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Animal Sanctuaries Combine Education and Conservation

Animal Sanctuaries Combine Education and Conservation

Visiting zoos can be a wonderful, engaging experience for kids and adults.  But there’s often mixed feelings about zoos for animal lovers, and it stems from the fact that, of necessity, the animal residents are kept in enclosures for much of their time.

This isn’t to say that zoos are inherently inhumane; many zoos take excellent care of their animals.

Mountain Lion. Credit

Mountain Lion. Credit

A wildlife sanctuary is like a zoo in that it’s a place for animals to live, but there are major differences.  Many sanctuary facilities take their name literally; they are a sanctuary for the injured, the discarded, and the abused, and they are not open to the public.  Others take a more educational approach, seeking to enlighten the community about the animals they protect.

What Makes Animal Sanctuaries Different

To be accredited by a major association like the American Sanctuary Association (ASA) or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), animal sanctuaries must not be a primarily commercial endeavor.  Although they may charge an entrance fee or have a suggested donation, the money should go strictly to the sanctuary’s operating expenses.

The requirements to be certified, accredited, or verified can be stringent.  For example, the ASA requires that sanctuaries show their financial ability to care for animals, meet a certain level of care, allow the animals to roam free, and refrain from breeding animals for the pet trade or for commercial purposes.  Unless special licensing is granted – as in the case of animals used for community outreach or education purposes – sanctuaries are forbidden to feature the animals an entertainment or exhibits.

For more about sanctuary accreditation, certification and verification, see the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries list or the American Sanctuary Association’s list of accredited sites.

Our Top Animal Sanctuaries for Your Next Field Trip

Jaguar. Credit

Jaguar. Credit

Choosing among the many deserving sanctuaries wasn’t easy.  As we said before, many are not open to the public at all; others have very limited open times.  Our choices are both large enough to accommodate a school group and offer a variety of available times to schedule a trip.  All of the sanctuaries are either ASA- or GFAS-approved.

InSync Exotics

Wylie, Texas

InSync Exotics, about 35 miles north of Dallas, was officially named in 2000, but it got its start much earlier, when vet tech Vicky Keahey brought home a cougar that had been abandoned at the office where she worked.  In 1994, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began bringing her other big cats in need of some care, and InSync really took off.

On the website, it proclaims, “We can be hard to find,” but this tour-friendly spot is worth the trip.  Groups can take a guided tour and learn all about the tigers, lions and other big cats that share this refuge.  There’s a special rate for kids and school tours.

3430 Skyview Drive Wylie, TX

Website:  Phone: 972-442-6888  Email:

Forest Animal Reserve (Peace River Refuge and Ranch)

Silver Springs, Florida

Populated by abandoned or surrendered pets, confiscated animals and animals that were formerly used for research, this facility takes its responsibilities as a refuge seriously.  Public visits are strictly limited to twice-monthly guided tours, although the Reserve does offer an Alternative Break program for older students who want to help out.  (The story of 43 Illinois State University volunteers is featured on the website.)  The species housed here include big and small wild cats, monkeys, lemurs, bears, bats and a wolf hybrid.

Forest Animal Rescue (formerly known as Peace River Refuge & Ranch) was started by the husband and wife team of Kurt and Lisa Stoner in 1998.  The facilities, which are near Ocala National Forest, were recently under construction; be sure to call in advance before you arrange for a group visit.

Forest Animal Rescue

640 NE 170th Ct. Silver Springs, FL 34488

Website:  Phone: 352- 625-7377

Animal Ark

Reno, Nevada

Want to see bears, raccoons, tigers, foxes, desert tortoises and owls in one place?  Then head to Animal Ark, about 25 miles north of Reno.  This sanctuary is fully outfitted to deal with large groups of visitors; the grounds have a picnic area and a gift shop.  (All proceeds from the shop go directly to Ark operations, as per ASA guidelines.)  Docents are available for tours along the one-mile trail, and carts are available for those who aren’t up to the walk.

Animal Ark is open to the public from April 1 to Nov. 2.  Please call in advance if you have concerns about weather conditions, or to see about any special events the Ark has on tap.

Animal Ark, Inc.

P. O. Box 60057, Reno, NV 89506-0001

Website: Phone: 775-970-3111

The Nature Center at Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center

Scottsdale, Arizona

What started with Don Coyote (an orphaned coyote pup) and 10 acres of land near Scottsdale has grown into a place where wild mammals are rehabilitated – some to be re-released back into the wild, others to live their lives in the peace of the Conservation Center.  Here you’ll find the Mexican grey wolf, which had to be re-introduced into the United States, as well as black bears, deer, foxes, leopards and mountain lions. The 1.5-hour tour welcomes groups of up to 60 people, and feel free to have kids bring a snack or a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area.  Kids in the 9-12 age group can join the Discovery Camps offered.

Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center

PMB 115, 8711 E. Pinnacle Peak Rd. Scottsdale, AZ 85255

Website: Phone:  480-471-3621 Email:

Animal sanctuaries offer an exciting alternative to zoos.  They allow kids to see animals in a more natural environment, and they give the animals space to roam.

Have you used an animal sanctuary – perhaps one of the ones highlighted above – in a school travel itinerary?  Submit a comment below and tells us how it went.  Thanks!