An animal sanctuary is a facility where animals are brought to live and to be protected for the rest of their lives. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not seek to place animals with individuals or groups, instead maintaining each animal until its natural death. However, they can offer rehoming services. In some cases, an establishment may have characteristics of both a sanctuary and a shelter; for instance, some animals may be in residence temporarily until a good home is found and others may be permanent residents. The mission of sanctuaries is generally to be safe havens, where the animals receive the best care that the sanctuaries can provide. Animals are not bought, sold, or traded, nor are they used for animal testing. Additionally, no parts of nor secretions from the animals are commodified, such as eggs, wool, or milk. The resident animals are given the opportunity to behave as natural as possible in a protective environment.
What distinguishes a sanctuary from other institutions is the philosophy that the residents come first. In a sanctuary, every action is scrutinized for any trace of human benefit at the expense of non-human residents. Sanctuaries act on behalf of the animals, and the caregivers work under the notion that all animals in the sanctuary, human and non-human, are of equal importance.
Most sanctuaries are not open to the public in the sense of a zoo; that is, allowing unescorted public access to the facility. A legitimate sanctuary avoids activity that would place the animals in an unduly stressful situation.
One of the most important missions of sanctuaries, beyond caring for the animals, is educating the public. The ultimate goal of many sanctuaries is to change the way that humans think of, and treat, non-human animals.
There are two primary organizations that provide accreditation and support for animal sanctuaries: the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association. In the United States, sanctuaries must also be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and regularly inspected by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.