Restraint is the restriction of movement of any Sanctuary animal and may vary from simply confining the animal in an enclosure, small space, box, or crate, to completely restricting its muscular activity (immobilization). Where at all possible handling should be avoided by using shifts.

Restraint and handling may be used interchangeably but better refer to specific situations. Most mammals require restraining, holding them immobile so that they can’t injure the Keeper.

Studies over the last two decades have led to a greater understanding of the physiological effects of restricted movement, which can be quite deleterious to the animal, and even cause death. Psychological stress, such as may be caused when a social animal is confined alone, has also been studied and constitutes an important factor in restraint and handling techniques.

Considerable advances in the sciences have lead to greater uses of chemicals to immobilize and restrain Sanctuary animals, but the Keeper’s primary concern will be with physical and mechanical restraint.

“A person who undertakes to restrict an animal’s activity or restrain the animal is assuming a responsibility that should not be considered lightly” (Fowler). Because every restraint incident will affect the life, activities and behaviour of an animal the following points should be considered.

Restraint of an animal should be used only when absolutely necessary and never as part of a daily maintenance routine (except where the animal may be routinely moved through a squeeze cage, or chained, for example).

Only use the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish the task.

If you are considering restraining an animal, then ask the following questions:
(a) Why is the animal being restrained? Is it necessary?
(b) Which method should be used? (greatest gain, least hazard).
(c) When is the best time of day to restrain the animal?
(d) Who is best qualified to carry out the procedure ? (Least amount of time, least amount of stress.)
(e) What is the best location.


Wild animals in a captive situation require special husbandry practices. Any captive wild animal is essentially living under restraint. Specific restraint situations will include:

  • Transfer from one cage to another. Treatment of disease or illness, regular vaccinations, etc. Unscheduled treatment, such as for injury.
  • Animal escape.


When selecting a restraint technique there are four basic considerations:

  • Safety of the person(s) (Keeper) involved in the procedure. Safety of the animal. Will the restraint method do the job? (Does it suit the conditions, type of animal, available staff and equipment, etc.?)
  • Does the method allow the animal to return to the normal pre-restraint condition?


Always use a method or technique which safeguards both the Keeper and the animal. The safety of the public should also be taken into consideration.

When working with animals, particularly in restraint situations, the following knowledge is necessary:
A knowledge of the behaviour and psychological make-up of the animals involved.
An understanding of the tools of restraint – voice, manual and chemical restraint equipment.

When to restrain?

Often, where injuries are concerned, the Keeper does not have the choice whether to restrain or not; the animal’s physical condition requires treatment. If a choice can be made, try and pick a quiet time, when not too many visitors or none at all are present. First thing in the morning is often best (e.g. for transfer) as it allows time to deal with complications, and for the Keeper to observe the animal after the restraint procedure is over.

Environmental considerations – Thermoregulation may be a critical factor in restraint; heat is generated by muscle activity. Try to pick a time of day (such as early morning in summer) when temperatures are moderate. Use shade or cooling mechanisms such as fans; keep a supply of cold water at hand. Avoid handling the animal if the humidity is high (70 – 90%) as cooling the animal is difficult. Use dark or light as a method of subduing the animal; diurnal animals may be more easily caught when they are at a visual disadvantage; similarly, use bright lights to inhibit movement in nocturnal species.

Behavioural aspects – Know your animals; certain times of the year may be safer than others for handling some species. The cubs of many carnivores can be carried or lifted by grasping the loose skin at the back of the neck; this simulates the way in which the mother carries her young and the cubs will just curl up. This reaction will not be seen in adult animals. A female in estrus or with young close by, will react differently than when the young have grown and gone. A male near a conspecific in estrus may be aggressive. During autumn, male cervids are in rut, the antlers are hard and stripped of velvet, and may be used as weapons. The Keeper may be safe in the exhibit in spring or summer with these animals, but it could be fatal to mix with them in the fall.

