back to the wild or jail

You’ve probably read or seen the movie Born Free about Elsa the lioness. It’s an enchanting story to all of us who have ever dreamed of having a close relationship with a wild animal like George and Joy Adamson had with Elsa. But besides that, the story recounts the first successful release of a lioness back to the wild.

Joy Adamson also had success returning a cheetah called Pippa back to the wild. Joy first met Pippa in Nairobi. The cat was sitting at a table in the tea-room of the New Stanley Hotel sipping a drink through a straw.  Eighteen months later, Pippa had learned to hunt for herself, and was raising cubs and once again living as a wild animal in her natural habitat.


Daphne Sheldrick if famous for her success with orphaned ellie releases back to the wild
Daphne Sheldrick is famous for her success with orphaned ellie releases back to the wild. Photo: Sarah Hoffman

Many More Example of Wild Release

Daphne Sheldrick’s (one of my animal heroes) book, Love, Life and Elephants, describes numerous other examples of many injured and orphaned wild babies who found their way to Daphne to be rehabilitated and then returned back to the wild.

The animals in Daphne’s care were given free will to leave   rehabilitation, and access to wild.  As the injured animals healed, or the orphans grew old enough to be on their own, they left the safety of the animal orphanage for longer and longer periods of time until one day they simply disappeared back to the wild.  

Why then, in the name of helping animals today, are we not creating more Elsa and Pippa and other successful release back to the wild stories like the animals in Daphne’s care?

Why, rather than releasing rehabilitated and orphaned animals back to the wild, are they more likely to be kept in Wildlife Sanctuaries forced to live out their life in enclosed areas with little or no access to wildness?


Why are these animals rarely released back to the wild?

When I posed this question to the owners of the many Wildlife Sanctuaries I have visited over the past several years, the answers unfortunately became predictable.

The 4 Most Common Answers from Wildlife Sanctuary Owners were: 


#1: “This animal can not be released back to the wild.”

My Response:

In some cases I agree. But in cases that are not so clear cut, how can we be certain an animal can not be released back to the wild if we haven’t tried, or given the animal the choice? If today’s Wildlife Sanctuary owners had met Pippa the cheetah I am sure they would have said she was too domesticated to go back to the wild.

And they would have been dead wrong!

Surely each case is different, and each animal deserves a chance to return to the wild.

I wonder if we (as a group of animal lovers) are trying hard enough to encourage wild release? The Adamson’s admitted that caring for Elsa became increasingly difficult, but despite the effort it would take to do so, they wanted to return her to the wild, and spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own until she was ready.

It takes time, dedication, and most of all the belief that wildlife belong in the wild.


 #2. “There is no place to release these animals.”

My Response:

Is that Really true?

We are loosing wildlife to endangered and extinct status worldwide. I know of a wildlife sanctuary housing badgers, bears, coyotes and lynx that is within driving distance of huge protected lands where they could all be released.

And they too tell me “there is nowhere to release the animals.”

On the one hand we are loosing our wildlife, yet on the other hand we keep those same species locked up behind bars when they could be living free in the wild helping to propagate their kind.

This makes no sense.


 #3. “The animals are safer here in a Wildlife Sanctuary rather than in the wild where they will be shot, killed by predators, or die of disease.”

My Response:

The call of the wild is strong. What Daphne Sheldrick experienced with all of her rehabilitated animals is an important consideration here. As Daphnes puts it, “Left to choose, most animals choose wild freedom.”

So, why not let each animal decide whether or not they want the risks that come with living in the wild?

The (200) elephants Daphne cared for always chose wild freedom, sometimes returning for a visit with their calves or when they were injured from snares or drought, or poison from poachers darts after they went back to the wild.   


 #4. “Some species can be returned to the wild; others can’t.”

My Response:

Successful releases of animals back to the wild have not been species specific. Rhino, zebra, deer, bobcat, coyote, lion, elephant, hyrax, honey-badger, and bushbaby are just some of the different species that have been successfully rehabilitated and returned back to the wild.


Wildlife Sanctuary is a nice name for jail.

Photo: Linda D Speed
Photo: Linda D Speed

The wildlife sanctuary model demands life long management of all aspects of the ‘patients’ well being,  when the only thing the patient did wrong in the first place was to get injured or orphaned (usually by the result of human activity), or be raised as some human’s exotic pet.  

