Should sanctuaries be open to the public?
Every once in a while a facility that proclaims themselves to be a sanctuary will attack Big Cat Rescue and tell their fans to post fake, one star reviews, or make accusatory posts on our social sites, to try and convince others that sanctuaries are not open to the public. We think you should have all the facts and make up your own mind.
I know a couple of good sanctuaries that are not open to the public, but they are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, so I trust the experts who accredited them, and who require follow up renewals and inspections, are making sure they are taking good care of the animals. I have talked with them over the years though about the huge opportunity they are missing to end the trade in big cats through respectful, guided tours. There are other groups that claim to accredit sanctuaries but they lack the standards, board meetings, and requirement for renewals and inspections, so the only accreditation label I trust is GFAS.
Some sanctuaries, who had been most vocal against Big Cat Rescue having guided tours, are now open to the public because they have figured out that there are ways to let the public see what you do without compromising the serenity of the cats. This is the most critical element. The peace and tranquility of the animals should never be sacrificed. We can all agree on that!
So, as you make up you mind on the issue, here are a few things to ask:
Why is the sanctuary closed to the public?
With very limited exceptions, it’s my experience that most facilities who are closed to the public do so for 2 reasons.
- They have to have a USDA license to have visitors and they don’t want any government agency looking into the way they conduct themselves.
- They don’t want the public to see what goes on behind closed gates.
While these places will always try to blame it on the animals, and proclaim they are doing it for the animals’ benefit, that doesn’t ring true in most cases because:
- If the sanctuary had visitors they could educate about the plight of the cats, they could be ending the trade in them as pets, props & parts and thus help far more animals than just those they have rescued. The animals they have rescued from horrible conditions would not have previously suffered in vain if their stories could save others.
- Sanctuaries that have visitors typically raise much more funding which is important to the life long care of the animals. People want to know how their donations are spent and most are not going to just trust a fancy looking website and the word of the founder. They want to see it. If they can see it and feel good about it, they tell others who help support the cause as well.
- In the case of big cats they are extremely intelligent and one of the hardest things to do is to break the boredom of living decades in a cage. Enrichment is one way to help keep the cats interested in the world around them and we’ve found that visitors are a source of enrichment to our cats. Most of our cats find people interesting and just can’t help but stalk children and the infirm as they go by. For those cats who just don’t like people, they aren’t on the tour path and only have to see “room service” (the keepers) twice a day for feeding and cleaning.
What are the rules about being open or closed to the public?
- If you are open to visitors you must maintain a USDA license. It isn’t hard to get; just $40, name, address and phone number, but USDA can then show up, unannounced, and inspect the animals and paperwork. USDA usually only shows up once a year for an hour or so and they almost never ask to see any paperwork about how the animals were acquired or vet records. If they find violations they will write up a citation, but severe violations of the Animal Welfare Act are cited at hundreds of facilities every year, with no fine or penalty to the abusers. If USDA does choose to enforce the act, then there is typically 5-6 years of violations before an action is taken and then 5-6 years of court processes before the owner is hit with a minuscule fine that they just consider the cost of doing business.
- In 2003 it became illegal to transfer a big cat across state lines as a pet. That was called the Captive Wildlife Safety Act and the US Fish & Wildlife Service enacted rules to enforce it saying:
Wildlife sanctuaries must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as an “accredited wildlife sanctuary” under the CWSA:
(1) Approval by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a corporation that is exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, which is described in sections 501(c)(3) and 170(b)(1)(A)(vi) of that code.
(2) No commercial trade in the prohibited wildlife species including offspring, parts, and products;
(3) No propagation of the prohibited wildlife species; and
(4) No direct contact between the public and the prohibited wildlife species.
Accredited wildlife sanctuaries must maintain complete and accurate records of any possession, transportation, sale, acquisition, purchase, barter, disposition, importation, or exportation of the prohibited wildlife species. These records must be kept up to date and include the names and addresses of persons to or from whom any prohibited wildlife species has been purchased, sold, bartered, imported, exported or otherwise transferred; and the dates of these transactions. Accredited wildlife sanctuaries must maintain these records for 5 years, must make these records accessible to Service officials for inspection at reasonable hours, and must copy these records for Service officials, if requested.