Hierarchies or pecking orders are established among social animals. The Keeper catching up an animal may be attacked by other group members; dominant male primates will protect their group; if an animal is removed from its social group for too long it may lose its social standing or not be accepted back at all. Mothers may not reaccept infants removed for more than a few hours, though species vary a lot in this response. Also the mammary glands of the female may become engorged; the hungry infant can overeat, or the nipples may be too tender and the dam may prevent the young from suckling.

Condition of the animal: Restraint or handling results in stress, and recently transported animals may be poor health risks; the longer the journey, the greater the risk. Don’t handle the animal unnecessarily. Try to evaluate its health status before involving it in additional restraint.

Territory may be important in restraint. It may be necessary to move the animal outside its territory before physically restraining it; when this isn’t possible, remember some animals are highly territorial and will defend a certain area.


“It is incumbent upon a person who takes the responsibility of manipulating an animal’s life to be concerned for its feeling, the infliction of pain, and the psychological upsets that may occur from such manipulation” (Fowler).

Pain is a natural phenomenon that allows an animal to remove itself from danger in response to negative influences. All animals feel pain to some extent; some are more sensitive than others.

Before a restraint procedure is undertaken, evaluate the situation. Is restraint necessary? and will it result in the greatest good for the animal? Animals have rights and feelings and aren’t machines to be manipulated at will. Remember, Keeper safety, animal safety, sufficient restraint to do the job, and return the animal to normal afterwards.


While there are many varied techniques for restraining sanctuary animals, the tools or equipment used are more easily defined and discussed.


Understanding certain biological characteristics of the animal(s) involved in a restraint procedure enables the Keeper to utilize behaviour in control of the animal. Behaviour patterns can be predicted and allowed for. For example, swine grasped around the snout with a rope will pull back, whereas a carnivore is more likely to attack. Each species has its own behaviour patterns and the keeper can counteract or incorporate these into restraint practices. Voice is a tool which can be very effective; remember that emotional states are reflected in the voice. Wild animals perceive fear or lack of confidence in the Keepers’ body language – the way the hands are held, posture and general stance can all influence the success of a restraint procedure. Contact with the animal may be by voice or sight initially to avoid startling it. Most Sanctuary animals are used to certain routines such as feeding and cleaning and these can be used in the restraint situation. Many sanctuarys utilize a squeeze cage built into a passage way regularly used by the animals, often on a daily basis. With some species, the Keeper must establish himself as the alpha animal, dominant over the group, before being able to control or influence the animals.

The Keeper should try to develop self confidence based on a realistic appraisal of his own abilities. A knowledge of anatomy and physiology of the species involved is helpful in understanding what the animal can do – i.e. – the distance and direction of kicks. An understanding of social and flight distances is essential; animals respond to violations of defense and flight distances in prescribed manners. This is more fully dealt with under Animal Behaviour. The Keeper must learn to interpret defensive displays or behaviour and be aware of offensive mechanisms. Claws, talons, feet and legs, beaks, teeth, special glands and the head and body itself are all potent weapons. Horns, antlers and teeth are especially dangerous. Knowledge of an animal’s defensive and offensive potential is necessary for the Keeper to counteract them in the restraint procedure.


Reducing or eliminating an animal’s visual communications with its environment can be important in restraint. Darkened (or brightly lit) rooms and blindfolds are all used. Remember that some animals may see better in the dark or in dim conditions than the Keeper. Know your animals’ biology before using this method. Reduction of noise and harsh loud voice tones in the animal’s vicinity may make restraint easier. Many animals are stressed by human touch, so this can be kept to a minimum once the animal is caught, to reduce stress.