In comparison to the way Joy and Daphne and others like them cared for animals, the current Wildlife Sanctuary model is disrespectful both to the wild beings living there, and the powerful force of mother-nature.

Imagine if all animal orphanages had no fences and were placed near National Parks, and the animals were cared for and left to roam until they chose to leave. How many of these animals do you think would remain living in the ‘sanctuary’ as opposed to going back to the wild?

Choice is the key word here. Given the choice, it has been proved over and over, once-wild animals will re-choose to go back to the wild.

Don’t they deserve that right to choose?


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12 Replies to “Back to the Wild: Prospects Rebuffed”

  1. I liked Simon King’s solution with the orphaned cheetah cubs that he cared for. He put radio collars on them, released them into the wild of a massive national park and checked on their whereabouts occasionally. That’s the shortened version of the story and one of them didn’t make it, but that’s the wild.

    I’m not a big fan of animals in enclosures as a rule, but I think some animals like their habitats if they are large enough. There was a grizzly bear in Canada that escaped his enclosure during mating season, then returned in two weeks for his easy meals, relaxing days and good health care. Animals are like people. They all have different attitudes, personalities and preferences. Some people for instance like the city while others prefer the country. In a perfect world we wouldn’t keep animals behind bars, but sometimes if their enclosures are large enough, I think they may enjoy it. No predators, great healthcare and great food. In larger zoos, birds flock to the zoos and want to live there. Food, shelter and a big fence that protects them from harm. They can leave when ever they like, but they choose to stay.

    Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer to see animals in the wild, but in certain circumstances, zoos and wildlife sanctuaries can serve a very useful purpose when animals are injured or have a disease that would make it impossible for them to survive in the wild. People respect and admire what they can see and or relate to. When a child makes eye contact with a gorilla in a zoo, he or she may be a future advocate against destroying gorilla habitats in the future. Without the zoo or wildlife sanctuary, that person may never have the opportunity to ever connect with these animals and thus never care about the jungles of Rwanda or the causes of global warming on polar bears in the arctic.

    While I believe we have too many healthy animals in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries and agree that we aren’t trying hard enough to release these animals back into the wild, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many roles that zoos and wildlife sanctuaries play to the benefit of wildlife behind the scenes that most people will never know about.

    Rather than revolt against zoos and sanctuaries, I would rather us increase the size of the enclosures (by government regulated enforcement), have fewer animals in zoos and sanctuaries and put more money into releasing them into the wild with follow up via radio collar. Some animals may be born with compromised sight or hearing or some other health issue that will prevent that animal from living in the wild. Let’s take care of these animals and they can be our ambassadors in our zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

    Another problem of course is country to country everyone has different values and some countries would just rather obliterate their animal populations and other countries animal populations without any care for the future. There are just too many variables to the depth of this problem, but certainly humanity can do a better job taking care of our planet in general for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations!

  2. Thank you Greg for your informed provocative response. I agree with you that animals have their own different personalities and some will choose to stay rather than go back to the wild. I just think they should choose. Sometimes animals are not choosing wild because we have not worked with them enough to prepare them and they don’t know any different. I also wonder why we would need zoos if sanctuaries were truely that – a sanctuary for animals that are hurt and can not go back to wild. There people and children could get the learning and exposure to animals that I got from zoos growing up. Thanks again for your thought provoking comments.

  3. Thank you Greg for a closer look into this question. I believe we can direct our resources to returning them to the wild. However, what would happen when they are out there in the midst of sneaky poachers?