Accredited wildlife sanctuaries must make these records, their facilities, and their prohibited wildlife specimens accessible to Service officials for inspection at reasonable hours to be consistent with the conditions of permit issuance and acceptance in the Service’s general permit procedures contained in 50 CFR 13.21(e)(2).
You will note there is no prohibition on exhibition in the USFWS definition of sanctuary.
What are the state laws about a sanctuary being open to the public?
To my knowledge, there aren’t any state laws that say a sanctuary cannot be open for visitation. In some cases the states may make a distinction between a facility that is open to the public and one that is not, for the purpose of different rules applying, but in those cases you will find that they are doing so more to determine the safety of the public. Since federal laws trump state laws on the matter of exhibition of dangerous wild animals, the states know that if people will be visiting, then USDA will be an extra set of eyes on the situation, and presumably a safer experience.
Florida has a weird sanctuary designation, that the animal abusers love to use against us, because they are betting that most people won’t look into it fully enough to grasp the absurdity of it. The fact that our chosen Florida designation requires a higher standard and more public and government scrutiny is lost on those who want to believe a sound bite without thinking about it any further.
In 2009 the Florida Wildlife Commission approved a new category of licensee called “Sanctuary” No accredited or legitimate sanctuary asked for this category and 2500+ of the 2764 letters received by the FWC specifically asked that it not be adopted as it creates 4 major loopholes:
1. The new Sanctuary category allows possession of Class I animals without exhibition. On the surface this may sound good, but what that does is exempts them from having to comply with USDA standards as USDA only monitors “commercial activities.”
2. Most cities and counties can only use their zoning laws to prevent people from moving into residential neighborhoods with lions and tigers. The zoning laws cannot specify that wild animals cannot be kept, according to the FWC who claims to have constitutional authority over all wild animal issues. The only way zoning can prohibit such activities is to have a zoning designation that does not allow for commercial uses; thus it applies equally to commercial use of wild animals as well as all other commercial uses. The new “Sanctuary” category is deemed a non commercial use, as long as they do not exhibit, and thus would thwart the cities, counties, municipalities and home owner associations’ prohibitions.
3. If the “Sanctuary” does not exhibit, then they do not have to post the $10,000 bond imposed by legislators in 2007. According to the legislators who voted for the $10,000 bond requirement, they believed that the bond would be required of all possessors of Class I wildlife. At that time there were 5 people who had been grandfathered in as Class I pet owners, but all other possessors of captive wild animals had to be commercial uses such as exhibitors and sellers. It was assumed that to sell an animal, you have to show it to potential buyers which would technically be exhibiting. The language of Florida Statute 379.374 however says that “No person, party, firm, or corporation shall exhibit to the public either with or without charge or admission fee, any Class I wildlife…without having first guaranteed financial responsibility, in the sum of $10,000…” Now if someone wants to have a tiger in their back yard they can call themselves a sanctuary and as long as they don’t get caught showing it off to anyone they don’t have to post the bond.
4. It enables those who use and abuse big cats to hide their worst acts from USDA and the public. The FWC allows multiple people to be licensed at a single facility. The FWC also allows entities to have multiple facilities that are licensed separately. A violation at one does not affect the other. A circus could then have a location that is licensed by both FWC and USDA where they keep only a few big cats in decent enough conditions to keep their licenses. They then open a second location, set it up as a non profit with a different name and dump the animals they aren’t using there. That dumping ground would not be commercial, thus USDA would not license and inspect it and the public would not be able to get in to see the horrid conditions.
They could continue to breed those animals at the “Sanctuary” because they know that there would be no way for FWC to catch them. You can’t tell when an exotic cat is pregnant by looking at them, so the FWC would have to be inspecting at the moment of birth to catch them. They would then use those babies as petting and photo props and perhaps in their acts until they mature and then dump them back into their “Sanctuary.”
