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What To Consider When Children Visit Your Animal Sanctuary

A child pets a sheep at an indoor living space as a staff member supervises.
A Child visits with Finn the sheep at Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary

It can be inspirational to watch children connect with the residents at animal sanctuaries; after all, planting seeds of compassion in younger people can have significant positive effects for them and those around them as they grow up! However, if your animal sanctuary ever allows children on-site, either during regular sanctuary tours or for big special events, it’s very important to create policies and procedures to consider their needs and protect their safety, safeguard the health and comfort of your residents, and to shield your organization from preventable incidents. Children present unique challenges to sanctuary operation that must be addressed in addition to a sanctuary’s typical daily concerns!

Use this guide as a starting point of child considerations at your organization, and then think about your sanctuary’s unique challenges and strengths and how they may apply to visiting children as well!

Above All Else, Adult Supervision Should Be Required

The simplest, and possibly most important way to ensure a child’s safety at an animal sanctuary is to require a parent, guardian, or sanctuary representative to accompany them at all times on sanctuary grounds, especially in any area where residents are present! A curious child at a busy sanctuary could easily wander off and enter a space that could put them into an unsafe situation, be it a resident’s living space, a quarantine area, or a dangerously high loft area. By making a policy that all children must be in visual range of an accompanying adult at all times (or even holding hands at all times for younger children in sensitive areas), you can minimize a large number of potential concerns.

Of course, adult humans aren’t always the best at following rules either, so it’s valuable to display clear signage explaining rules and expectations even if all visitors are always accompanied by a sanctuary representative. Your organization might want to have policies and procedures for the (hopefully rare!) occasion when a parent lets a child break your rules or doesn’t take your safety precautions seriously. A stern warning or being asked to leave a sensitive area is highly preferable to an injured child.

Sanctuaries should also keep in mind the ratio of adults to children in a group. A tour with 5 adults and 5 children will likely have quite a different atmosphere and attention span than one with 1 adult and 9 children! It may be helpful for your organization to specify how many children can be reasonably monitored by one adult on your animal sanctuary’s grounds if there are frequently bigger groups of children visiting, or plan on bringing on additional tour guides for special events with many children present.

Waivers Are A Must

Just like all visitors to your sanctuary, all minors should sign waivers (or should have their legal guardian sign on their behalf, depending on your region) before entering any sensitive area of your property. When having a waiver reviewed by a legal professional who knows your region’s laws, be sure to ask them what modifications (if any) need to be made in order for a waiver to legally apply to minors. Some regions of the world have quite different requirements for minor waivers that must be honored in order to be legally applicable.

Set Expectations In Advance

It’s important to ensure that kids (and their parents) understand that your organization is a sanctuary, not a petting zoo. It should be clear that there are rules of how humans are allowed to respectfully interact with some residents, and what kinds of behaviors are not tolerated. In addition, if you are advertising an educational tour or program that kids are invited to attend, it can be valuable to describe what kind of information is presented in the program so that parents can be empowered to decide whether the material is appropriate for their child instead of being surprised by any part of the content, which can lead to uncomfortable conversations between parents and sanctuary representatives.

Know Your Residents

If you haven’t seen it happen before, it might come as a surprise, but it’s a commonly observed phenomenon that certain individual animals act differently around younger humans than they do around adults, and not always in ways you might expect. Sometimes, this means that residents whose behavior and disposition is typically quite predicable towards visitors becomes less easy to gauge when kids enter their living space. They may exhibit more signs of stress or even confrontational behaviors as a result. One sanctuary reported a typically docile young cow exhibiting mounting-motivated behaviors towards a young human child, which resulted in the cow living space becoming off-limits to tours entirely until a compassionate solution could be found. For these reasons, it’s important that sanctuary representatives who lead tours are keenly aware of residents who may be a part of a tour, and who might not be a good fit for human visitors if there are children present. Or, for certain living spaces, it might be best policy to restrict children (or tours entirely) from entering for everyone’s comfort.

For residents who are known to be comfortable around younger humans, it’s still important that all interactions are done under the guidance of a close by sanctuary representative who can evaluate whether a resident is in the mood for visitors, explain how to gently and safely greet each resident, and who can intervene if a resident interaction needs to swiftly conclude for the comfort and wellbeing of all involved.

