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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

    This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project team as of August 15, 2022.

    Animal sanctuaries can offer young folks a unique opportunity to learn about and connect with animals in a way other learning environments cannot. In particular, onsite educational sanctuary programs can create physical space for children to actively consider the perspectives of nonhuman animals and the issues currently facing them. They can also inspire them to think of creative solutions to those issues as a result. However, allowing children onsite at an animal sanctuary for educational programs like tours or special outreach events requires thoughtful procedural planning. It’s very important to create and implement operational policies and procedures that consider the unique needs, safety, and comfort of the children visiting, your staff, and your residents. These policies will help protect your organization from preventable incidents and make sanctuary visits more enjoyable for everyone. For sanctuaries who currently welcome or are interested in welcoming children onsite, this resource is intended to be a starter guide to operational policies and procedures you’ll want to consider and then adapt to your organization’s unique circumstances.

    Waivers Are A Must

    If you are welcoming any members of the public onto your sanctuary grounds, especially if they are children, it is critical that you have a policy of gathering accident waiver and release of liability forms as soon as they enter your property or at least prior to the start of any public visitation program that might allow them to enter into a sensitive area. Depending on your region, you should require minors to sign your waiver or have their legal guardian sign it on their behalf. We also recommend having your waiver(s) reviewed and modified by a legal professional who knows your region’s specific laws and how they relate to minors. Accident waivers are the first line of defense from liability and lawsuits in the unfortunate event that someone becomes injured or upset enough to attempt to pursue legal recourse against your organization. We highly recommend that you consider this process and policy very carefully.

    Adult Supervision Should Be Required At All Times

    Once accident waivers are signed, 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 while they are on sanctuary grounds, particularly if they are in any area where residents are present. A curious child at a bustling sanctuary could easily wander off and enter a space that could put them in danger, be it a resident’s living space, quarantine area, or dangerously high loft area. By creating and enforcing a policy that all children must be in visual range of an accompanying adult at all times (or holding hands with an adult at all times in particularly 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 important to display and review clear signage that explains your sanctuary’s rules and expectations, even if all visitors are always accompanied by a sanctuary representative. Your organization might also want to consider creating a policy and procedure for the (hopefully rare!) occasion when a parent or guardian doesn’t take your safety precautions seriously and allows a child to break your rules. A stern warning or directive to leave a sensitive area is always preferable to an injured child or resident!

    Sanctuaries should also be mindful of the ratio of adults to children in a group. A tour with 5 adults and 5 children will likely have a dramatically different atmosphere and outcome than one with 1 adult and 9 children. If there are large groups of children that regularly visit, it may be helpful for your organization to specify in advance how many children can reasonably be monitored by one adult on your animal sanctuary’s grounds. You might also consider hiring additional tour guides for special events that attract a lot of children to help everyone manage and navigate safely.

    Set Expectations In Advance

    Prior to the start of any onsite education or visitation program, it’s critically important that children and their guardians understand that your organization is a sanctuary, not a petting zoo. It should be clear that there are strict rules for safely navigating the property and respectfully interacting with your residents, as well as strict consequences for breaking them. Additionally, if you are promoting any type of child-friendly educational tour or program in your marketing channels, it’s extremely helpful to include and describe the kind of information that will be presented so that parents and guardians can decide whether or not they feel the program is appropriate for their kid(s). Being surprised by topics that are difficult to navigate with children can sometimes lead to uncomfortable conversations between parents/guardians and sanctuary representatives.

    Encourage Good Habits

    One of the biggest differences between an animal sanctuary and a petting zoo is the creation and implementation of a policy around biosecurity and safety habits. As an animal sanctuary, it is your responsibility to ensure the physical safety and comfort of your visitors, staff, and residents at all times. We highly recommend keeping an extra stock of general health supplies and comfort items such as sunscreen, drinking water, handsoap, and hand sanitizer, in each resident living space, and encouraging the utilization of each whenever possible. While these are all important supplies to have for staff and visitors of all ages, they are particularly important for children, who 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 are transferrable to humans. These zoonotic diseases can be especially dangerous if children, the elderly, or immunocompromised individuals catch them. In addition to other species and dangerous diseases, this is particularly true of neonatal cows and calves with Cryptosporidium. For these reasons, it is critically important to continually practice good biosecurity and make sure that any potential risks of zoonoses are headed off by giving all visitors strict instructions to wash and sanitize their hands frequently and avoid prohibited access areas (e.g. quarantine areas and living quarters with ill residents) at all times. These instructions should be given prior to the start of any onsite education or visitation program.