Many of these people work together and many of them already have multiple locations, so it is very likely that they would create communal dumping grounds. When the cost of maintaining the “Sanctuary” dumping ground becomes too high, they just walk away from the cats and leave it to the tax payers to find homes or kill the cats. (There are 58 big cats in a Palm Bay backyard in 2009 that used to belong to Ray Grennell, AKA Thunderhawk, who takes baby tigers to flea markets. He’s moved on, and now they have no where to go) They will have started some other dumping ground under a new name and the cycle continues. It is well known in the industry that golden tiger cubs are often drowned, clubbed to death or cremated at birth because the white cubs are the money makers. Is it too hard to believe that the kind of people who do these things to baby tigers might create a “Sanctuary” dumping ground for adult tigers and walk away from them?
FWC staff asked me twice during the hearings to not oppose the Sanctuary category. I told them the reasons above that I could not support it, but they insisted that no one was going to comply with all of the requirements of qualifying for the “Sanctuary” category just to side step the bond. I pointed out that they cannot monitor the facilities they already have, and everyone knows it, so there was no way they would catch these new “Sanctuaries” in the act of buying, breeding, selling or doing photo ops with baby big cats. We submitted 60 photos of the horrible conditions and people breaking the rules in FL to the Commissioners in support of our claim.
Howard Baskin suggested to the FWC’s legal counsel that they substitute
This: 68A-6.0025 (1) (f) that says: Any sanctuary exhibiting Class I wildlife as listed in Rule 68A-6.002, F.A.C, must meet the bonding of financial responsibility guarantee requirements of Rule 68A-6.0024(3)(a)-(f) F.A.C.
With this: 68A-6.0025 (1) (f) Since a sanctuary may exhibit Class I animals, it is considered a licensed exhibitor whether it does so or not, and must meet the bonding or financial responsibility guaranty requirements of Rule 68A-6.0024(3)(a)-(f) F.A.C.
The FWC refused and I think that speaks volumes about their real intent of this entire “Sanctuary” category. The FWC did not like the fact that the legislature took matters into their own hands to impose the bond and it appears are trying to create as many ways to circumvent the requirement as possible. The FWC has already taken the position that breeding and selling lions and tigers does not mean that they are exhibiting the cats and thus 111 of the 248 Class I owners in Florida are not currently posting the bond according to the FWC’s Feb 2009 list. We do not believe that these people are not exhibiting and pointed out to the Commissioner 19 specific facilities that we do know are exhibiting Class I animals without posting the bond, but they ignored us.
As a result Big Cat Rescue had to go back to the FL legislature and ask that they amend the language of the bond requirement to apply to all who are licensed to possess Class I animals (rather than “exhibit Class I animals”). We were successful so that diminished the use of the new FWC designation “sanctuary” by the bad guys to avoid posting the bond. Any place possessing a lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar or cougar has to post the $10,000 bond now. The only remaining advantage of that “sanctuary” designation is that the bad guys love to mislead the public by saying that Big Cat Rescue isn’t licensed by the state of Florida as a sanctuary.
What is the best way to reach the most people in order to end the trade in exotic cats?
If you were devoted to rescuing big cats and ending the abuse of them as entertainment, as inappropriate pets and ending the black market trade in their parts, what would you do to achieve that goal?
It’s always a numbers game. In order to affect change, you have to reach that critical tipping point where people know the truth and care enough to change the status quo. There are some great ways to reach people and we try to use them all.
Because we want our sanctuary to be a place of tranquility and peace we purposely limit our visitors to under 30,000 people a year. The only way we can do that is to increase the price every few years and to require advance, paid reservations for our guided tours.
We can reach millions via the Internet and do that with our many live web cams that people can access for free, and on our social sites. We post frequently on the social sites and do LIVE broadcasts daily so that people can see what is happening here. You might reason that doing web cams and social posts should preclude in person visits, but it’s easy to mislead people if they can’t come and check things out for themselves in person. We are completely transparent to our visitors and gladly answer questions about how and why we do things.
If others are bashing us because of the lengths we go to in order to show you the truth, then you have to wonder what their motivation might be?