In certain living spaces with particularly young humans such as toddlers, it may be best to have guardians hold the children rather than letting them wander freely, which could potentially result in them walking up to a turkey or goat as tall as them, and end in an unexpected peck, or worse, a horned greeting.

A Word Of Caution About Strollers
Some individual residents at sanctuaries have been known to react with fear or confrontational behaviors towards objects or devices that are unfamiliar to them, including strollers and wheelchairs. For this reason, it is generally a good idea to consider a policy banning strollers from entering into resident living spaces!

Make It Easy To Encourage Good Habits

If you’re planning to have children visit your sanctuary, it’s valuable to ensure you are well-stocked with supplies to ensure that their health and comfort is taken care of. This means having some extra sunscreen on hand for those who didn’t realize how much time they might be spending under the sun, keeping drinking water available and encouraging everyone to stay hydrated, and having enough soap or hand sanitizer abundantly available in each resident living space so that kids can be encouraged to sanitize their hands in each new area of the sanctuary. While these are all important supplies for your staff and visitors of all ages, children sometimes need an extra reminder to take care of themselves and their health! And a sunburned, dehydrated, or unwell child is not going to be one endeared to their visit experience.

Always Be Wary Of Zoonotic Diseases
Certain diseases that residents can carry, regardless of whether they’re currently displaying symptoms, can transfer to humans. These zoonotic diseases can be especially dangerous if human children, the elderly, or immunocompromised individuals were to catch them. This is especially true of neonatal cows and calves with Cryptosporidium, in addition to other species and diseases. For these reasons, it’s critical to continually practice good biosecurity and make sure that any potential risks of zoonoses are headed off with enforced restricted access areas and strict instructions for all visitors to avoid ill residents, quarantine areas, and to frequently encourage handwashing in all parts of the sanctuary!

Feeding Concerns

Younger folks (in addition to many adults) often want to directly interact with residents by feeding them, such as by hunting down stalks of plants or handfuls of grass to give to interested residents to attract their attention and appreciation. While many of these actions can be benign, due to the dietary needs of many residents, the potential threat of toxic plants, and the risk of eager residents accidentally biting a young visitor when trying to sneak a treat, it’s generally a safer policy to prohibit guests of all ages from hand feeding residents or giving residents any food not specially meant for them. If you do wish to give visitors the opportunity to feed your residents safe, care program-approved treats, we highly recommend a policy of providing treat bowls or buckets that visitors can add managed portions of approved food into for certain approved residents. This can ensure that kids get to connect with residents in this satisfying, generous way with many fewer risks!

In addition to ensuring kids follow good directions with regards to resident food, it’s important to make sure kids (in addition to other visitors of all ages) aren’t sneaking in human food or beverages during a visit to resident living spaces. Not only are most human foods not healthy for residents (and folks of all ages have been known to “sneak a treat” with good intentions), but certain more food-motivated residents like pigs may act in an unsafe manner toward those sneaking a tasty snack in their pocket! At the beginning of visits, it can be good to confirm with kids that they are food-free, and any snacks are left in a resident-free area.

Consider Family-Friendly Volunteering Opportunities

If your organization has public volunteers, finding ways for kids to get involved and help can be a great way to connect them with your residents and your mission. This can be challenging at many organizations, where the daily tasks are far outside the scope of what younger kids can safely accomplish. To solve this issue, some organizations hold scheduled “family volunteering” days, where their volunteering age limit is lower than usual and volunteer activities that parents can safely do with younger kids are made available.

Tour Tailoring

Kids typically engage with the world quite differently than adults, and this is no different during sanctuary tours! In order for kids to feel engaged in the material a sanctuary may be trying to impart upon them, a sanctuary tour guide’s tactics will need to be adjusted for a younger audience’s unique needs.

The following list of tips for engaging younger folks on sanctuary tours was compiled by Alexis Miller, Education & Outreach Manager at Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary, and former Education Intern at Catskill Animal Sanctuary:

TEAM NAME – Try to establish unity when first meeting the group of youngsters. One way of doing this may be by coming up with a team name for the group. This can work as an attention-getter during the tour, which will be necessary to keep everyone together (even those who may tend to wander from the group). To collect attention, call the team name and wait for visitors to respond by calling back something else. For example, if the team name is Team Cows, you shout/speak loudly “Team Cows!” Visitors can then answer “Moo.” Everyone likes to feel a sense of belonging.

