 2005, I visited a so-called elephant sanctuary in Thailand and I rode an elephant. Looking back, there was very little literature and education around the mistreatment of elephants and if I could go back and undo it, I would. The above photo was taken of a tourist in Sri Lanka taking a ride to Sigiriya. Notice the chains on the elephants hind legs chained together.

the truth about sea turtle sanctuaries

In the wild, sea turtles are typically solitary, migratory creatures who rarely interact with each other outside of mating and they’re born to swim long distances.

In captivity, they are forced together into large social groupings in cramped conditions, frequently being handling by inexperienced tourists. This type of handling leads to tourists dropping turtles, damaging their protective shells and leaving them with skin lesions.

my personal experience at a sea turtle sanctuary

In Mexico, Moo and I visited a turtle sanctuary whose purpose was to collect eggs from the sand, keep them safe in incubation and release them into the wild once hatched. No handling of the turtles was permitted and nature was left to ‘do it’s thing’ as the baby turtles instinctively made their way to the sea.

what about swimming with dolphins & killer whale shows?

Slowly across the industry, there is a decrease in dolphin and killer whales in captivity, thanks to the documentary Blackfish (highlighting the issues with housing killer whales at SeaWorld.) But these venues do sadly still exist. These animals are taken from the wild (or bought, sold and traded within the market) at a young age and live a life of captivity in tiny, barren, chlorinated tanks.

In the wild, dolphins travel extensive distances. They dive deep into the ocean for food and live in large social groups. But captive dolphins can only swim a few metres, at best.

Swimming with dolphins or watching them perform indicate the animal has been trained (beaten and abused) to be able to do so. You can help by reporting any venue offering this type of ‘entertainment’ to the World Animal Protection and avoid supporting these companies.

How can you determine if an animal sanctuary is legit?

(You can apply the below to any and all animal sanctuaries worldwide.)

  • Is there an evidence of breeding? If yes, this is not a legitimate sanctuary.
  • Can you ride, touch, bath or take a selfie with the animal? Including animals performing tricks? If yes, you can be sure cruelty is involved.
  • Is the venue accredited? Research to see if the venue is listed at Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or the American Sanctuaries Association.
  • Does the housing offered to animals replicate a natural habitat? If they are housed with concrete flooring in cramped conditions, this does not meet the requirements for a legitimate sanctuary. No animal deserves this life.
  • Within their housing, do the animals have any physical stimulation? Large fields, ponds, structures to climb etc. This is a good indication of the fair treatment of animals.
  • Does the venue focus on education for its visitors? If the venue can share stories of rescued animals, it raises awareness that can change perspectives and attitudes.

You can find more information at Peta, World Animal Protection, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Would I recommend Tiger King? Yes, to help raise awareness of the mistreatment of wild animals.

Do I think the world would be a better place without people like Joe Exotic?



  1. I researched and visited an elephant sanctuary on Koh Samui. We were able to watch the elephants and feed them bananas. They had their daily dip while we were there but completely on their own. These were rescue elephant that needed a sanctuary to live out their remaining days and I think it was a good place for them.

    1. avaycay

      Thanks Kerry! That sounds like a beautiful establishment. It’s very easy to visit an elephant sanctuary abroad, less easy to find one that is responsible with its visitors. Sounds like you found a gem!

Let me know what you think....