At an animal sanctuary, regularly scheduled visitor tours are one of the most effective tools of advocacy for your residents and others like them around the world. Giving the public an opportunity to respectfully interact with your residents and learn firsthand that they are much more similar to a beloved dog or cat (or even humans!) than expected is a proven method of getting folks to consider widening their circle of compassion to include more species of animals. Although every sanctuary has different policies and procedures for their tour programs, there are some key elements that all sanctuaries should consider in order to run a safe, engaging, and effective tour program.
Tour Scheduling And Publicity
The most riveting, impactful, and enlightening tour in the world means little if people don’t know that it’s available to take! It’s important to maintain a publicly-accessible regular tour schedule to allow a broad audience to be able to attend a tour at a time that works for them. Make sure your website, brochure, and/or social media highlights your tour program and encourages people from all walks of life to attend!
It’s helpful to offer online signups (Eventbrite is a good platform for this) for your tours so you know exactly how many people are planning to attend specific tours. Some sanctuaries have strict limits on the amount of people who can sign up for different tour time slots so tour guides and residents aren’t overwhelmed, while others hire more tour guides for busy seasons/times.
Some sanctuaries also offer private tours during non-public hours, while others are strict about when guests can be on the property. If you do choose to offer private tours, consider whether you’ll require a minimum number of people to attend the tour or a minimum donation amount in order to make up for the extra resources necessary to make private tours happen.
Everyone who comes onto your sanctuary’s premises must sign a waiver absolving you of responsibility should an incident occur. Without this piece of legal protection, you could be placing your organization, and more importantly, your residents, in legal jeopardy if anybody were to lodge a complaint against you. Regardless of whether the waiver is signed on paper or digitally, it is a crucial step that cannot be skipped.
It’s important that your tours have established ground rules to protect both residents and guests. For many sanctuaries, this means implementing a strict no food or non-water beverages rule in your residents’ living spaces. It’s also best to disallow hand-feeding as this can create problematic behaviors in some residents who are a bit more food motivated and assertive than others. If you do want guests to be able to offer approved treats to your residents, you might consider having visitation food bowls in the living spaces that they can add the treats to. A durable closed-toe shoe requirement is also an easy way to prevent visitor accidents or injuries at your sanctuary.
Typically, it’s good to have policies in place prohibiting guests from opening living space gates or being allowed to explore the sanctuary without supervision. This could lead to concerning situations with certain residents or curious guests who do not have experience around farmed animals. Visitors must also be prohibited from entering quarantine areas for their safety, as well as your residents’ safety.
Tour guides should be able to quickly get in touch with your sanctuary’s staff should they need assistance with a resident or guest. Walkie talkies are very useful when time is of the essence – residents have been known to get past a gate unexpectedly! Tour guides should also know basic first aid and be able to access a first aid kit relatively quickly during any point in your tours. Generally, you should have contingency policies at the ready should any guest have a negative experience at your sanctuary.
Your tour policies should be careful to center the experiences of the residents who call your sanctuary their home. Creating an expectation and informing visitors that residents are granted autonomy whenever practical is one of the most important ways to both respect your residents and offer visitors a different way of thinking about your residents. Residents should never be forced to spend time with visitors, nor should visitors be allowed to enter the living spaces of residents who do not enjoy the company of humans.
Although nurturing connection and safe interaction is a powerful way to create new advocates for animals, a sanctuary should never be treated like a petting zoo. Individuals’ needs and stories should be always shared and respected. Certain individuals, just like humans, may be more amenable to spending time with humans than others. Others, if forced into an interaction that makes them nervous, may feel obliged to defend themselves, putting both resident and visitor at risk.
Here’s a great example of effective messaging to visitors about resident autonomy, from Full Circle Farm Sanctuary:
“Will I be able to pet the animals?”
Frequently guests ask us if they will be able to pet the residents when they come for a visit. It’s understandable why we get this question a lot – people are excited by the idea of being close to an animal and possibly connecting and creating a bond with them. However, we don’t ever hold events where you are guaranteed to meet or touch a particular animal. We offer many opportunities during tours for the residents to come up to us, and there are many who love to come say hello! But we will never guarantee that you can “pet the animals”.
Here are some reasons why you can be EXCITED that we don’t make this guarantee:
• It means the residents are getting a choice in how they live their lives.
• We live in a world where most nonhuman animals have all their choices taken from them. Being a sanctuary means being a safe place for these guys. Meaning we try to give them back choices and autonomy wherever possible. If a resident loves to see humans, we make sure they get opportunities! But especially if we know a resident does not like to be around humans, we make sure they are not required to do that.
• It means that we put our residents’ well-being first.
• We want everyone who visits to know that this is the residents’ home first and foremost. Even our staff consider themselves guests in the sanctuary. We will never compromise our residents’ health and safety to please a person because they want to pet and touch an animal.
• It means we are fighting against the pervasive notion that animals are here for us to use.
• It’s so important to us to spread the message that animals are not here for people to use, as products and also as entertainment. There are many businesses which sell guaranteed interactions with animals – this creates a situation where the animal is being used for a specific purpose, as a commodity. We want to teach people to interact with other beings in a healthy way.