  4. Thanks for sharing Lori. Greg, I understand where you are coming from. Most people would love to see all animals free to do as nature has allowed them to do since evolution began. However we don’t have a perfect world, not anymore. There is no balance, no freedom to roam, no security and safety to exist as the wild world rightfully deserves. We have National Parks that can not be protected. A Rhino, Elephant and Tiger slaughter that defies belief. Savage cruelty and a sickening slaughter that is seeing many animals in our world sliding to extinction. My day is filled with our failures and disaster that are inflicted on the wild world. We want them wild, we want them free, but we are not protecting them from – US! Wolves have been released back into several parts of the Northern US, they are now under a cloud of slaughter by ranchers and hunters. I visited Shamwari Reserve as a guest of the owners in 2003 in the Eastern Cape of sth Africa. Which from memory had initiated the largest wildlife relocation in history. Totally amazing to see and experience. On establishing the reserve, its high fences for animal protection, they then released the wildlife into the 25 000 hectare reserve. Crazily in my mind, there were people out there who still regarded this as an enlarged zoo as it was high fenced – for the animals protection. Whilst there I saw 5 Leopards who had been released to the wild. One was a resounding success. 1 was a total failure as he couldn’t break his human bond, always returning to the safari lodges to be amongst people he had become to trust [having lost the fear of humans]. The other 3 were 1/2 grown and were rescued from the Sudan. They were not able to be released into Sth Africa as they were a different sub species and couldnt be released back into the Sudan as there was no where safe for them to go. They also had a total trust in humans. So these animals had their own large acreage enclosures for their safety and absolutely loved the interaction with people. As a personal guest of Shamwari I got to see the Born Free Foundation, which had established on the reserve. Rescuing big cats from across Africa and outside the continent. Due to mans impact on these animals thru abuse or habituation to us, these animals could not be released. So they were cared for in acreage enclosures to the very best of Staffs ability. I personally have raised and released Kangaroos that were orphaned when young. They returned to the wild and adapted well to everything, except conflict with man. Having little to no fear of humans they have been shot and also run over. In every instance they always wanted to return to our home which they regarded as a part of their environment. I have one Kangaroo now who has just had a Joey. She mixes with the wild, but prefers to hang with us. Everyday I see her is a bonus, as I continually fear she will succumb to mankind. We want wild animals to be wild and free, to enjoy the life they are entitled to. BUT, we carve up their home lands into housing, industrial, mining, dams agricultural and so on. We prevent their natural ability to migrate by segregating into small areas that are remnants of their original lands and so often isolated from other populations and being able to follow the seasons. Then, we humans slaughter them in these protected areas and the sad proof of today is we can not protect them and we are failing around the globe. In many cases there animals though living “free” are in some ways living in an environmental cage. They roam out of the national park/reserve and stray into a village, a town or a field and they are shot. Then we pick at them within like fish in a barrel. I hate to see animals in a concrete and steel cage. I hate to see puppies and kittens in pet shop cages or birds in tiny cages. However for an animal to be free in the wild world, we have to fix the mess that we have created in their wild world. The Species Surival Plan and the captive bred Genetic data base, the humane care of current captive animals, many of which are 10th and 20th generation captive bred/domesticated, many conservationists believe is the key to saving many wild species from extinction in this very imperfect world. I fight to stop cruelty and concrete and steel cages. I fight to save the wild world to exist free and protected from us as it deserves and then one day I hope we can see some animals return to the wild. Right now we are losing the battle to save the wild world. Snares, steel traps, poisoned arrows, bullets, machetes, axes and clubs and even grenades. Deforestation – legal and illegal. The illegal live animal trade and so on. We have a fight being fought by so few, underfunded, under staffed, surrounded by danger and in a world where the majority don’t care. We need to make sure our captive animals are cared for as to the best of our ability and stay focused on getting all resources out to save whats left of our wild world and not fragmented into 1000’s of splinter groups. Then I hope we have something many captive animals can return to… Cheers to a better world, we desperately need it. I have looked into the eyes of rescued,captive and domesticated animals and seen trust in me, in us. I have looked into a rescued, captive and domesticated animals eyes and seen total fear at something we humans have done. I will never ever forget either….

  5. Thanks Lisa. Africa is trying to get tougher on poachers, but they can only do so much. Another very complex problem. As long as people in certain Asian countries think that consuming bear, tiger and lion organs is going to make them more virile or think they need ivory or horn trinkets on their coffee tables and are willing to pay big bucks for it, there will always be poachers. Just a fact of life unfortunately…Unless more poachers pay the ultimate price for their crimes. And some do.

    I think we’re on the same page Lori. Your topic is is a very good one and very complex. A great topic for debate. Another one of my pet peeves with zoos is why we need polar bears in zoos in warm climates and tropical animals in zoos that have snow for half the year and just small enclosures in general for animals that may otherwise cover miles of ground daily.

