Zoo or Wildlife Sanctuary: What’s the Difference?

Illustration by  Miko Kaw Hok Uy

Illustration by Miko Kaw Hok Uy


Zoos and wildlife sanctuaries are similar facilities, except in the way and the reason they procure their animals.


In a time where an alarmingly high percentage of wildlife is endangered, animals in captivity have become crucial when it comes to conservation efforts and educational goals.

A zoo is a facility where animals—often exotic and rare—are kept in enclosures for the public to see. Legally, zoos can acquire their animals in various ways—usually through buying, selling, breeding, trading, or borrowing them. Still, critics have pointed out that collecting animals for public exhibit is a form of exploitation, notwithstanding ecological and scientific aims. Furthermore, many reports have shown that several zoological establishments in the Philippines do not actually adhere to “The Animal Welfare Act of 1998” and the “Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.”

The Animal Welfare Act of 1998 was created for the protection of animals. Essentially, it mandates that individuals and facilities caring for animals should have the proper resources to maintain sanitary conditions, adequate spaces and clean enclosures for these creatures. They should be kept in good health and spirits.

The Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, on the other hand, covers the protection of endangered and threatened species. It safeguards the “ecological balance and enhances biological diversity” of the Philippine wildlife by “regulating the collection and trade of wildlife.” This act also hopes to ensure that scientific research for conservation is being done on these wild animals (whether they are in captivity or not) while still protecting them and their habitats.

Unfortunately, some zoos secretly engage in capturing critically endangered wildlife to be placed in their facilities, or illicit breeding programs to sell rare animals to individuals or other businesses.


Guides How to Report Exotic Animals (PAWS) | How to Report Animal Cruelty (PAWS)
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Are wildlife sanctuaries the better choice?

Wildlife sanctuaries aim to take in and care for any exotic animals that have been abandoned, neglected, or maltreated to live out the rest of their lives in peace with others of their kind. Legitimate wildlife sanctuaries also provide these abused animals expansive spaces with suitable enrichments as similar as possible to their natural habitats.

There are also wildlife sanctuaries that care for non-exotic animals, species that are endemic and native to the Philippines. One example of this is The Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation’s Danjugan Sanctuary, more popularly known as Danjugan Island. This wildlife sanctuary houses a rich variety of flora and fauna including at least:

  • 72 bird species

  • 10 bat species

  • 22 butterfly species

  • 17 species of mangroves

  • 572 fish species

  • 244 species of hard corals

  • 8 species of seagrass

  • 74 species of macroalgae

Its immense biodiversity is made possible by its geography as it has “five lagoons, numerous coral reefs, and vast limestone forests.” As a sanctuary, Danjugan Island highlights the very core of many wildlife asylums: they are not for public entertainment. “Danjugan is not a resort,” they write on their website.

It is important to remember that the goal is still
for humans to stop hunting and collecting animals in the wild in the first place.

But sanctuaries can have differing practices.

There is a debate on whether sanctuaries should actually breed their animals. Breeding is considered by many to be part of the problem—not the solution—when it comes to conserving these exotic species.

The level of human interaction also varies from place to place. There are different models of wildlife sanctuaries; the most ideal models allow human interference only in order to maintain proper care and deliver veterinary needs. They forbid the visiting public from petting, feeding or even getting close to the enclosures.

"Sanctuaries should be a place for animals to retire. The animals should be respected, and not treated as a prop or an object," Tim Harrison told National Geographic. (Harrison is the head of a non-profit, rescue organization called Outreach for Animals.)

In theory, wildlife sanctuaries are structured to be better than zoos: animals are in rehabilitation rather than captivity. Their primary goal is neither for profit nor public entertainment, but to care for these rescued animals. Fortunately,  some zoos are also working hard, together with experts, to create and follow more ethical models when it comes to caring for and studying animals in captivity while still allowing public viewing.

It is important to remember, however, that while this is the case, the goal is still for humans to stop hunting and collecting animals in the wild in the first place.


What questions can I ask the wildlife facility I'm visiting?

Are you a registered rescue center? If they aren’t officially recognized by governing bodies and regulating agencies, there’s a higher chance that their practices can be questionable.

What animals are in the facility? Take note if there are species that are endangered or not endemic to the Philippines. Where did these animals come from and how were they acquired? Check the list of wildlife that is not allowed to be held in captivity. If they are in the facility, they could have been illegally hunted or traded.

What are the daily routines of the animals? Their feeding situation, enclosure conditions, and daily activities can give you clues on how the facility is run. Are they allowed the time and space to play, roam and rest? How do keepers or volunteers interact with them? Sometimes animals are sedated for the public to be able to see them “up close," while others are trained to do tricks as if they were in a circus.

Are there scientists and experts involved? This will also lead to learning the kinds of research that are facilitated by the center, if any, and how that contributes to the global education and conservation efforts.

Is there a breeding program? Breeding creates the opportunity for animals to be unwanted, especially if this is done for the sake of attractions. If they have outlived their purpose of pulling in the public, they could be sold, traded or euthanized. On a scientific level, many conservationists have dismissed the notion of breeding programs as helpful to the cause, citing that animals in captivity have become too inbred and crossbred for genetic diversity. If you see baby animals, ask your facility if they have a breeding program and if they do, to what end.

A Bundok flycatcher, endemic to the Philippines, with its baby chick in Mt. Kitanglad, Bukidnon Photo by  Miguel David De Leon

A Bundok flycatcher, endemic to the Philippines, with its baby chick in Mt. Kitanglad, Bukidnon
Photo by Miguel David De Leon

Sanctuaries should be a place for animals to retire. The animals should be respected, and not treated as a prop or an object.