Why sanctuaries scare the Crown
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August, 2002:
Governmental agencies are usually happy to step in and
regulate: expanded duties make bureaucrats more secure.
Yet the whole idea of recognizing sanctuaries as a class of
entity distinct and separate from zoos, game preserves, and
dog-and-cat-oriented animal shelters tends to make regulators
nervous–and not just because of the many contentious practical
issues and personalities they might have to deal with.
Historically, the concepts of “sanctuary” and “civil
government” have rarely harmonized for long. The whole notion of
“sanctuary” is of religious rather than secular origin, and
abolishing it was among the major accomplishments of the
post-Protestant Reformation separation of church from state.
Henry the Eighth of England, for example, founded the
Church of England as much to end the use of sanctuary privileges by
his political opponents as to gain the ability to divorce his wives.
From his time to this day, no legal concept of “sanctuary”
is recognized in most nations, including the U.S., whose legal
codes are based on British law.
“Sanctuary” is not recognized for animals because it is not
recognized for people, and it is not recognized for people because
it proved profoundly dangerous to the stability of secular states.
This was not the original idea.
In religious definition, a sanctuary is just a place of holy
refuge, often for either humans or animals. The monasteries,
convents, and temples of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism,
Hinduism and Jainism have all historically provided sanctuary of
various sorts, to principled or penitent fugitives, the ill, the
injured, the elderly, the pregnant-out-of wedlock, the orphaned,
and the destitute.
The social relief work done by modern religious orders grew
parallel to the concept of sanctuary, and as an extension of
sanctuary aid into the community.
Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist institutions became most closely
associated with providing sanctuary to animals. Gaushala
cow-shelters, where the cattle work, and pinjarapole cow-shelters,
where they simply live out their lives, became as common to Indian
life as long as 3,000 years ago as animal pounds and humane societies
are in the west today.
The temple elephant, supposedly an orphan or ex-working
animal, is often the best-known feature of Buddhist temples, and
sometimes of Hindu temples. Both Hinduism and Buddhism also have
temples which provide refuge to miscreant monkeys–and sometimes to
other species. There is at least one major Hindu rat temple.
Several Buddhist monasteries in Thailand provide both sanctuary
care-for-life and on-the-street outpatient care to street dogs.
The Buddha Mondhol religious center in Nakhon Pathom, for
instance, 700 miles north of Bangkok, was featured in the June 25
edition of The Straits Times, of Singapore, for providing care to
more than 200 dogs who have been abandoned on the grounds.
But giving sanctuary to animals has never been fully unique
to the eastern religions. Every major religion worldwide, including
animism in Africa and the sun worship of ancient South and Central
America, seems to have had holy places where devotees nursed injured
or sick birds back to health and then released them. Every major
religion seems to have had holy figures like St. Francis of Assisi,
who are most commonly depicted rendering aid or friendship to animals.
From the perception of bird release as a theologically
approved act of mercy, each major religion seems to have developed
at least one location where in witless perversion of the original
intent, people wishing to make a display of holiness simply buy
birds from vendors for the purpose of release. This inevitably
brought the growth of an enormously cruel and ecologically
destructive wild bird capture and transport industry–a big problem
in India and many other parts of Asia, and a regional problem in
parts of Latin America.
Snakes and turtles are also captured and sold for ritual
release in much of southern Asia. The practice has spread among
Buddhist immigrants to the U.S. and Britain.
But secular law came to mistrust and reject the concept of
sanctuary long before recognizing the problems associated with
In human affairs, throughout the world, and regardless of
which religion was dominant, the tradition of theological
institutions providing refuge inevitably came to be represented by
religious authorities as a doctrine that their activities were above
Most notoriously, the crusader Hugh de Payens and eight
friends in 1118 founded a sanctuary movement of sorts to protect
religious pilgrims during the Crusades. Their organization split
into two orders, the Knights Hospitalers and the Knights Templars.
By offering sanctuary to many of the most talented dissidents in
Europe, they accumulated economic and military strength enough to
threaten the established regimes of at least a dozen nations. By
1314, after a seven-year virtual crusade against them, led by
France and the Vatican, the orders were destroyed, though their
history is echoed in the activities of the network of service lodges
named after Jacques de Molay, the last Knights Templar grand master.
Never again would established governments allow a sanctuary
order to become so large or influential, though subsequent history
is filled with examples of other sanctuary movements that did
eventually challenge the stability of nations.
The “midrassah” schools stoking militant Islamic
fundamentalism throughout much of the world are only the latest
examples of why civil lawmakers concerned with establishing liberty,
egalitarianism, and one code of justice for all have typically made
the abolition of “sanctuary” a political priority.
This human history is important to animal sanctuarians, even
if the sanctuarians do not know it, because what animal sanctuaries
attempt to do is also, in effect, to exempt themselves and the
animals in their custody from governmental authority.
The exemption occurs because civil law recognizes only two
categories of nonhuman animal: livestock and wildlife.
Livestock are animals kept for an economic purpose. Their
value or economic output is taxed, partially to fund regulation in
accord with maintaining and furthering the economic purpose, which
includes protecting public health and safety.
Pet-related law has evolved out of livestock-related property
law. The concept of impounding stray dogs and cats while seeking to
rehome them came directly from the practice of impounding stray
horses, pigs, and cattle, first codified in the U.S. by the
Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641.