    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 become less easy to predict 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 child, which resulted in the removal of this particular stop on the tour until a compassionate solution could be found. For these reasons, it’s important that sanctuary representatives and tour guides are keenly aware of each resident who could be part of a visitation program prior to the start of the program. This will allow representatives to decide whether or not certain residents would be a good fit for tour groups with children. It might also be good to preemptively restrict children (or tours entirely) from entering specific living areas.

    For residents who are known to be comfortable around younger humans, it’s still important that all interactions be done under the close guidance of a sanctuary representative who can evaluate whether or not a resident is in the mood for visitors. Sanctuary representatives should also always explain how to gently and safely greet each resident prior to coming close to any animal enclosure or resident, and be able to intervene if a resident interaction needs to swiftly conclude for the comfort and wellbeing of everyone involved. In certain living spaces with particularly young children, such as toddlers, it may be best to have guardians hold them. Allowing small children to wander might result in 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 creating a policy that prohibits strollers and umbrellas from entering into resident living spaces.

    Feeding Concerns

    Like many adults who visit animal sanctuaries, a lot of young 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 certain risks. For example, unrestricted feeding can pose a danger to residents due to their specific dietary needs and susceptibility to toxic plants. It can also pose a danger to children, who are at risk of being bitten by a resident who is eager to sneak a treat! For these reasons, it’s generally safest to implement and enforce a policy that prohibits onsite guests of all ages from hand feeding residents or giving residents any food that is not pre-approved by a responsible sanctuary caregiver or staff member. If you wish to give visitors the opportunity to feed your residents safe, staff-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 pre-approved residents. This ensures that kids can connect with residents in a satisfying and generous way without so many risks!

    In addition to implementing safety protocols around foods intended for your residents, we also highly recommend establishing safety protocols around foods and beverages brought in by visitors that are intended for human consumption. Sometimes, visitors intentionally or unintentionally bring human food into resident living spaces. In addition to being mostly unhealthy for residents, human foods can encourage unsafe food-motivated behaviors from certain species like pigs. Even something as small as a stick of gum can compel a very eager 600-pound pig resident to root through the inside of a visitor’s pocket! To prevent this from happening, you can establish a safety protocol that requires all visitors to be entirely food-free when they enter near or into a resident’s living space. If they’ve brought food with them, you can instruct them to leave it in a safe resident-free space such as a picnic table, bench, or visitor center prior to entry into any resident enclosure.

    Design Educational Sanctuary Programming For Kids

    Kids typically engage with the world differently than adults and this is no different during educational sanctuary programming. It’s important that sanctuary educators, tour guides, and representatives are presenting information and utilizing tactics that are adjusted to the unique needs of a younger audience. For these reasons, we highly recommend creating educational sanctuary opportunities that are specifically designed for children.

    Communicating With Youth About Animal Exploitation

    If you offer educational programming specifically designed for children, it’s critically important that you create a space for discussing topics related to sanctuary (e.g., animal exploitation and animal liberation) that is safe and developmentally appropriate. To help sanctuaries feel more confident in their ability to communicate with children, The Open Sanctuary Project created a resource titled “Communicating with Youth about Animal Exploitation” that provides knowledge, tips, and tools specifically intended to make discussion around sanctuary-related topics suitable for youth.

    Tour Tailoring and Engagement Tips

    The following list of tips for engaging younger folks on a family-friendly sanctuary tour was compiled by Alexis Miller, Educational Coordinator at Factory Farming Awareness Coalition and former Education & Outreach Manager at Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary:

    TEAM NAME – Everyone likes to feel a sense of belonging. One way to do this with a group of young people is by establishing a team name together. This can also work as an attention-getter throughout the tour, which will be necessary to keep everyone together, as some younger kids will inevitably try to wander away from the group. To collect attention, you can 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!” and then the group can answer “Moo!”

    CONNECTION – Focus on the connection between the kids and the animals and make the message relatable. Kids are very concerned with themselves and their peers, so talking about social practices among animals that are relatable to their own lives is important! For example, you might ask the group questions like: “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.”

    ENGAGEMENT – Children are not small adults. They can’t absorb a 60-minute lecture. So, in order to hold their interest, you have to engage them by asking lots of questions and requesting their help. For example, you can ask a child to demonstrate the proper way to meet a specific animal (e.g., let them smell you first). In addition to boosting the confidence of the kids, this task will also come in handy when you need an extra hand!