By reducing the size of the enclosure, an animal’s confinement may be intensified. The smaller the area an animal has to move around in, the easier it may be for the Keeper to check wounds, sores, injuries etc. Closer confinement often involves special cages or crates for transferring an animal from one area to another, a night or nest box, a shipping crate or a squeeze cage. The latter is an invaluable kind of restraint tool, and may be portable or built into an area frequently used by the animal, such as a chute or passageway (for example, between indoor and outdoor cages). Squeeze cages vary for different species because animals come in different sizes and shapes and have different physiological requirements. Some cages squeeze from the sides (moveable walls), others have a moveable ceiling or roof; in others all the walls are adjustable.

Bags are useful confinement tools and are used for some mammals and waterfowl; “jackets” can be used for swans, and there are bags for snakes and even some for restraining antelope. Burlap sacks can be used if other bags aren’t available – make sure that what you use is clean and as dust free as possible. Towels are valuable for wrapping or throwing over animals; other flat cloths (such as J-cloths for small birds and reptiles) can be used. Restraint boards consist of a sheet of wood, plastic or Plexiglas to which the animal is fastened with tape or restraining straps. Velcro fastenings can be invaluable. Ropes, cables and wire or wooden (or Plexiglas) panels can also be used to move animals in a particular direction. Plastic garbage bags or burlap placed over wire fences seem more solid to animals and lessen the danger of them running into fences. A small box with a Plexiglas floor can be used to view animals, for sexing, or to check for injuries. Cotton batting can be stuffed in an animals ears – this has been used successfully to calm giraffes.


Ropes can be used, but pole snares are more common. These come in a number of sizes and feature quick release systems. Sometimes Keepers can use a rope or cable on a pole in such a way that once the animal is caught the pole can be removed. When using snares or ropes it is often advisable to include a front leg in the snare loop as well as the neck. Once animals are caught with the snare it should be removed and another method of restraint used, to minimize strangulation or injury from the cable or rope.

Nets are commonly used in many different situations; both hoop nets with flexible or light rims (so they don’t damage the animal) or larger rectangular nets such as those used in catch-up of ungulates. Animals in the net may be too mobile for the Keeper to grasp; feet, brooms or sticks can be applied as bars to further restrict movement until the Keeper can get a strong, safe hold.

Nets are made from different materials and with varying mesh size. Use finer mesh for birds and animals that can injure themselves or break feathers in nets with large mesh. Very fine mist nets can be used to catch small birds and bats.


Physical barriers can be used to protect the Keeper from the animal, or to get close to the animal without it being alarmed. Shields of plywood or Plexiglas with handles are useful. Head screens such as fencer’s masks are a safety measure when handling hornbills, cranes or some species of primates, though the animals may be frightened by the mask. Safety glasses can be worn to protect the eyes. Blankets and small mattresses or pads can be used as barriers, so can bales of hay or straw, mesh panels, solid gates and opaque plastic sheeting.


The Keeper’s hands are his most valuable toot and should be protected where ever necessary. Hands alone can be used to restrain an animal, if the Keeper knows where and how to grasp it, and protects himself from bites and scratches etc. The amount of force applied to restrain the animal must be appropriate to the species. The best protection for the hands is a detailed knowledge of the animal. Gloves can be very important but in some cases, to be effective protection, are so thick and cumbersome that they reduce the wearer’s tactile abilities; the animal may then suffer injuries from too much force, or may turn on the Keeper if insufficient force is applied. Leather gloves should be loose to allow the fingers to slip away from biting teeth. Remember that even chain mail gloves don’t offer total protection from bites.

Rolled up paper, brooms and poles can be used to move animals. C02 extinguishers can also be a useful tool, though repeated use may lessen their effectiveness once an animal becomes used to them. They should be restricted to emergency use. Hoses are effective moving tools, where the threat of water is often enough to move the animal.


Chemical restraint has become increasingly important in the last few years with the development and understanding of new drugs and new delivery systems. It is not used without much consideration. Try to schedule other procedures such as hoof trimming, dental work, bill trimming to coincide with this immobilization. Pole syringes, blow guns, blow pipes, dart pistols and rifles are all utilized at  Big Cat Rescue, along with drugs put in the food and water. It should be realized that considerable research has been carried out at Big Cat Rescue, and much information read by our staff, on the chemical restraint of sanctuary animals.  The drugs, charts and transfer equipment is all kept locked in the office.  Upper level staff has keys.