    Zoo’s? Sanctuaries? Technically if I had it my way, I suppose the zoo’s would turn in to sanctuaries. I’m not a purest enough to believe that we can do away with them all together. As humans the general public needs to stay in touch with animals so we will have animal advocates in the future. People live in cities, so we need these facilities in cities to act as animal ambassadors teaching people to respect and stand up for those who can’t vocally stand up for themselves.

    On another note, I could be viewed as a hypocrite if I was completely against animals in enclosures as I have a green wing macaw parrot. He was hand raised by me and spends half of each day out of his huge enclosure hanging out with me. When we go for walks outside he’s actually scared of wild birds and sticks to me like glue. We have two other small parrots and he hates them. He only likes people. After hand raising an animal like that if someone ever tried to introduce him into the wild, it would be very cruel. He has been imprinted to love people. Many animals in zoos are the same. There just isn’t one answer that applies across the board.

    My parrot asks when he wants out of his enclosure and asks when he wants back in. He asks for a treat when he has the munchies and is potty trained. Very smart guy. He doesn’t fly 3000 miles a day, but has free flight around the house and is trained to use only his perch as a toilet. He just lives a different lifestyle. If he was in the wild, he would be dead by now. Under my care, he may live another 40-60 healthy years. So for me to be completely against zoos would be very hypocritical. And I understand that many animal advocates in zoos enjoy the same relationship with their keepers as Rio does with me. And for those animals, it is as nice a life as a yellow lab has with his owner.

    Thanks again for your topic and views.

  6. Thanks for your input Cam. Very interesting. Yes, again releasing animals to the wild is a very complex issue and different animal to animal and area to area.

  7. Greg, I understand where you are coming from. I have worked with animals my entire life. I have seen domestic and wild animals mistreated in sickening ways. I have seen domestic and wild animals treated with love, compassion and a bond that is created between human and animal that is something to behold. The bond I call mate-ship… I have a friend with a Corella Cockatoo. She hand raised him. He is free to come and go at any time he pleases. But he won’t leave. He will fly into the trees, across the valley, mingle with birds of his own kind when they are out and about, but he very quickly hurries back to her. Traveling on her quad bike handle bars, sitting on the lounge or a chair with her. They are mates and to that cockatoo, she is his world. Where she is, he wants to be. We want domesticated/human imprinted “wild” animals to live how we perceive they want to live – wild and free. Tho often the animals that people regard as “wild” are not wild and are 5th. 10th or 20th generation captive bred. The wild world we regard as where they should be is totally alien to them. I have numerous cats here on the ranch. I don’t own them, they are family. Some are many generations domestic [a couple were born wild and now domesticated]. They know and love the life they live around the house, but they are domestic and not wild. A few hundred meters away is a cat or two that look exactly the same as the cats that share my home, but they are wild and live wild. They are all cats, but they are not all wild. People go to a Zoo to see the wild animals. But the animals are not wild animals [not in most zoos], they can be many many generations captive bred. They look the same as their wild counterparts, but they themselves are not wild. Caring for an injured wild animal and returning it to the wild, is totally different to taking a captive bred animal and releasing it into the wild. The later often has disastrous results for the animal released… I have seen many times, when we allow a captive bred animal the freedom and opportunity to go “free” and live wild, it will not chose to or it will perish in us trying make it succeed. There have been successes and many failures, because we are doing something totally foreign to them. So often our positive and friendly impact creates a bond with captive bred animals that is as important to the animal as it is too us. Not all zoos are bad establishments, not all Sanctuaries are bad establishments, many many captive animals in zoos and sanctuaries are not wild captures, but are many, many generations captive bred and dont have a clue what the wild world is we believe they should have. There are no set rules in the animal kingdom. The biggest issues right now are keeping the animals in our care – safe, cared for and in a life they will enjoy to the best of our ability. The other is to save the wild world we are destroying every minute of the day, a fight right now we are losing. Our focus is desperately needed there. If we can achieve both, then maybe one day some captive bred animals can be relocated to the wild. For some wild species, they will desperately need the genetics that our captive bred animals have. I hope that there will be on going work rehabilitating injured wild animals or animals taken from the wild and returning them to the life they know and I hope we will continue to fight against the concrete and steel cages zoos were once infamous for. Above all, I hope we will save the wild world from our destructive ways….

