IF YOU CAN INTERACT WITH THEM IT IS NOT CONSERVATION: Fake sanctuaries and naive tourists


I was 21 when taken by ignorance and naivety, I left to volunteer in a famous sanctuary of baboons and cheetahs in Namibia. I do not deny it: what had prompted me to have that experience, was the idea of ​​being able to sleep with the monkeys and being able to pet the cheetahs; on the other hand, what did I know, 5 years ago of what was behind these interactions? Behind these places?



Wild animals forced to interact with Man, completely unnatural and forced. Baboons and vervet monkey babies, who were passed off as “orphans”, but most likely weren’t (on the other hand, how do you get every four months, dozens of orphaned puppies? … a little strange what not?). The presence of puppies, of course, was an excellent visiting card for volunteers and paying tourists, who spent € 400 a week, for a minimum of 4 weeks. Without puppies to breastfeed, without monkeys with which to take selfies, which “naturalistic” volunteering is it? And so, here I am, accomplice and victim of this black tourism, a tourism made on the skin of hundreds of thousands of animals, from lions, to elephants, monkeys, cheetahs, parrots, sloths, which all over the world, every day are exploited by fake volunteer industry to raise millions of dollars and create a real business.



The publicity of these structures is certainly fascinating: “Come and save the African fauna, take care of small orphans and take care of the conservation of threatened species and habitats!”
It is a pity that there is very little conservation and well-being in these places:
we all know that the Herpes virus (the classic cold sores) is asymptomatic for human beings, but it can kill a primate – just as Ebola was asymptomatic in chimpanzees, and for humans it was deadly. As you can clearly see in this photo of mine, I had a gigantic Herpes for the past 10 days, yet I continued to interact with all the animals, including the monkeys (every night I slept with a vervet monkey). None of the staff who had forbidden me to interact with wild animals, no vet who had bothered to tell me that my Herpes could kill monkeys. I was clearly unaware of it and continued my “volunteering”, putting animals at risk.



In these centers, animal welfare is entrusted to ignorant, simple “Lovers” and animal lovers, without a minimum of knowledge and skills for the management of wild animals.
The well-being and life of hundreds of wild animals is in the hands of young volunteers, naive and incompetent, who find themselves in the hands of dangerous animals, animals at risk, wild animals, whose interaction with Man is nothing but a stress inappropriate and useless.
Every week these poor puppies change “mama”, going from volunteer to volunteer, like toys. Volunteers who know nothing about ethology, veterinary, animal welfare and try out “keepers” for a few weeks, in order to experience these exotic experiences, without understanding that these holidays are a real threat to the welfare and conservation of these animals .
Animals whose dignity and respect seemed to be trampled on in the name of the God of money.



Puppies torn from their mothers, to be used as a frame for a beautiful selfie to put on as a profile picture on Facebook. Wild animals, felines, carnivores, deprived of their wildness, forced to unnatural interactions, treated as stuffed animals, imprinted on Man, deprived of their Nature and their instinct, for pure human delight. For pure business.



I am now an ethologist and I am in charge of conservation. After that terrible experience, I graduated in behavior and animal welfare, I was a volunteer in a real sanctuary in South Africa (Monkeyland) and I was Wildlife Manager of a recovery center in Costa Rica where the animals were really recovered (Kids saving the rainforest ), and I can assure you that given my experience and my studies, to ensure the welfare of an animal, the interaction with Man is the worst thing that can exist and that the conservation of a species cannot exist if the animals are accustomed to Man.


The canned hunt is the kind of trophy hunt involving lions born and raised on private farms and game reserves. When lions reach about four years, they are released into a restricted area to become easy targets for hunters. With fenced animals, the canned hunt guarantees safe killing; not only is it a non-specialized research, but it is also profoundly one-way. Unsurprisingly, what guarantees a “Canned” hunt is also money: hunting fees can easily reach $ 50,000. The 2015 film “Blood Lions” by Ian Michlerè is a brilliant and brilliant documentary that reveals the dark side of captive and canned hunt reproduction in South Africa.
Suffice it to say that in 1999 there were about 1,000 caged lions in these breeding facilities, in 2005 this figure had jumped to 3,500, and now it is 7,000 – unfortunately the breeding of lions in captivity is proving increasingly profitable for the people involved.

There are so many reserves behind the «false sanctuaries», where real lions of lions, lionesses, jaguars and tigers in fact are destined to be sold to the hunting game reserves for a fee. No preservation of the species, no environmental intent: false sanctuaries produce prey. The puppies that the volunteers cuddle and bottle feed will lose because of the contact with the man their instinct for defense, they will never be released again, they will be sold to the hunting reserves where they will become easy targets for the trophy hunters , or they will end up on the black market that buys bones and skins, to make fake medicines or furnishings for homes.
In short, the connection between fake sanctuaries, fake volunteering with animals and hunting for trophies is clearly visible. “In puppies torn from the mother for volunteer tourism, there are nutritional deficiencies that we cannot nearly correct with over-the-counter supplements,” said Tammy Thies, executive director of Wildcat Sanctuary.
Puppies will also try to suck, sometimes so obsessively that they can hurt themselves. “They end up self-mutilating because they are self-calming behaviors,” Thies noted. Puppies separated from their mothers also have high stress rates and can develop separation anxiety just like a pet. Puppy mothers are affected just as badly by the intensive nature of farm breeding programs. In nature, a mother would have a litter of puppies every two or three years and dedicate her life to protect them fiercely; in captivity, it can have two to three litters every year and lose all its babies in a few days. “It is not uncommon for mothers to develop ovarian cysts or prolapses or even reproductive cancers, which shortens their lives.”