However, the Keeper should not assume that chemical restraint is always the easiest, safest and preferred method; this simply isn’t so and each method, physical, chemical or mechanical has to be considered in light of individual circumstances.

Especially for ruminants under chemical immobilization; it is best to keep the animal in the sternal recumbent position (sitting up) to prevent bloating or regurgitation, but this isn’t always an easy position in which to restrain the animal. whether in sternal recumbency or lying on its side, keep the animals head elevated above the body level to reduce the chance of regurgitation (stomach contents involuntarily passed up the esophagus with the danger of breathing it into the lungs).


Slings can be used to support animals once they have been restrained. Specula (singular speculum) can be used to hold the mouth open for oral examination.

When netting birds and small animals, never bring the net down on the animal – you can easily break a wing or a leg. Let the animal run into the net. The Keeper should enter the cage slowly, steadily, calmly. Do not corner the animal; it may panic and fly or run at you to escape. If you are going to net the animal move it towards a corner, approach to one side with the net half blocking the other side. Angle your body and the net to form a wall parallel to the wall along which you wish the animal to run; the animal perceives the corridor down which it can escape and tries to do so. The net can be brought around and the animal runs into it.


Once the need for restraint has been decided on and the technique and tools agreed to, then preparation is the next important consideration.

(a) Determine the time of the restraint procedure, taking into account the public’s presence (viewing hours), the time of the shipment (if the animal is going outside the Sanctuary), and the availability of staff (Keepers and veterinary staff, when necessary; if for example the animal requires treatment). Have a set procedure in mind rather than no plan at all.

(b) Prepare your equipment. Have everything ready at hand – your crates, boxes, nets, bedding, etc. Make sure everything is in place before you start the procedure. Are all the tools and protective devices adequate and in good order? Someone’s life may depend on equipment condition.

(c) Prepare the area or place of treatment. Move the public out if necessary and close off all possible escape routes. Put signs on doors if you have closed them to prevent escapes so that they aren’t opened by mistake. Alert staff in the area as to what you are doing.

(d) Assign staff. Tell the Keepers what their individual jobs will be and make sure each person understands their role clearly. Communication in any restraint procedure is vitally important. If possible have only one person giving the orders, and only one person using keys to minimize the likelihood of mistakes.

(e) Proceed quietly. Loud shouting is usually unnecessary and only upsets and frightens stock. Don’t rush — give yourself and the animals time. Make sure you have a notebook and record the animal’s sex, i.d., weight, condition, etc. Use the situation – if the animal has to be restrained then gather as much information as you can without unduly prolonging the restraint procedure. Make sure you have adequate staff.

(f) Contingency plans. Be prepared for things going wrong. Try to be flexible in your approach to a restraint situation, and adapt to the circumstances. Be prepared to call off the attempt if the animal becomes overstressed or if it appears that it is likely to be injured if you continue. Remember that the animal’s welfare should be considered at all times. Try to have alternative plans and methods ready to use if your initial procedure fails.


Once the animal has been restrained, it may be necessary to transport it, often some distance. Sometimes the restraint tool (e.g. a crate or a net) may be a safe method of moving the animal; other times, once it has been caught up it must be placed in a safer form of transport. Chutes or passages can be effective ways of moving animals between two close points. Remember that some hoof stock are more inclined to walk down a gradient than up. Pens with shift doors can be used to move animals, and crates are an important transfer tool. Crates should be large enough for the animal but not so large that the animal can move around and injure itself; sturdy wooden boxes with sliding ends are best. Make sure they are well ventilated. It is safer to back an animal out of a crate than to release head first, where it may run out and dash into a wall or fence. Stretchers, nets and slings can also be used to transfer animals; make sure they are well supported. Sometimes animals are best transported by hand. Use both hands and secure the animal’s legs, neck, etc. Bird’s necks and beaks must be watched, and wings can give nasty blows. Use two or more Keepers if necessary. Try to be honest in your assessment of your abilities to restrain an animal and use adequate staff. Don’t let your ego think you can do it alone when two people are needed – you could injure, stress or kill the animal as well as suffering injuries yourself.