The breaking-edge issue in pet-related law today involves
efforts to establish as a legal verity that pets have an intrinsic
value above and beyond the mere cost of physical replacement. This
is essentially a value-added concept, multiplying replacement cost
by the difficult-to-quantify investment of love. It is problematic
not because it involves any real departure from familiar property law
concepts, since the law has long recognized that a trained fast
horse is worth more than an untrained slow one, but because it
involves trying to set an economic value on qualities which cannot be
At no point are livestock, including pets, fully exempt in
principle from either taxation or regulation. This is a point of
much confusion among operators of tax-exempt animal care facilities,
whose legal existence actually owes ancestry to the political
trade-off that banished the concept of religious sanctuary from civil
As a concession originally granted to religious institutions
in order to bring them peacefully under secular rule, governments
allow private institutions operating purportedly in the public
interest to enjoy exemption from taxation. But while a nonprofit
shelter is exempt, the animals who live there are not: the moment
they are adopted out, they may be taxed, usually in the form of
In legal terms, the public service is tax-exempt, but not
the economic unit. The theoretical and hypothetical involvement of
the animals in commerce, in turn, is the source of the right to
regulate, beyond simply prohibiting activities that might injure
Wildlife are “the king’s deer.” Because they are normally
not confined, fed, bred, and worked for human economic purpose,
wild animals belong only to the state. The state may designate wild
animals for economic use, as in issuing hunting licenses, but the
public may not.
Under certain circumstances, such as in permitting the
operation of zoos, the state may transfer animals from the status of
wildlife to the status of livestock.
As commerce involving wildlife is a state monopoly, however,
the public is not allowed to take wildlife into private care without
special permission–including significant restrictions on any future
economic use of the animals captured.
The concept of “sanctuary,” as applied to animals, blurs
the distinction between livestock and wildlife. In effect, an
animal sanctuary purports to remove animals from the status of
livestock, who are kept for economic purpose. If the sanctuary also
does wildlife rehabilitation, and keeps orphaned, ill, or injured
animals who cannot survive in the wild, it also removes those
animals from the possibility of economic use by the state.
An animal sanctuary thus usurps the common law basis for
animal regulation. Yet a self-defined sanctuary may not actually
remove the animals entirely from commerce. If visitors pay to see
the animals, whether as touring members of the public,
photographers doing special shoots, or high donors given special
visiting privileges, there is little basis in the existing structure
of law to distinguish the facility accepting only the old, ill,
injured, abandoned, or dangerous, from the facility which breeds
or buys exotic species just to attract more visitors.
Tax-exempt zoos typically manage to exist in a sort of legal
limbo by defining themselves as institutions of public education.
Some sanctuaries take the same approach, but that further obscures
the difference between a zoo and a sanctuary.
A sanctuary closed to the public is even more a paradox: if
it is closed to the public, how does it perform the public service
upon which the right of nonprofit operation is conditional?
If a closed sanctuary claims education as its reason for
existence, and asserts that it educates the public by direct
mailings, then direct mail fundraising becomes in effect the central
part of the program, and keeping animals becomes incidental.
If a closed sanctuary claims to serve the public by removing
dangerous animals from streets and yards, exterminators may ask why
they too are not tax-exempt.
The Internal Revenue Service has in fact recognized one
exterminator, White Buffalo Inc., of Hamden, Connecticut, as a
The tax-exempt purpose of White Buffalo, according to its
IRS Form 990, is “To conserve native species and ecosystems by
sponsoring, supporting, and conducting scientific research and
educational efforts to improve the understanding of natural resources
for the purpose of conservation. To aid and assist in the management
of wildlife populations through reduction or enhancement.”
The White Buffalo board of directors consists of Anthony J.
DeNicola, Ph.D., paid $54,000 a year after expenses; Deborah L.
Cuddy, listed at the same address and paid $36,000 a year; and
attorney Eric M. Grant.
What DeNicola actually does is hunt deer. Within the past
two years DeNicola has reportedly killed 590 deer in Iowa City,
Iowa; 472 in Fairmount Park, Pennsylvania; and 373 in Princeton
Township, New Jersey, according to local news accounts.
The others are support staff.
Whatever “scientific research and educational efforts” White
Buffalo does seem to be directed primarily and perhaps exclusively at
self-promotion–for instance, by way of “education,” public
appearances at which DeNicola denounces contraceptive means of
controlling deer populations.
A closed sanctuary may argue that it also serves the public
by providing the spiritual comfort that many people obtain from
knowing that particular animals are safe and sound, not being
hunted. But DeNicola, in choosing the name White Buffalo, clad his
deer-hunting business in Native American spiritual imagery.
Ironically, because White Buffalo works almost exclusively
under contracts from government agencies–$220,319 worth in 2000–and
works within the hunting-oriented traditional wildlife management
paradigm, it may arguably claim a more evident direct relationship
to recognized public service than sanctuaries which protect animals’
Further, the more a sanctuary separates healthy animals from
the public, the more it looks to wildlife management agencies like
just a pretext for keeping large numbers of potentially problematic
As most of the species in sanctuaries are not breeding
members of endangered or threatened species, are not native, and
are not recognizably useful to anyone, agencies oriented toward
killing “nuisance wildlife” typically cannot comprehend why the
animals in care should not simply be killed.
And sometimes that happens, when a sanctuary fails due to
overcrowding, underfunding, or loss of facilities, and no other
sanctuary is able to accept the rescued animals who have once more
lost their home.