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Rescuing the Rescuers – the Future of Animal Welfare Staffing



Animal welfare overflows the boundaries of a regular workday

All of us are part of our sanctuary family because of the amazing rescue work we do for animals. But after the exciting news of a rescue fades, the cats still need to be cared for day after day, year after year.

And that’s where our amazing team really shines. Each day is treated as importantly as the cat’s original day of rescue. It’s hard and emotional work. It includes 24-hour-a-day care, back breaking chores, working holidays, heart breaking losses, and much more. It’s a heavy commitment and one that overflows the boundaries of a regular workday.

Our staff supports each other in so many ways. When hospital manager Joy must stay late to ensure a cat remains stable after surgery, caretaker Jackie helps by driving almost an hour each way to let her dog out. When caretaker Rio stays onsite for an overnight shift on a cold night, checking the buildings three times during her medication rounds to ensure they’re adequately heated, an intern goes to Rio’s house to pet sit for her.

When staff members go on rescues, other staff fill in and work overtime, plus cover more overnight shifts.  When the snow falls, Jesse in facilities comes in hours early to clear the roads.  When we have a fundraiser, the office staff and volunteers forward calls to their cell phones so no call goes unanswered. When Dr. Campbell recommends it’s time to help a cat pass on, all staff drop their personal commitments and come to the sanctuary to say good-bye.

As much as we try, there are no days off when running a sanctuary.

The value staff provides, the toll it takes

I have so much gratitude and pride for the commitment and compassion of our staff.  Each cat receives customized care because of them.  Each supporter knows the sanctuary and cats through them.  The animals are happy because of their hard work.  And our safety record is impeccable because of their due diligence.

Yet caretakers, vet techs and other similar positions are far less compensated than they are in the for-profit world. For some reason, socially we expect that those in charitable work need to sacrifice both emotionally and financially. On top of that, caregivers and veterinarians tend to have the highest suicide rates because the emotional toll becomes too much. Many leave the industry due to compassion fatigue. They have very little savings or assets, especially if they’ve been living on the grounds of a sanctuary – usually in a single-wide trailer.

In many cases, caretakers have participated in 1-3 unpaid internships, after they’ve received their 4-year college degree. Then, they’re often hired at minimum wage in a zoo, sanctuary, or shelter setting.

When did personal and financial sacrifice become the requirement for those working in the non-profit side of animal welfare?

Value of staff and a sustainable future

I remember the beginning days of starting the sanctuary. For years, I received no pay or health insurance. My savings and retirement accounts were emptied just to keep the sanctuary afloat. After 21 years of running the sanctuary, I finally was making the same wage I was when I left the corporate world when I was 27.

I’m by no means complaining. It’s just how the animal welfare world was and often still is.  It was viewed as a labor of love, so I never expected anything in return. Until I grew older and wiser, realizing that wasn’t sustainable for me, let alone any other staff member, I knew things had to change for the wellbeing of the humans, but also the organization.

That’s why I strongly believe we, and the animal welfare industry, needs to invest more in our staff. That means building both a short and long-term plan to ensure our staff receives appropriate wages and benefits, just as they would in a for-profit career.

Caregivers in general sacrifice so much already. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice everything. And I know you agree. We want to ensure our staff members can pay their bills, take care of their human and animal families, seek health services, and save for their future.

Our staff are at the heart of our mission. They’re the reason we achieve all we’ve promised the cats and all of you.  Simply put, their pay should reflect this value.

We’re continuing to improve our compensation and employee development structure to keep up with the market.  We’re developing soft benefits, such as vet services at cost for the staff, pet bereavement leave and more.  And we have added dental and vision coverage along with our current medical and retirement benefits. We’ve also increased intern stipends to help cover food and fuel costs, until we can afford to have a paid internship program.

This also gives our staff a reason to stay long term. It also helps us recruit more qualified staff as we expand. That’s difficult to do in a very isolated rural setting, with cold Minnesota winters and in such a competitive job market.  It’s more important now than ever to begin building a better world for those doing animal welfare work.

When you give a gift toward our general operating expenses, know you’re giving a gift to help with staff wages and reassuring them, not only their work, but they have value.


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