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Appropriate Resident Identification Systems At Your Animal Sanctuary

A series of 5 name tags on a cage wall, each with a photograph of an individual chicken resident and their name.
At Chicken Run Rescue, regularly updated photos are used to help the humans learn who’s who. For individuals who may be more easily confused with each other, vet wrap leg bands are used as a back-up system. Photo: Chicken Run Rescue

An essential aspect of providing sanctuary is truly knowing and understanding who your residents are; not just being able to physically identify them, but understanding what makes each resident an individual. This includes knowing their personalities, preferences, routines, and health histories, in addition to who their friends are, what makes them happy, and what causes them stress. All of these factors must be considered so that caregivers are able to provide residents with what they need to thrive, in addition to being able to pinpoint signs of concern early on.

However, in order to develop this level of understanding of who each resident is, staff and volunteers must first learn who’s who! For certain species or breeds of residents, it might at first seem difficult to separate individuals in a flock or herd, but the more caregivers observe and interact with residents, the more they’ll be able to see the subtle differences in appearance and behavior between individuals. Depending on a variety of factors unique to each sanctuary, humans may need certain tools or systems in place to help facilitate this process. This is where identification systems come into play.

Unique identifiers can help prevent serious mix-ups, especially when new staff or volunteers are still getting to know everyone, in cases where a veterinarian or expert is brought on site to provide care, or in fast-paced, stressful events, like when carrying out contingency plans.

In addition, because staff may spend large portions of the day working alone, having a system in place where they can work on learning names without having to rely on asking another person can be quite helpful. The use of appropriate visual identification systems can be extremely valuable in this regard.

While some forms of identification are invasive or carry the risk of causing serious harm and have no place in a sanctuary setting, there are other forms of identification that, when used properly, do not cause any harm or discomfort to residents. What kind of identification systems are appropriate for sanctuary residents?

Appropriate Identification Systems For Sanctuary Residents

Photography And Photo Books

Photography is perhaps the least invasive way of reliably identifying residents. As a bonus to using this method, carefully photographing individual residents can be a great way to get to know them a little better, and studying these photographs can help you find physical characteristics to identify residents that you may not have noticed before! (Or maybe you’ll just take a really great photo that makes it into next year’s resident calendar!)

By keeping photographs of residents prominently displayed throughout their living spaces, staff and volunteers have an easy visual cue to help learn to distinguish residents from one another.

If your organization commits to using photography as their primary system of identifying residents, there are a couple of important points to consider implementing:

  • Take a variety of photos: Consider taking a consistent set of photos for each resident from similar angles, including a head shot, full body shot, and perhaps photos that show specific features that can help identify individuals. This way, you have as much information as possible in the case where someone else needs to step in and identify individuals based on the photographs.
  • Consider updating photos on a set schedule (such as annually) for each resident: Depending on age and other factors, residents may look quite different year to year, and in order for photos to be useful in an identifying manner, they must be up to date! This is also a helpful practice for resident documentation cover sheets.
  • Keep both physical and digital copies of the photos: This may include things like a photo binder of the residents in each living space, printed pictures of the residents in each herd or flock nearby where they reside, and digital copies of the photographs in a centralized place in case they need to be accessed by staff or volunteers in a pinch.

Leg Bands

Leg bands are a simple but effective identification tool for sanctuary residents of a variety of species, as long as they are safely implemented and regularly evaluated. Bands can come in a variety of materials and finishes, including simple plastic, rubber, engraved metal, or even fabric with Velcro.

By using leg bands that can be read from afar (either based on their color or a visible number), and by keeping a list in their living space of which band belongs to which resident, staff and volunteers have a reliable tool to help learn each individual’s names.

Ideally, leg bands should be loose enough to swivel, but tight enough that they cannot slip down over dewclaws, hallux toes, or over a resident’s hock. Leg bands should be checked regularly (at a minimum, they should be checked during health exams), and should be checked if a resident is seen limping, as they can slip and could be the cause of the issue. In the case of avian residents especially, the band can slip over the individual’s hock, and may not be visible without a thorough check of their leg. Health exams are also a good time to ensure that, if identification numbers or names are written directly onto the bands, they haven’t rubbed off since the previous checkup.

