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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 Updated July 12, 2021

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 that consider the needs, safety, and comfort of both the children and your residents. These policies will help protect your organization from preventable incidents. In addition to your sanctuary’s day-to-day operational concerns, there are other unique operational challenges that must be addressed when children visit your sanctuary. You can use this guide as a starting point if you plan on having children visit your organization and then think about how it ties into your sanctuary’s unique challenges and strengths.

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 bigger groups of children that visit frequently. You might also plan on hiring additional tour guides for special events that attract a lot of children.

Waivers Are A Must

Just like all visitors to your sanctuary, all minors should sign waivers (or have their legal guardian sign on their behalf, depending on your region) before entering any sensitive area on your property. It’s a good idea to have your waiver(s) 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 your organization is a sanctuary, not a petting zoo. It should be clear that there are rules for respectfully interacting with your residents, and consequences for breaking them. Additionally, if you are advertising a kid-friendly educational tour or program, it’s helpful to describe what kind of information is presented in the program so that parents can decide whether or not they feel the material is appropriate for their child(ren). Being surprised by topics that are difficult to navigate with kids can lead to uncomfortable conversations between parents and sanctuary representatives.

Know Your Residents

It may or may not come as a surprise that it’s common for certain individual animals to act differently around children than around adults, and not always in ways you might expect. Sometimes, residents whose behavior and disposition is typically predictable towards visitors becomes less easy to gauge when kids enter their living space. They might exhibit signs of stress or confrontation. One sanctuary reported a typically docile young cow exhibiting mounting-motivated behaviors towards a young human child, which resulted in the cow’s living space becoming entirely off-limits to tours until a compassionate solution could be found. For these reasons, it’s important that sanctuary representatives and tour guides are keenly aware of residents who may be part of a tour and decide whether or not they’d be a good fit for human visitors if there are children present. It might also be best policy to restrict children (or tours entirely) from entering specific living areas for everyone’s comfort and safety.

For residents who are known to be comfortable around younger humans, it’s still important that all interactions are done under the close guidance of a sanctuary representative who can evaluate whether or not a resident is in the mood for visitors. They can also explain how to gently and safely greet each resident and 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. Small wandering children could potentially result in them receiving an unexpected peck from a turkey, or worse, a horned greeting from a goat!

A Word Of Caution About Strollers
Some individual residents at sanctuaries have been known to react in fear of objects or devices that are unfamiliar to them, including strollers, umbrellas and wheelchairs. For this reason, it is generally a good idea to consider a policy prohibiting strollers and umbrellas 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 important to consider keeping a stock of supplies that ensure 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! A sunburned, dehydrated, or unwell child is not going to be one endeared to an animal sanctuary experience.

Always Be Wary Of Zoonotic Diseases
Regardless of whether they’re currently displaying symptoms, residents can carry certain diseases that can transfer to humans. These zoonotic diseases can be especially dangerous if human children, the elderly, or immunocompromised individuals catch them. In addition to other species and diseases, this is especially true of neonatal cows and calves with Cryptosporidium. For these reasons, it’s critical to continually practice good biosecurity and make sure that any potential risks of zoonoses are headed off with strict instructions for all visitors to avoid prohibited access areas (e.g. quarantine areas and living quarters with ill residents) and to wash and sanitize their hands frequently.

Feeding Concerns

Like adults who visit animal sanctuaries, younger folks enjoy interacting with residents by feeding them. Oftentimes, children will pull up handfuls of grass or other plants and give them to interested residents to attract their attention. While many of these actions are benign, unrestricted feeding can pose a danger to the residents and children. Residents are at risk due to specific dietary needs and toxic plants, while children are at risk of being bitten by a resident who is eager to sneak a treat. So, 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 specific and approved residents. This ensures that kids connect with residents in a satisfying and generous way without so many risks!

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

Consider Family-Friendly Volunteering Opportunities

If your organization has public volunteers, finding ways for kids to get involved 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 often outside the scope of what younger kids can safely accomplish. To alleviate this challenge, some organizations hold scheduled “family volunteering” days, where the volunteer 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 differently than adults, and this is no different during sanctuary tours! In order for kids to feel engaged in the type of information sanctuaries offer, it’s important that sanctuary tour guides are utilizing tactics that are adjusted to the unique needs of a younger audience.

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. This can work as an attention-getter during the tour, which will be necessary in keeping everyone together, as some younger kids will inevitably try 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 can shout “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 themselves and their peers, so talk about social cues among the animals that can be related back to their own lives.

ENGAGEMENT – Children are not small adults. 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 is great for keeping kids’ attention and pulling them 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 and smile with open lips so people don’t think you’re smirking.

ENTHUSIASM – Express with your words and your body language how important this subject matter is to you and it will rub off on your young audience. Excitement and enthusiasm are like smiling and laughing. They’re 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?” (Adults 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. Children and adults 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 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 can 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 it’s appropriate. When you are trying to be something that you are not, young people can 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
  • Stay warm socially and physically (during wintertime, warm your hands before meeting people)
  • Acknowledge visitor efforts in trying to understand the information you’re giving them

Don’t:

  • Judge people and make them feel guilty

Consider Creating Events For Children

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

  • Art, writing, and poetry courses that feature empathy and relations to residents
  • “Read to the animals” volunteering events, where shyer kids are paired with residents to help bolster the child’s sense of confidence and provide an enriching activity for the residents
  • Plant-based cooking courses geared towards kids
  • Camps held on sanctuary grounds that include educational, volunteer, and 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 towards children visiting Luvin Arms!

Updated on July 12, 2021

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