CONNECTION – Focus on the connection between the kids and the animals. “What do we both have in common? Who here has a best friend, raise your hand? Non-human animals have best friends too. Who here likes a nice soft bed to sleep in at night?  Does anyone make their bed? Pigs do. Who here takes baths at home? Chickens take dust baths.” Make the message relatable. Kids are very concerned with their peers, so talk about social cues among the animals that can be related back to their lives.

ENGAGEMENT – Little people are not big people. They can’t absorb a 60-minute lecture. In order to hold their interest, engage them in the tour by asking lots of questions or having them help you. For example, ask a child to demonstrate the proper way to meet a new animal (let them smell you first). This responsibility will make them feel important and can work in your favor when you need an extra hand.

BE EXPRESSIVE – Voice fluctuations or varying the tone of your voice are great for keeping kids’ attention and pulling it back in if you think you are losing them with all the information. Sound effects are good. Example: Add a “Woohoo!” somewhere in your tour. Make it fun! Open yourself up, smile with open lips so people don’t think you’re smirking.

ENTHUSIASM – Express with your words and body language how important this subject matter is to you and it will rub off on your young audience. Excitement and enthusiasm is like smiling and laughing. It’s contagious. Don’t hold back your passion.

REPETITION – Reiterate your message over and over. Quiz young audiences on fun facts you’ve given throughout the tour. “Remember our discussion about the large chickens? The pigs are large for the same reason. Does anyone remember why these animals are bred to be so large?” (Big people need repetition too!)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – When someone has a question or comment, actively listen by responding in a way that confirms you heard and considered what they had to say. “That’s a great observation. Wow, I never thought of it that way.” Praise enforces the behavior you want to see.

LISTENING = UNDERSTANDING – We all come from different backgrounds and experiences.  In order to understand where someone is coming from when they share their perspective on an issue, we need to listen to them. Little and big people invest more when they feel they are being heard. Young people generally have a lot to say once they feel comfortable enough to open up.  The more they talk, the more you can understand their perspective, which should determine how you shape your message. Listening is free research and will help you to cater toward your audience’s needs more effectively. For example, if a young person expresses that they like pigs but not birds, make similarities between pigs and birds when visiting with and discussing the birds. People absorb more when they come up with the conclusion themselves. For example: (When looking at the pigs) “Do these pigs look normal to you? Do you think they are comfortable?” Lead with questions and listen for answers that will lead them on the right track.  If your audience does not understand the question, frame it in a different way. Both you and your young audience should ask questions so that everyone may be an active (rather than passive) listener.

TRUST – Create a safe atmosphere. Kids need to know that you are approachable. Think about someone who has impacted you. What are their characteristics? We tend to follow people who are welcoming, optimistic, fun, outgoing, positive, non-judgmental, and approachable. We like people who care about us and listen. Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. By adopting these characteristics, you will gain trust and respect from your young audience. People don’t always remember what you told them, but they do remember how you made them feel. How do you want your young audience to feel at the end of your tour? Also, if you can make your young audience feel comfortable, they will remember more of what you tell them. 

BE YOURSELF – Be relatable and authentic, use humor. When you are trying to be something that you are not, the young ones will sense it. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right to you.  Have fun!

Quick Tour Tips:

  • Short words win
  • Filler words (um, ok, like) are hard to follow and can be frustrating to listen to
  • Be empathetic even if you don’t agree- people need to feel understood
  • Try to create positive interactions
  • Be warm mentally, socially, and physically (during wintertime, warm your hands before meeting people)
  • Give a compliment occasionally

Don’t:

  • Make people feel guilty
  • Judge

Consider Creating Events For Children

One way of ensuring your content for kids is appropriate and engaging is to hold events specifically for younger folks. Sanctuaries have found unique, exciting opportunities to help kids learn and connect with animals, ranging from:

  • Art, writing, and poetry courses that feature empathy and relation to residents
  • “Read to the animals” volunteering events, where shyer kids are paired with residents to bolster the child’s sense of confidence and as enrichment to the resident
  • Plant-based cooking courses geared for kids
  • Camps held on sanctuary ground with volunteering and education, in addition to fun activities

Dream big! What can you do with your unique organization and mission to get kids excited and engaged?

Is your organization holding awesome, unique events with kids? Let us know! We’d love to highlight it in this resource!

Alexis recently led an Empathy For Animals event, which was geared specifically for children visiting Luvin Arms!

Updated on August 3, 2020

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