Some sanctuaries utilize multiple plastic bands on each of their avian residents, combining different colors to identify individuals in larger flocks. Some sanctuaries who use leg bands for identification have certain styles that are used as regular identification, and then a different type utilized as an additional, temporary identifier for residents who are on regular treatments

In order for leg bands to be safe, special attention must be paid to the following:

  • For birds, some varieties are more likely to cause injury. Thin plastic “corkscrew” varieties can slip over a resident’s foot or hock, and the sharp ends can embed into a bird’s leg, causing trauma. 
  • For woolen residents, you have to make sure the band does not become too tight as the wool grows.
  • Caregivers must be careful when using leg bands with growing residents; either leg bands should not be used until residents are done growing, or caregivers must be diligent about checking leg bands regularly and resizing as needed.

Breakaway Collars

Much like the collars that exist for companion cats and dogs, breakaway collars can come in a variety of sizes that may be suitable for mammalian sanctuary residents if utilized carefully.

The most important aspect of a breakaway collar is its ability to come off if a resident gets the collar substantially caught on anything, such as a fence, tree, or even another resident’s horns, in order to prevent the resident from choking. Each collar must be tested for this feature prior to their use, even if the feature is advertised!

Breakaway collars can come in a number of materials, colors, and designs, which may be helpful for identifying residents from a distance, and they can also be used in conjunction with an identification tag in instances of caring for a large number of residents in one living space.

If using breakaway collars for your residents, part of your regular resident evaluations and health examinations must include checking their collar fitment to ensure that they are suffering no adverse effects from wearing the collar, and immediate steps must be taken to solve any concerns you may have with them. In addition, you will have to thoroughly ensure that the fit is not tight and adjustments are made regularly if a resident is still growing.

Color Coordination- A Potential Tool, To Be Used Responsibly!
In addition to using things like name tags, or alphanumeric identification systems to refer to residents, some sanctuaries utilize the color of identification systems like collars or leg bands to provide information about residents from a glance to staff members, volunteers, or visitors. For instance, some sanctuaries use green, yellow, and red colors to denote residents who appreciate human visitation, those who might be more cautious about human interactions, and those who might not be a good fit for a human visitor.

However, if a sanctuary uses these systems, careful attention must be paid to ensure that these colors do not come to unfairly define or label residents! As we mention in our Behavior 101 resource, it is critical for staff to never apply judgmental descriptions to residents that might impact how humans come to perceive them, and focus instead on the behaviors that residents display. For instance, a color coding sanctuary who decides that a more skittish goat resident should have a “red” collar must be extremely careful to regularly assert that this is not because they are “aggressive” or “ill-tempered”, so that their needs or individuality is never minimized!

Microchips

Microchipping residents can be a great tool for sanctuaries looking for a more permanent identification system, though of course, these do not present any visual identification indicators and require a microchip reader in order to actually read the microchip information! For this reason, it can be difficult for folks to even know if a resident (or a resident who made their way off-site alone) has a microchip that should be read. In addition, being committed to microchipping a large number of residents typically carries a much higher cost than other identification systems.

Microchips can be valuable to help sanctuaries identify larger populations of residents, especially if things like leg bands or collars seem inappropriate or too complicated to manage for a population, or they can be used in addition to these other methods as a backup that cannot be easily removed.

It’s important to acknowledge that microchipping a resident is more invasive than the other methods suggested above, as it does require a fairly large gauge needle to carry out the procedure. However, for certain residents, this may be ultimately less uncomfortable than a leg band or collar, depending on their health or personality.

Logging Your Identifiers

If you use an identification system that assigns unique alphanumeric designations to residents (in addition to names, which every sanctuary resident should have), and this information is printed on tags or bands, it’s important to write down these identification numbers! In addition to logging these designations in each resident’s documentation, you should also consider having a centralized database that lists each resident, where they reside, and their identification number, in case you ever need to quickly help identify who’s who!

It Only Works If You Keep It up To Date!
Keeping a database of identification systems means that you must commit to keeping the system both organized and as up to date in possible! This means everywhere where you keep the identifier logs, it needs to be frequently checked and kept current. For instance, you may keep a central spreadsheet that staff may digitally access, but do you also keep paper logs in individual living spaces? Don’t forget to update those as well as necessary! One easy reminder to do this may be to include a list of everywhere where you need to update identification logs in your most centralized or accessible database.