Once the animal is in a crate or box, secure the doors or slides with nails, screws or whatever means is appropriate for the container.

IATA (International Air Transport Association) have issued a manual of regulations covering aspects to be considered to ensure animals are carried without harm to themselves or handling personnel. It includes acceptance and handling standards, government regulations on customs, health and hygiene control, stowage, animal behaviour and container construction and handling.


Stress is a physiological state, resulting from noxious stimuli, or stressors, which can be external or internal in origin. It shows as an aggregate of body reactions whose purpose is the survival and protection of the animal during the adverse conditions.

Many things can cause stress to an animal and are classified as psychological or somatic stressors.


Psychological stress occurs from fear, anxiety, frustration and sudden and violent alarm. The disturbance to the animal may be short and intense or longer in duration and much less in intensity. The fright and terror associated with catching up, physical restraint, handling and transport is psychological stress; so too is the later upset and concern with new environments, unfamiliar surroundings and the disruption of territorial and hierarchical organization.


Somatic stress results from injuries of all types (soft tissue injuries, bone fractures, broken horns, etc.), surcrical trauma, acute and chronic disease states, effects of drugs, hunger and malnutrition, thirst and severe temperature extremes.


The effects of stress show in different ways, and depend on the type, magnitude and duration of the stimulus, and the general condition of the animal. Immediate reaction by the animal may involve alarm and flight as well as shock. The mobilization of the body systems to combat a life threatening situation is called the emergency “flight or fight reaction, and consists of increased adrenalin output, and creation of optimum conditions for the defense in the body. If the “flight or fight” response continues too long, the exhausted animal may go into shock. Shock isn’t easily defined, but it is a state of collapse with a circulatory deficiency resulting from a difference between the volume of blood and the capacity of the vascular system. This disparity may be caused by an increase in the volume capacity of the system (dilation of blood vessels and capillaries) or by a decrease in the volume of blood (e.g. loss through injury) or both. Delayed reaction by the animal may show stimulation of the nervous and endocrine systems, exhaustion and death.


Recognizing stress helps the Keeper prevent losses and aids him in knowing when restraint procedures are causing damage to the animal. Trauma to the skin and body may be signs of stress – lacerations, hemorrhage, contusions and cuts should be looked for. Check the head, neck and limbs, and horns and antlers, especially if the latter are in velvet. Some animals can overheat very easily while others become rapidly chilled. Loss of the ability to regulate body temperature is a sign of stress. Signs of shock, such as weakness, apathy, reduced heart and respiratory rates and collapse of major blood vessels should be looked for. Insufficient oxygen may lead to heart or respiratory failure.

Stress prevention can greatly increase the changes of a successful restraint procedure. Know what you are doing, be prepared, and plan your actions in advance. Talk it out with the people involved and be sure everyone understands their role.

Some animals can collapse and die during restraint procedures. This stress may result from the animal being unaware of the procedure’s outcome – that is, its freedom being restored after handling. Animals which have never been caught up, and thus released, can die from the catch up stress, while those who have lived through the experience once or more may react to it in a calmer manner.


The Keeper will be using physical and mechanical restraint on his/her animals when necessary, but will also be involved in the chemical restraint or immobilization process.Tranquilizing or sedating animals is only resorted to when physical or mechanical means aren’t feasible. Often the effect of different restraint procedures must be weighed before choosing a method which is best for the animal under the circumstances. Before chemical restraint is attempted, several questions should be asked.