    BE EXPRESSIVE – Fluctuating and varying the tone of your voice is great for keeping kids’ attention and pulling them back in when you think you are losing them with. Sound effects are good, too. Make it fun! For example, you can add a “Woohoo!” at various points throughout your tour. You should also smile with open lips so people don’t think you’re smirking.

    ENTHUSIASM – When you express with your words and your body language how important a subject matter is to you, it will rub off on your audience. Excitement and enthusiasm are like smiling and laughing. They’re contagious. So, don’t hold back your passion!

    REPETITION – Reiterate your message over and over. You can even quiz young audiences on some of the 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?” (P.S. – Adults need repetition too!)

    ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – When someone has a question or comment, you should actively listen to them and respond in a way that confirms you’ve heard and considered what they had to say: “That’s a great observation. Wow, I never thought of it that way.” Praise also 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 animal- or sanctuary-related issue, we need to listen to them. Children and adults also invest more in an experience when they feel they are being heard, and young folks generally have a lot to say once they feel comfortable enough to open up! The more they talk, the more you can understand about their perspective, and this can help you shape your message and cater to their needs more effectively. For example, if a young person expresses that they like pigs but not birds, you can draw more comparisons between pigs and birds while visiting with and discussing any birds. You should also consider leading your discussions with questions and listening for answers that will lead your audience down the right track. People absorb more when they come up with the conclusion themselves. For example, while you’re looking at pigs, you can ask the group, “Do these pigs look normal to you? Do you think they are comfortable?”. If your audience does not understand the question, try reframing it in a different way.

    TRUST – It’s important to create a safe atmosphere. Kids need to know that you are approachable. Think about someone who has impacted you. How would you describe them? Most humans tend to follow folks who are welcoming, optimistic, fun, outgoing, positive, non-judgmental, and approachable. They also like and retain information from folks who care about them and listen to what they have to say. Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. By adopting these types of characteristics, you will assuredly gain the trust and respect of a young audience. People don’t always remember what you told them, but they do remember how you made them feel. So, how do you want your young audience to feel at the end of your tour?

    BE YOURSELF – Be relatable, authentic, and funny when it’s appropriate. Young people can sense when you are trying to be something that you are not. So, don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right to you. Have fun!

    Quick Tips to Keep Kids Engaged:

    • Short words win
    • Filler words (e.g., 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 whenever possible. For example, during wintertime, try to warm your hands before meeting folks
    • Acknowledge when a visitor is actively and respectfully trying to understand the information you’re giving them
    • Don’t judge or shame folks. Guilt can be a barrier to building empathy!

    Lesson Plans For Children

    In addition to offering standard sanctuary tours that allow kids to meet and get to know some of your residents, your sanctuary can also offer a variety of other fun-filled onsite educational opportunities and interactive experiences that are centered around the needs of specifically-aged children. If you’d like to learn more about some of these opportunities, The Open Sanctuary Project has created a series of free downloadable sanctuary education lesson plans for early and late elementary-aged children. They are designed to be used and adapted by sanctuary educators and representatives either as standalone lessons or as part of longer-term sanctuary education programs. To explore the series, simply type the word “lesson plan” into the search bar! There are several forthcoming lesson plans geared towards middle school, high school, and college-aged folks as well, so be sure to check back in!

    Special Events For Children

    Many sanctuaries also develop and offer special events specifically geared towards kids, ranging from: 

    • Art, writing, and poetry courses that foster empathy towards farmed animals 
    • “Read to the animals” volunteer events that offer more reticent children the opportunity to read to the residents. This can help bolster a child’s sense of confidence and enrich the lives of the residents
    • Plant-based cooking courses designed for kids
    • Camps held on sanctuary grounds that include fun educational activities

    Family-Friendly Volunteer Opportunities

    If your organization has a public volunteer program, creating ways for kids to get involved can be another great way to connect them with your residents and your mission. This can be challenging in a sanctuary setting, where a lot of the daily tasks are often outside the scope of what younger kids can safely accomplish. However, some animal sanctuaries have found appropriate ways to do this by offering pre-scheduled family-friendly volunteering days, where they lower the standard volunteer age limit and organize volunteer activities that parents and guardians can safely accomplish with younger children.

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

    Does your sanctuary offer awesome, unique educational opportunities specifically designed for kids? Let us know! We’d love to add more ideas to this resource!

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

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