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Minding Sanctuary: Potential for multispecies justice through care-full wildlife tourism

Minding Sanctuary: Potential for multispecies justice through care-full wildlife tourism

Siobhan Speiran

by Siobhan Speiran, Ph.D.

As a wild animal geographer and welfare scholar, I am thrilled to find an academic home amongst the vibrant EUC community as a postdoctoral visitor. I continue collaborating with Professor Alice Hovorka (my Ph.D. supervisor) and The Lives of Animals Research Group. I locate my research as scholarship emerging in response to the ‘posthuman’, ‘species’, and ‘animal turns’ which precipitated the subdisciplines of ethnoprimatology and animal geography, and the ‘ethical turn’ in nature-based tourism research.

My interdisciplinary Ph.D. dissertation focused on the lives of animals in the tourism industry, highlighting animal interests and the conservation-welfare nexus as essential to sustainable wildlife tourism research and practice. This led me to empirically investigate the potential for wildlife sanctuaries to offer sustainable captive wildlife tourism through a case study of monkeys in Costa Rican sanctuaries (Figure 1). It involved developing and trialling a field-based, non-invasive conservation welfare assessment framework at three (of eight) sanctuaries I visited during fieldwork in 2019 (Figure 2).

Findings emerged through mixed methods: participant observation, document review, behavioural observation of primates, post-tour surveys of sanctuary tourists, and interviews with key informants and members of the host community. I learned Costa Rican sanctuaries make trade-offs and hard choices around the nexus of animal welfare, conservation and sustainability. I found promising evidence that my focal sanctuaries provide positive animal welfare and conservation outcomes for involved species– which I propose implies their potential to support sustainability.

One may describe this research as socio-ecological; it draws from similar studies like Parreñas multispecies ethnography of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra, and animal geographer Van Patter’s case study of coexistence between coyotes and humans in Ontario. I also explored the labour-based roles, circumstances and experiences of monkeys in wildlife sanctuaries. I found evidence that monkeys participate in ecological, educational and entertainment labour. Although distinct, these forms of labour permeate each other, underlaid by the emotional work of care which takes place at the human-monkey interface of rehabilitation.

Thousands of non-releasable, “internally-displaced” wild animals live in sanctuaries around the world; non-human primates especially feature in these facilities, with an estimated 10,000+ individuals in 130 sanctuaries worldwide, nearly half of whom represent endangered species. In a review of the literature on primate rescue, rehabilitation, and reintroduction, I concluded with colleagues that these three pillars of primate conservation are under-researched, under-regulated, and fraught with ethical debates and dilemmas. My postdoctoral research takes up this line of inquiry, with a focus on how sanctuaries can enhance support for wild animal welfare, community-led conservation, and care-full wildlife tourism.

Sanctuaries, I posit, are more than an internal displacement camp for wildlife; they are places of hope to oppose colonial legacies by returning wild animals back to their natural ranges, and caring for individuals who cannot return to the wild. Sanctuaries can be multispecies landscapes; ‘beastly places’ of entangled empathy through labours of wildlife care and conservation. I am especially interested in transspecies caregiving at the sanctuary interface, and whether there is potential for sanctuaries to offer justice for animals through rehabilitation, environmental education, and advocacy. While limited empirical research exists in support of the latter, the growing scholarship on sanctuaries is promising.

Some sanctuaries participate in environmental education through guided tours, communication, and outreach to local communities while generating funding through paid voluntourism programs. Others operate as greenwashed captive wildlife attractions, offering unethical encounters, such as wildlife selfies. Addressing the lacuna of research on this subject is complicated by a lack of consensus and regulations around wildlife rehabilitation. This perpetuates confusion amongst tourists and researchers seeking to support sanctuaries which demonstrably improve the lives and conservation of focal species, and avoid those operating with a “mere veneer of green”. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of greenwashed sanctuaries worldwide. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits sanctuaries that uphold best practices and humane care in a non-exploitative environment through ethically informed policies (e.g. restricting captive breeding and tourism encounters). They also publish guidelines for sanctuary operators looking to improve the sustainability of sanctuaries through strategic planning.

My current research seeks to contribute clarifying definitions and a research agenda for sanctuary tourism to guide future studies. Toward this goal, I have devised a preliminary typology of sanctuary attractions to distinguish between those which enhance animals’ welfare and those which endanger it. The typology is grounded in a sustainable, care and justice-based approach; ranging from greenwashed sanctuaries (at worst) to just sanctuaries (at best), with transitional sanctuaries in between. Figure 3 demonstrates this typology along a spectrum of wildlife tourism, ranging from consumptive to non-consumptive attractions.

Figure 3. Spectrum of Sanctuary Tourism: From greenwashing to justice. This is published in the second edition of Tourism & Animal Ethics (Fennell, 2024).

We must continue to shift the operating paradigm of wildlife tourism research and practice towards a more just and ‘care-full’ approach. Identifying the common ground between sustainability and feminist ethics of care, Bertella proposes a care-full approach to academic activism to encourage a “holistic, innovative and practical perspective on care-based tourism research aiming at sustainability.” This complements the preliminary framework developed by Jamal & Camargo to guide tourism development, marketing and policy-making based on a joint ethic of justice and care. Recent work by Blaer recognizes animal rescue tourism as a distinct animal-based tourism experience– similar to wildlife sanctuary tourism –since both appeal to tourists seeking ethical, alternative encounters with rescued animals. I define a wildlife sanctuary attraction as a facility that allows visitors to view wild animals from captive-born or free-living origins undergoing rehabilitation and unsuitable for reintroduction.

My research aims to refine this typology of wildlife sanctuary attractions through collaboration with researchers and sanctuary operators to generate empirical data. Future inquiry should explore to what extent just and transitional sanctuaries consistently and positively reinforce wild animal welfare, conservation and sustainable transitions. As well, how do sanctuaries intersect with community-led conservation initiatives? Ultimately, I seek to improve the lives of wild animals through care-full, multispecies methods and knowledge mobilization. I continue to learn with and from the diverse sanctuary community to co-produce knowledge, tools, and best practices to advance the interests of wild animals.

Author Bio:

Dr. Siobhan Speiran joined EUC in January as a postdoctoral visitor, continuing her collaboration with Professor Alice Hovorka (The Lives of Animals Research Group) who served as her Ph.D. supervisor at Queen's University. A wild animal welfare scholar and animal geographer, Siobhan conducts transdisciplinary research at the intersection of primate welfare, conservation, and sustainable tourism in Costa Rican wildlife sanctuaries. Her Ph.D. research focused on the lives of monkeys in Costa Rica; generously funded by a SSHRC Bombardier Doctoral Scholarship. Additionally, she founded the Costa Rican Monkey Interest Group to connect wildlife researchers, caregivers, and professionals around the improvement of monkey lives. Siobhan has published on primate rehabilitation, animal labour, tourism ethics, and the phenomenon of ‘wildlife selfies.’ She also participates in scientific activism and communication through teaching, and the website, to disseminate her research. She has contributed as a wildlife expert to multiple podcasts and journalistic news outlets, including National Geographic and the Queen’s Alumni Review.