  • What is the outside temperature? Some restraint drugs upset the animal’s temperature regulation system; the animal may suffer heat exhaustion or heat loss of a severe nature if the environmental temperature is very high or low. What state is the animal in? If it is calm and quiet then good results (from the drugs) may be expected. If it is upset or extremely agitated, the actions of the drug may be erratic or impaired. In some cases the animal may become more excited rather than sedated or calmer. How long is the animal to be kept immobilized? Some drugs will only last minutes while others last for hours. How deeply is the animal to be sedated? By careful judgment of the animal’s weight, and its state, it can be drugged lightly or heavily. Why is the animal being immobilized? (Physical examination, crating, tatooing, blood sample, surgery, etc.). Each has a different depth requirement. What is the animal’s weight? Most drugs have some latitude in the effect of the dosage, but the more accurate the weight/dosage calculation the better. How old is the animal to receive the drug? By what route? Orally, intramuscularly, intravenously, subcutaneously, etc. By hand-held syringe, pill, capsule, dart rifle, blow gun, etc. The delivery system is chosen to fit the circumstances.
  • Are drugs to be mixed to produce special effects? This may or may not be desirable, depending on what results are needed and how quickly.


The animal is being immobilized so that it can be safely handled. Safely means both the safety of the animal and the Keeper. In some cases valium or atravet in the food or water may be all that is required to provide the needed effect. In other cases, the animal may need to be deeply sedated before it can be approached and handled.

After immobilization and treatment the Keeper usually watches the animal to ensure that its recovery is complete. The Keeper should record all information and report it on his daily report as well as directly to the Animal Health Technicians. The time at which the animal first tries to get up, when it first stands, when it eats and drinks, etc. after immobilization are all valuable when recorded for later checks. If a particular species usually takes 1 hour to recover from knock-down, this can be used as a bench mark by which further recoveries of that species can be checked.

Be specific in your reporting; if you are continuously watching the animal you can report what you see happening and the times, but if you check it only once each half hour, and significant events occur between checks then indicate this in your report (e.g. animal standing by 1400 hours, etc.)

Keepers should be extremely careful when handling darts and drugs used during immobilization. Sometimes darts don’t discharge – never shake them or point them at someone; handle with care.

Wild animals are often extremely powerful and dangerous. Never under estimate your animals’ abilities. Remember that most people who have not had previous experience with captive wild animals simply have no idea of the strength and power these animals possess. It may require several Keepers to properly restrain, in a safe manner, a single Bobcat. Many Leopards aren’t much bigger than a large German shepherd dog, but are far more powerful animals.

A sound knowledge of your animal’s biology and behaviour is an excellent restraint tool. When you have completed a restraint procedure, try to involve everyone afterwards in a review of the procedure, and see if there are improvements you can make. Don’t use force when your brains are better. For example, placing a crate or box in with an animal several days before you intend catching and crating it allows the animals to become familiar with the crate. Placing some of the animal’s bedding or faeces in the crate is sometimes a good idea; the animal may even use it as a refuge when you begin the catch up procedure, and will make your job easier, safer and less stressful for the animal. The best way to learn how to restrain animals is to do it.

Animals react differently to different people. Try and treat each animal as an individual. Try to have a second line of defense, such as closed hallways, doors and windows, in case you lose control of the animal. Block all potential escape routes.

Restraint work often includes working with a team of people and your life maybe in someone’s hands. If you don’t think a person is capable, then ask for someone else – remember that it is your life. Similarly if you don’t think you can handle the situation, then say so. Make sure you understand the responsibilities involved and the dangers. In all restraint procedures there must be co-operation and trust among the people involved.

Wear protective clothing appropriate to the situation. Even rolled down sleeves offer some protection against rubbing and abrasions. Make sure you don’t have anything hanging from your pockets; tie back long hair, remove watches and jewelry.

Don’t assume anything; ensure that everyone knows what they will be doing, and that they have the needed tools (and keys) at hand. Preparation may save a life, yours, someone else’s, or the animal’s.



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