Appropriate Identification Systems For Temporary Identification Measures

There may be occasions when you need to provide additional or alternative identification measures for residents, particularly those who are being transported in a large group or during an evacuation of the sanctuary when carrying out a contingency plan. In cases like these, time may be of the essence, and the above methods may not be feasible.

In less dire circumstances, you may wish to implement temporary identification systems such as when training new staff or volunteers to ensure that they are providing the appropriate care and treatments to the right residents, especially in times when you don’t typically use visible identification systems or if you’re using a special system to denote specific treatments that are necessary per resident.

Or, a sanctuary may utilize temporary identification systems for occasions like veterinary visits, when you need to clearly designate residents to those not used to working with them!

Some appropriate temporary identification systems for sanctuary residents include:

Vet Wrap Bands

Vet wrap can easily be leveraged as a temporary identification system for all species, either as leg bands or around the horns of horned residents. While it doesn’t necessarily have the staying power of more formal bands, it can be very handy in a pinch!

Veterinary Temporary ID Collars

Vet ID collars are an easy to use and inexpensive option. They are most often seen on dogs and cats and consist of a sturdy paper-like material that sticks to itself. They can be easily removed, and can be placed in a variety of locations safely, like on legs or around necks. If using temporary ID collars, you must be sure they are secure, but loose enough that they are comfortable and not a danger to the resident. 

Due to the size of most zip ties, we would not recommend using them on any species where there’s any potential risk of them having to be set too tightly to properly lock into place, and should not be used in instances where the band itself might get hidden in thick fur or wool and be potentially forgotten by staff members; the potential risk of them later causing issues is too great, and thus they should not be used in these instances.

Loose Cable Zip Ties

Plastic cable zip ties are very affordable and easy to find in a variety of sizes and colors. If absolutely necessary, they could be implemented as leg bands quickly. If a sanctuary decides to temporarily use this identification system, extreme care must be taken to ensure that no part of it can cause discomfort or easily slip off of the resident, though between the two aforementioned issues, it would be better if the cable tie fell off rather than causing injury by being put on too tightly. You must also ensure that you leave enough space so that the zip tie can be cut off without harming a resident. In addition, staff must carefully cut the excess plastic off the tie after securing it, being sure to do so in a way that prevents any sharp bits from being able to injure residents.

Animal-Safe Paint Or Dye

If your organization must quickly identify residents in your sanctuary’s care (perhaps just the minimum of identifying that they are a part of your organization rather than individually identifying residents if necessary), there are animal-safe paints and dyes that can rapidly be applied to large populations with care to protect their faces from the substance. For instance, if you have determined that a rapid, dangerous event like a wildfire or flash flood is rapidly approaching your sanctuary, this may be one of the fastest ways to ensure resident identification if your only option is to release the residents from their living spaces.

In a pinch, existing sanctuary supplies such as Blukote and Alushield could be used as identifying markers, as they are animal-safe generally and will not come off very easily!

Unacceptable Identification Systems At Animal Sanctuaries

There are a number of identification systems that have been normalized in non-compassionate environments that are unacceptable in sanctuary environments, both because they cause harm to residents and because they normalize the commodification of individuals. We would highly encourage any sanctuary making use of these identification systems to discontinue their use as soon as they can, especially if a resident came to their sanctuary with these systems already in place.

Unacceptable identification systems include:

• Ear Tags

• Wing Tags

• Tattoos

• Rubber bands (which can cut off circulation)

• Any kind of “punch” system that breaks skin

• Chain-based collars

• Leg bands advertised to expand with a resident’s growth (which often do not work and can cause significant injury)

Exceptions For The Use Of These Systems
There are a few scenarios when it may be necessary to continue the use of industrial identification systems, either temporarily or long term, especially ear tags or wing tags. Sometimes, for instance, if a resident is traveling to or from your region upon first arriving to you, your veterinarian (or even a regional government official) may highly recommend (or even require) that you not alter the resident’s old identifier until either a certain period of time has elapsed, certain testing has completed, or until it is clear that the resident will not have to travel back out of the region for adoption or out-of-region medical care. If you prematurely remove an identification system, you may in these instances have to re-implement the old identifier at risk of serious legal consequences. There may also be times when keeping a resident’s old identification system intact is required as a condition for a governmental agency allowing them to reside in your region (such as if they have certain lifelong health conditions). Although we do not approve of these systems, it is better to follow the law in these specific instances rather than risk the consequences.

Updated on August 3, 2020

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