I'm an animal lover and a wildlife advocate. But in 2017, I royally screwed up. My family and I were halfway through our Pacific Northwest road trip when the activity I'd been waiting for — feeding sloths at the what appears to be now-defunct Sloth Center Sanctuary in Rainier, Oregon — was finally up next.
TripAdvisor reviews convinced me this was "a wonderful experience for any animal lover." The center's website (it's also now offline) went on and on about conservation research. Except, the center wasn't wonderful. And that research? Yeah. It still hasn't published a study.
The "sanctuary" label temporarily blinded me from the glaring truth: Sloth selfies and sloth sleepovers aren't conservation. They're cruel. Sloths suffer immense stress when handled by humans; according to World Animal Protection, it can even shorten their life span.
Had I known this going into our trip, there's no way I would have booked it, and I'm sure the millions unknowingly supporting harmful wildlife attractions feel the same.
Wildlife attractions make up 20 to 40 percent of global tourism, according to a wildlife tourism study. As animal experiences grow in popularity, well-meaning travelers (like me) are prey to faux animal sanctuaries. Here's some good news, though: Not all sanctuaries are bad. Here's how to find the good ones.
Look for Sanctuary Accreditation
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), the only globally recognized sanctuary certification organization, opened its doors in 2008 to keep tabs on the industry. The GFAS helps sanctuaries meet its standards of excellence to provide the best care possible for their animals.
Animal service officers, animal protection advocates, veterinarians, sanctuary managers and nonprofit professionals developed these thorough and lengthy standards together. Take the Standards for Elephant document, for example. This 72-page guide details strict standards elephant sanctuaries must follow in order to gain accreditation. It includes everything from facility requirements to how non-staff visitors can interact with the animals. In short, they can't — and that's where many sanctuaries get it wrong.
"All tours prohibit the public from any physical contact with the elephants residing at the sanctuary," the standards document says. "Members of the public cannot feed sanctuary elephants during tours."
The same no-touching policy applies to sanctuaries helping virtually all types of animals, which points to a common theme.
Touching Animals Is a Red Flag
"No reputable wild or exotic-animal sanctuary allows any kind of hands-on interaction, and that includes posing for photos with animals," according to the PETA website. "Such interactions are disruptive and frightening for them."
This means no cuddling, swimming, riding, selfie-taking or any other activity that involves touching an animal. Even bathing, a seemingly adorable alternative to riding elephants, is a no-go. "In some places this means a lot of people every hour with elephants in the water — it's not natural for an elephant to be in the water all day with lots of people climbing all over them," Maria Mossman, founder of nonprofit Action for Elephants UK, told The Guardian.
Stopping the Animal Selfie Culture
The thing is, most people don't realize the negative effects of wildlife encounters unless they look for them. That's one of the reasons Instagram worked with World Animal Protection to rejigger its algorithm for animal photos in 2017. The platform has always been a hub for cute and seemingly innocent wildlife selfies; this promotion (and the correlated likes and engagement) only perpetuated the problem. Now, Instagram delivers awareness-building pop-up messages when users search hashtags like #slothselfie.
"You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment," the message warns. A click-through to learn more dives deeper into the truth behind these wildlife experiences.
"We also encourage you to be mindful of your interactions with wild animals, and consider whether an animal has been smuggled, poached, or abused for the sake of tourism," the site explains.
The Sanctuary's Website Says a Lot
First things first: Look at the sanctuary online, including its social handles and hashtags. If guests are doing anything but watching the animal from afar, it's most likely not legitimate.
The GFAS also provides a thorough map with accredited and verified sanctuaries worldwide. (Both verified and accredited sanctuaries meet the GFAS' standards, but accreditation takes it one step further with additional screening of the sanctuary's governance, finance and sustainability, according to the GFAS website.)
If you're on the go and don't have time to check social media or the GFAS map, go with your gut. From the second I realized the Oregon "sanctuary" offered sloth sleepovers, I knew something was off. I only fed the sloths, but even that put money in the pocket of a company that's now in and out of court for its mistreatment of the animals.
Long story short? Let wild animals be wild.