  8. I have a few comments: 1. What is all the money and donations spent on Sanctuaries and Zoos went to getting people into our National Parks where they would have an experience that would increase their caring? This is what I do with my wild school program for kids in Africa – most of whom have never been to their parks and seen the animals. We have over managed wildlife and wild places to the point that Sanctuaries may be the only place where a species can avoid extinction. A sad thought. I have a dog and a cat (came to me as rescues) and love them dearly (in fact I have learned a lot about how co-dependent I am thru the way I treat them), but I know they are not enough to fill my need for wildness. I believe most of us lack connection to wildness and that is why we have pets. Can you see a future post in the making? 🙂 Thanks for your passionate comments. I love the conversation. Its why I write this blog. I hope you will share and get more like minded people connected here.

  9. This is an excellent piece, dear Lori. I concur that the effort should be made to release to the wild whenever possible. I find the arrogance of those who “hang on” to animals that should be free reprehensible (unless there is a true and valid reason to keep them)….

  10. Excellent post, Lori. I love learning of all the dedicated people who are working selflessly to save these unique and special creatures that too many humans have taken for granted. I’m so proud of your passion for these these animals that are unable to protect themselves.

    And I was sure that was you in that picture! xo

  11. CAM, 2 years ago you made the argument: ” Right now we are losing the battle to save the wild world. Snares, steel traps, poisoned arrows, bullets, machetes, axes and clubs and even grenades. Deforestation – legal and illegal. The illegal live animal trade and so on. We have a fight being fought by so few, underfunded, under staffed, surrounded by danger and in a world where the majority don’t care. We need to make sure our captive animals are cared for as to the best of our ability and stay focused on getting all resources out to save whats left of our wild world and not fragmented into 1000’s of splinter groups. ” Your thoughts echo mine exactly, and for the longest time, I have though badly of humankind for this reason – as you say, the majority don’t care.

    But take a minute, here. Why do we suppose this majority doesn’t care? Could it be because they’re so busy seeing to their own survival that they don’t have the time to care? Knowing you will survive in our society, the way we have structured it, takes a certain confidence, which I believe most of us don’t have. Even when we are comfortable and fed, we want more. More more more. It’s hard to have a spiritual belief or philosophy in these circumstances. So we spend all out time planning on how to get the more, the guaranteed meals, the confidence. In so doing, it is all too easy to exclude real values: being grateful, appreciating the massive gift that is the natural world, and understanding we are all one, anyway. A vacuum opens up in our soul. We feel inconsequential, small. So we keep on with the quest for more, while we commit hours of our day to neurotic, meaningless activities.

    And we know by now that nature abhors a vacuum. Into this spiritual vacuum something must settle … and so it does. Trivia. It used to be called Talking Heads syndrome: meaningless, purposeless chatter that achieves nothing, adds nothing, improves nothing, creates nothing. Today the syndrome still exists, in fact is stronger than ever, but it is our fingers that create the chatter, via the many offerings of social media. However, that isn’t the problem – it’s the symptom.

    The problem is so huge I’m not sure it can be fixed without a total meltdown of humankind. How do we break 6 billion humans out of the mould of our current civilization? The civilization in which our every action, every bit of research, of employment, of training, of every little thing we do, is with the end goal of more more more. of what’s-in-it-for-me, will-I-benefit-from-this and will-it-bring-me-more? Look at our politicians, the so-called leaders of the democratic word. See them? Sure you do. Look at the bosses of our once-respected global multi-nationals. See them? Oh yeah. Look at the poorest level of society. And now the middle class. Same again. It’s a bleak picture, and I simply don’t see our wilderness and the wild creatures in it having a chance in hell. My logical mind says we will lose it. All of it. A mere 25 years ago it was unthinkable that Africa would lose its Big 5. Today, two of the five are on the way out. It is already well under way.

    The big question is: what do we do in order to change ourselves? Is it even possible? Six billion of us and growing. Our seas are fished out, our land and air is poisoned, we are well into climate change and nowhere near independent of fossil fuels. I no longer believe we need Eco Warriors, because these brave souls are just banging their heads against the brick wall of our MMM civilization. I believe we need Social Game Changers on a global scale. People with massive ideas, massive charisma to put them across, massive energy and massive hearts because it will take huge courage. My only sliver of light of hope is that they will have the social platforms on which to communicate them.

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