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  • Casey J Farthing

Animal Sanctuaries vs Animal Shelters


A sheep leaning on  a fence gate

What are the differences?


This is a question we are asked very often, both online and by guests and visitors. It's a question that all animal facilities are frequently asked, whether we are sanctuaries, shelters, rescues, or rehabs. Often we pass it off in simple terms with a quick answer at the time, but the differences are actually pretty substantial when it comes down to the heart of it.


So what, exactly, are some of the differences and why are they an important distinction? It's probably easiest to break it down by facility type - and in this case, we will cover a sanctuary vs. a shelter and what the differences are. Rescues and rehabs will be covered in an article at another time, don't worry!


Animal Sanctuaries or Animal Shelters

Animal sanctuaries can house a wide variety of animals, from domestic to exotic, livestock to cats and dogs, and even birds and reptiles. There is no definitive rule as to what animals a sanctuary will take in and care for - it often changes so frequently in some cases that it wouldn't even make sense to try and stick to one or two species. This is of course not a fast and hard rule - some sanctuaries can and do focus on specific species. There are dozens of horse sanctuaries, pig sanctuaries, and bird sanctuaries for example. But more often than not, you will find that a sanctuary will take in most animals in need, or at least help them to be placed somewhere else if they can't care for the animal on site.


The most important distinction of an animal sanctuary is that animals that come to sanctuaries tend to spend the rest of their lives on site. An animal at a sanctuary is not taken in with the purpose of being adopted out - most sanctuary animals are sick, injured, or simply older animals, and they are usually brought to a sanctuary because there isn't anywhere else for them to go. In that regard we operate as a rescue and even a rehabilitation facility, nurturing the sick and injured animals back to a healthy state - but crucially we do not do this with the sole intent of then adopting them back out. It is usually understood that these animals will remain in our care for the remainder of their lives.


This is not to say that animals at sanctuaries don't occasionally find good homes and end up adopted. The distinction is that this is not the end-goal for most of the animals in sanctuary care. It is a wonderful thing for a sanctuary animal to be adopted, but it is often the case that they require too much care and attention to be sent home with anyone outside of a professional care environment due to the time and attention they usually need.


Animal shelters, meanwhile, will usually focus on specific species of animal. Far more often than not, this is cats and dogs more than any other animal, though there are some variances. A shelter takes animal surrenders with the purpose of adopting them back out to new families searching for a pet. In a lot of cases, animal shelters will not take in sick or injured animals due to the lack of space or lack of adoption likelihood. It is an unfortunate truth that cute, easily adoptable animals are taken in more often than sickly or injured animals due to space, time, and budget constraints. Animal shelters are often understaffed, overwhelmed, and already over-capacity in most cases due to the constant influx of dogs and cats they get on a daily basis.


Shelters do their best to take in animals and find them new homes as quickly as they can. They exist to connect pets with prospective families and keep them off of the streets and safely sheltered. Because of this, they focus on adoptable animals and pet species. Most shelters are not equipped to take in livestock or more exotic animals, or animals like reptiles and birds. The sad truth is that these animals simply don't get adopted often, and they would take up too much space and too many resources. This is where sanctuaries come in - the "non-adoptables", or the animals not typically associated with being adopted such as livestock and reptiles or birds. Animal sanctuaries, meanwhile, do not typically take cats or dogs because shelters are much more prepared for them. Sanctuaries typically take in less animals for long-term care, and shelters take in far more animals for short-term care.


Animal sanctuaries and animal shelters both receive funding from the public in the form of donations, and both seek to care for and improve the lives of animals. But they operate in fundamentally different ways and with different animals. Despite this, they often work hand in hand and forge strong partnerships. In this way, shelters know they can place the odd livestock or reptile in a friendly sanctuary, and sanctuaries know where to send the people who want to surrender more domestic animals.


Sanctuaries and shelters exist as two sides of the same coin - they both do important work with animals, but they diverge in their methods, species, and overall goals for long-term care. It is vital that both continue to exist and work together, for the health and welfare of animals of all shapes and sizes.

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