Visitors often DO get to greet the residents up close! You’ve seen us post pictures of guests loving on Jade the sheep, and Shane the goat always likes to come up and say hello. We recently were able to have guests in a chicken area and they loved it! But sometimes some of our herds are not in the mood and will go in the woods, sometimes different flock members walk away from the tour groups, and that’s ok! – Full Circle Farm Sanctuary
Ambassador residents refer to residents who have unique stories that tour guides can share to highlight the plight of farmed animals around the world. These individuals are sometimes more visible at your sanctuary and more likely to appreciate interaction than other residents of their species. Perhaps your sanctuary’s ambassador is a rescued chicken who seems content being picked up, or a cow that approaches and seems content to safely spend time with humans, or a pig who particularly loves belly rubs! You’ll likely know quite quickly which of your residents would make great ambassadors. Successful tours incorporate the stories of ambassadors as a way to help people better see the individuals that make up their species.
Effective tours are available to as wide a variety of people as possible. Some people who may be curious or receptive to your message may not be able to afford a mandatory tour cost, so consider charging tours with a suggested donation amount or offer a sliding scale of cost depending on individuals’ needs. Many folks have limited mobility and may not be able to attend tours based on the amount of walking, duration, or lack of accessible paths that afford people comfortable movement. It is not always financially feasible to prioritize more accessible paths at a large-acreage farmed animal sanctuary, but consider how you can make the tour experience more accessible to folks with disabilities.
You might also consider working with volunteers or partnering with a local organization to create tours in other languages such as American Sign Language or Spanish to help your sanctuary’s message meet a more diverse and less frequently served audience.
Everyone who visits your sanctuary is coming with varied life experiences, so it’s important to try and remain nonjudgmental about their potential attitudes towards farmed animals. Be mindful that your tour guides aren’t talking down to guests or making assumptions about their feelings, habits and history.
Tours For Younger Humans
If you offer tours to very young people, it’s very likely that you’ll have to carefully consider how to frame your message in order to keep kids engaged. Kids won’t learn if they don’t feel like they can relate to the material you’re presenting. You’ll have to decide whether or not you’d like to create separate tours for younger audiences, restrict tours to adults, or create suggested age minimums for the tours you lead.
Tour Guide Training
Regardless of whether your tour guides are superstar volunteers or paid employees at your sanctuary, it’s important to create a robust tour guide training program for those leading your tours. Your guides are the humans responsible for telling the stories of your residents and sanctuary and keeping both residents and humans safe at all times. They must be aware of resident body language so they can steer visitors away from residents who may be distressed or frustrated with human proximity. This is a position that requires having a wide variety of skills and experiences in order to create a good experience for everyone who visits your sanctuary.
A tour guide should also know your residents by sight and be able to relay some of their history, personality, and the plight of other animals just like them. They should be able to engage the audience effectively, answer delicate questions with tact, and be able to build connections with visitors without ever coming off as judgmental. They should be able to tailor the stories and facts they tell based on the varied ages, abilities, and backgrounds of the audience. And they should be very mindful of the language that they choose to use!
Most importantly, your tour guide training should emphasize message consistency. Your tour could be your biggest bridge to the community your sanctuary is based in, so all aspects of it must be effectively managed and its content must be able to evolve and change as necessary. All tour guides must be informed when updates are made to the tour format or content.
You may require that your tour guides go through a detailed training process, which can include shadowing an experienced tour guide or co-facilitating a tour for the first few weeks until they get the hang of it. Role playing different scenarios and guest conversations with tour guides is an excellent way to help them develop their voice and techniques. It’s also a good idea to occasionally have a representative of the sanctuary attend each tour guide’s tour throughout the year to ensure that your visitors are having the experience that you want them to have!
If your sanctuary has a lot of activity, rescues, and developments throughout the week, it’s good practice to implement a weekly update for your guides to ensure that they are always up-to-date about any information they need to impart upon guests or any areas of the tour that may need temporary modification!
Let Visitors Tell Their Stories
It’s important to listen to visitors who come on your tours, both at the beginning and end of their experience. Consider asking them why they decided to come visit at the beginning of your tour or how a special animal impacted their life at the end. This can help tour guides understand and tailor their content to those attending while fostering ongoing dialogue.
A Call To Action
Once visitors have experienced your sanctuary’s tour, it’s important to give them a way to help. For many visitors, that might be asking them to consider reducing or eliminating their use of animal products. For those who have already made major changes, it may be asking them to consider volunteering at your sanctuary. Have a diverse set of materials ready for visitors to take home in support of widening their circle of compassion to include farmed animals, especially plant-based starter guides and inspiration. If you want to ask someone to make a change in their life, it is most effective if you can provide them with simple suggestions!
In addition, it can be valuable to briefly bring up the costs involved in running an animal sanctuary, and keep a donation box available either at the beginning or end of a tour. While you shouldn’t pressure anyone to donate, you never know who might be willing to contribute!
At the end of the tour, consider offering a short tour survey that your visitors can fill it out. This allows you to capture the types of visitors you’re attracting and measure your tour’s impact. More importantly, you can use this information to review and adjust your tours as necessary. You can also use success stories and positive feedback from your tour surveys as a valuable fundraising tool.