At least weekly, I receive an email from someone asking me how to start a sanctuary. Some are good-hearted animal lovers. Many really only want to have exotic animals themselves, but think “framing” it as a sanctuary legitimizes their personal desire. But they really don’t understand running a sanctuary is all-consuming. You often sacrifice family, friends, and give up any semblance of life. You are the one making the agonizing decisions of who you can save, who you can’t, and when you have to let an animal go.
I think people are shocked to find out how difficult starting a sanctuary actually is. And as the years progress, the Founder is the one person who has little contact with the animals. It is the Founder/Executive Director who has to develop business plans, fundraise, know human resource and labor laws, zoning laws, insurance and permits, as well as accounting and legal.
In addition, being the Founder does not mean job security. The Founder/Executive Director is an employee and can be hired or fired by the Board of Directors. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries puts it, “You should never invest more of yourself or your personal wealth in the nonprofit than you would be comfortable walking away from someday, as your gift.”
During the past 15 years, I have acted as Executive Director, animal care director, keeper, construction manager, fundraiser, financial manager, and overnight caretaker of the facility. Often all at the same time. Anybody who has started a business understands the commitment and sacrifice it takes. Starting a sanctuary is no different, except there are 100+ animals whose lives depend on us.
When I started the sanctuary, for the first several years, I worked both a full-time job and also ran the sanctuary. I received no salary from the sanctuary and invested tens of thousands of dollars of my own money to build habitats and care for the animals. I also paid to build a home on the property so there was always overnight coverage at the sanctuary during the build-out of the new site. This is because it was, and still is, a labor of love.
The best advice I can give someone is to get the business side in order. The animal rescue and care is the easier part of running a rescue/sanctuary, even with the heart wrenching decisions we make day in and day out. Here is a good resource to building a sustainable sanctuary: http://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/gfas/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Arcus_Building_Sustainable_Sanctuaries.pdf
I have seen so many start-ups with good hearts and qualified animal care, only to fail due to a lack of fundraising or meeting legal business requirements. And when this occurs, their animals need placement.
I would recommend volunteering at an organization near you on the business end to see what it takes to start a sanctuary or rescue group. Only then will you really know what it takes to run a successful sanctuary and if you are willing to commit the remainder of your life to making it sustainable.
Other ways you can help:
- Become an advocate for wild cats in need.
- Support sustainable sanctuaries in your area. You can find them at American Sanctuary Association or Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.