In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Animal Sanctuaries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Law and Biopolitics
  • Farmed Animals
  • Companion Animals
  • Wildlife

Anthropology Animal Sanctuaries
Elan Abrell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0265


Animal sanctuaries are human-created spaces for the protection and care of animals rescued from conditions of violence, exploitation, neglect, or abuse by other humans. The contemporary institution of the animal sanctuary originated with the first sanctuaries established in the United States by animal protection activists in the early 1980s. Since then, activists have established hundreds more throughout the world. Individual sanctuaries typically focus their efforts on specific kinds of animals corresponding to the ways in which they are used or commodified by humans, such as farmed animals, companion animals, or wild animals used in entertainment and biomedical research, although others may focus on a specific species of animal, such as chimpanzees, horses, wolves, or elephants. Animal sanctuaries are a novel subject of ethnographic inquiry in anthropology and related social sciences, so “sanctuary studies” is currently a nascent but growing topical area of research. Despite the relatively small body of literature focused on animal sanctuaries, anthropologists and other social scientists investigating sanctuaries and related endeavors, such as wildlife rehabilitation centers, have already provided valuable insights into why and how humans have chosen to care for rescued or endangered animals and the new kinds of institutions and political ecological relationships that are generated by these practices, highlighting the varied and, at times, conflicting ideas about care, ethics, value, species difference, and animal subjectivity and agency that inform sanctuary work. This pioneering literature forms a rich foundation for future research.

General Overviews

Several texts define and describe animal sanctuaries as contemporary cultural phenomena. Abrell 2019; Blattner, et al. 2020; Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011; Donaldson and Kymlicka 2015; Ferdowsian 2018; and Pachirat 2018 examine the political relevance and ethical dimensions of sanctuaries. Abrell 2019, Fusari 2017, and Pachirat 2018 also explore the historical and linguistic dimensions of sanctuaries. Emmerman 2014, Jones and Gruen 2016, and Emmerman 2014 highlight some of the challenges to sanctuary care work that are common across different kinds of sanctuaries.

  • Abrell, Elan. 2019. Animal sanctuaries. In The Routledge handbook of animal ethics. Edited by Bob Fischer, 569–577. New York: Routledge.

    Based on ethnographic research conducted at a range of North American animal sanctuaries, this chapter reviews the history of sanctuaries and outlines the dilemmas of care that arise from sanctuary work, including spatial and resource limitations and ethical challenges related to balancing the interests of sanctuary animals. It concludes by considering the implications of sanctuary-making for broader movements for social and environmental justice.

  • Blattner, Charlotte, Sue Donaldson, and Ryan Wilcox. 2020. Animal agency in community: A political multispecies ethnography of VINE sanctuary. Politics and Animals 6:1–22.

    Based on research conducted at a sanctuary for formerly farmed animals, examines the role of animal agency in the human-animal co-creation of interspecies communities and how better understandings of the dimensions of animal agency can inform interspecies ethics and politics.

  • Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a framework for animal rights through the lens of political theory, identifying different political categories of nonhuman animals, including domesticated animals as co-citizens in human communities, wild animals as members of sovereign communities, and liminal animals who live in human settlements as denizens of those spaces. Although focused on a broad range of contexts, the authors use sanctuaries as a model to illustrate some of their arguments.

  • Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2015. Farmed animal sanctuaries: The heart of the movement? A socio-political perspective. Politics and Animals 1:50–74.

    Focused specifically on sanctuaries for formerly farmed animals, this articles critiques the “refuge + advocacy” model in which sanctuary animals receive care while also acting as educational ambassadors, highlighting the harms of industrial agriculture. It proposes an alternative model in which sanctuary animals live as citizens of an “intentional community.”

  • Emmerman, Karen S. 2014. Sanctuary, not remedy: The problem of captivity and the need for moral repair.” In The ethics of captivity. Edited by Lori Gruen, 213–230. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199977994.003.0014

    Argues that while sanctuaries contribute significantly to the work of “moral repair” for the previous mistreatment of the animals they rescue, they can never provide restitution and should resist perpetuating the idea that this is possible, especially for animals that continue to bear the physical and psychological effects of their previous lives prior to rescue.

  • Ferdowsian, Hope. 2018. Phoenix zones: Where strength is born and resilience lives. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226476094.001.0001

    This monograph features several different animal sanctuaries and organizations that help human survivors of violence and abuse to illustrate the “phoenix effect,” a medically documented phenomenon in which survivors of trauma later develop a robust capacity for resilience. It makes a case for expanding the principles of sanctuary beyond animal sanctuaries to other contexts in which humans and animals suffer from structural violence, replacing these structures with “structures of resilience” instead.

  • Fusari, Sabrina. 2017. What is an animal sanctuary? Evidence from applied linguistics. Animal Studies Journal 6.2: 137–160.

    Provides a historical linguistic analysis of the use of the term sanctuary in relation to animals.

  • Jones, Pattrice, and Lori Gruen. 2016. Keeping ghosts close: Care and grief at sanctuaries. In Mourning animals: Rituals and practices surrounding animal death. Edited by Margo DeMello, 187–192. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.

    This chapter examines how caregivers deal with grief in response to the common occurrence of animals dying in sanctuaries. The authors highlight the connections between loss and love and consider how mourning practices can strengthen interspecies communities of care.

  • Pachirat, Timothy. 2018. Sanctuary. In Critical terms for animal studies. Edited by Lori Gruen, 337–355. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Drawing on the martial etymology of the word sanctuary, this chapter argues for animal sanctuaries to be understood as staging grounds for resistance against the war-like conditions of pervasive systemic violence directed against animals by humans. It highlights both the political opportunities this understanding affords for coalition building as well as the risks of political ineffectiveness raised by a failure of sanctuaries to operate as such sites of resistance.

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