Raised by volunteers to be semi-meek, the puppies are passed off as tourists for orphaned animals, to experience caresses and photo sessions. Sometimes this happens in false sanctuaries, which are falsely sold to tourists as conservation groups; other times they are rented in hotels or shops to attract customers.
In the end, the puppies become too big to be cute, so they are trained to participate in “walking sessions”, another joy for the tourist: the lions and their conductors guide the paying tourists with a short walk, then they pose with them for the photos Finally, when the former puppies are quite large, the lions are classified by attractiveness and with a suitable price, hunters can then go to the website of the structure and select the lion they want to take home, dead.
From 2001 to 2006, 1,830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa; from 2006 to 2011, 4,062: a 122% increase and most of the animals were bred in captivity. Demand from the Far East is also generating profits for lion breeders. In 2001, two lions were exported as “trophies” in China, Laos and Vietnam; in 2011, 70 lion trophies were exported to those countries.
Lion populations in Nature have fallen by 80% in 20 years, so the increase in private lion reserves and canned hunt has not protected free lions. In fact, according to Fiona Miles, director of Lionsrock, a large sanctuary in the South, she is feeding it. “The creation of a lion hunting market by lion farms puts a clear price tag on the head of every lion in Nature,” she says; create a financial incentive for the local population, which colludes with poachers or turns a blind eye to kill lions illegally. “




If this happens in Africa, certainly in the rest of the world the situation is no better. In Central and South America, it is not difficult to find fake sanctuaries where you can interact, feed and pamper sloths, parrots, jaguars in chains and monkeys. In Asia, elephant tourism is still flourishing: although public opinion and ethics have understood that riding an elephant is wrong for its well-being and conservation, the concept that it is also “just” wrong to wash it, is still far away, cuddle it or roll with it in the mud.



It must be remembered that ANY INTERACTION between a wild animal and man is an unnatural and insane action for the animal.
A wild animal is defined as a species whose species is phylogenetically, taxonomically, morphologically and etologically a wild species. A species that is not influenced by man in his evolutionary process. A wild animal is therefore an animal whose nature is that of not being with Man, it is born with a number of cells of the neural crest greater than a domestic animal and therefore will produce more adrenaline and therefore will show greater aggressiveness and will have a physiology, a morphology and wild animal behavior.
A domestic animal is different, but in most cases it has undergone co-evolutionary processes with Homo sapiens and is therefore “programmed” from birth to be able to stay and interact with Man. It has a smaller number of neural crest cells, secreted less adrenaline and also at a morphological level it is different from its wild predecessor (imagine the Wolf and the Dog: the dog is the domestic subspecies of the wolf and are genetically and evolutionarily different).
it is taxonomy, genetics, evolution that defines a domestic or wild species, it is not the individual or subpopulation.
A domesticated animal is in fact a SINGLE individual who during his ontogenesis (development in the course of life) has been in contact with Man and therefore the individual, on a behavioral level and only on a behavioral level, has adapted to stand and interact with Man – but if that same individual had been born in Nature, without ever having seen Man, he would be very reluctant to approach this. What happens is that domesticated animals are made to imprint on Man (to get used to Man from birth, making the animal believe that Man is part of his group / parent / sexual partner) – through imprinting, then , the animal will be a behaviorally domesticated animal but genetically, evolutionarily remains wild and above all its species-specific needs remain those of a wild animal.

As we have seen, unfortunately, many justify the interaction with the wild affirming that the animal was wounded or orphaned. It is not a prerequisite or a valid pretext: there are countless cases in which an orphaned or wounded animal (as long as it is) can be recovered without necessarily having to keep it on a leash, give it basins and deprive it of its natural wildness, obliging it among other things to interactions not only with man – but also with species that would naturally be his predators or with which he would not even share the ecological niche. When many “sanctuaries” or people write “saved” animals in reality it is only a mere justification for holding wild animals. If he has been saved, he must not stay at your home. The animal could survive even without cuddling, cute videos and basins. You could look after it without humanizing it and make it always forced to a life in captivity – as a pet, having deprived it of its wild and natural nature. And to do this, detention at home is insane, wrong and illegal: there are recovery centers and not people’s salons to save animals that are really in danger.

In short, whether in Namibia, Mexico, Thailand or in your home … avoid places where you can interact with wild animals: this is not healthy tourism, it is not conservation and your intervention certainly does not bring benefits to the well-being of that animal, indeed.
Don’t act like me, you try to document yourself before you leave and be a conscious volunteer: true sanctuaries exist, really help animals, save orphaned puppies in a healthy way, without interaction with tourists, avoid contact with Man and free animals in nature after treatment, thus promoting the conservation of that species and that habitat.
True sanctuaries exist. Choose them.


Chiara Grasso

Ethologist and President of  ETICOSCIENZA

Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide Collaborator

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