7 Things I Learned About Starting an Animal Sanctuary

Pig in a field
Starting an animal sanctuary isn't easy, but it can be extremely rewarding.

For so many animal lovers, starting an animal rescue or sanctuary is on the list of things they most want to someday do. For my husband and I, this was something we really wanted to do now, with our young family, and not after we’d hit our retirement years. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been rewarding. For those of you who have this kind of dream on your bucket list, here are some tips on what you need to think about based on what we’ve learned along the way.

We Did Our Research

Over the past two decades, my husband and I have visited animal sanctuaries of all kinds, including those for pigs, donkeys, farm animals, and even baby elephants and non-human primates, and these experiences inspired us. To us, providing day-to-day care for rescued animals seemed like the most direct and rewarding way to help animals. I should mention that my husband is a veterinarian, and I am a policy analyst for an animal protection organization.

Four years ago, we along with our two children finally embarked upon our dream of having our own sanctuary. Although we love dogs and cats, what we most wanted to do was to provide lifetime retirement for farm animals. (Note: It’s important to have some experience with the type of animals you want to rescue or, if you don’t, make sure you educate yourself about their care and handling first.) We moved from our home in the New Jersey suburbs and bought a farm in semi-rural Pennsylvania. Since then, I have learned a few things that I had not thought about before. These are all things you’ll need to consider if you also aspire to have a rescue organization or sanctuary, whether for companion animals, farm animals or other types of creatures.

1. Pick Your Site Carefully

Our farm has been a farm for a very long time, so we did not need to acquire any permits that could have been needed if we were creating a new operation that involved maintaining a large number of animals or unique animals. Towns often have restrictions on the numbers and types of animals allowed on properties, so make sure you research this ahead of time. You may need to consult a legal advisor.

2. Know What You Are Comfortable With

We are a sanctuary where animals come to live out their lives versus a rescue that adopts animals to the public. We knew that learning to say farewell to animals and simultaneously trusting people to take proper care of them would be very challenging for us, so we opted to offer forever homes to our rescues.

3. Start Small and Learn to Say No

We have children, companion animals and jobs. We have learned that if we acquire too many animals, it is impossible to manage everything well, and it quickly makes life stressful and unfulfilling. So we try hard not to bite off more than we can chew. For now, we provide the daily animal care ourselves. We have four large pigs, four sheep, two goats, three chickens and one cat who lives indoors only in our barn.

One of the most difficult aspects of having a sanctuary is having to say no to people looking to place animals. It is important to recognize when you will be stretched beyond your means, whether it’s having the time and skills to provide good care or the actual space to house an animal. It’s also vital to know when you have a good balance in terms of the animals’ social lives. It’s not just about giving them shelter and food, but also about making sure they have a home and are happy. Introducing new animals can go smoothly, but it takes time and patience. Consider how adding new animals to a group or herd will affect the new individuals and those who you already have.

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