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Protocols For Missing And Loose Residents At Your Animal Sanctuary

An outline of a chicken in a field, illustrating the concept of a "missing" chicken.
Effective planning for missing residents means anticipating a lot of complications before they have a chance to happen!

It’s a scenario that many animal sanctuaries dread: one or more residents cannot be found where they are expected to be during the course of a caregiving shift. Whether the resident is merely hiding, stuck somewhere, or no longer on the premises, a missing resident should be cause for immediate concern. In order to address this pressing issue, it’s important to have written, easily accessible and actionable contingency plans that include specific protocols for missing residents. But what factors should a sanctuary consider when writing missing resident policies?

Try To Maintain A Calm Attitude, But Take It Seriously
The most important thing to do if you are concerned that a resident may be missing is to take immediate action, but try to stay cool and collected throughout the experience. Often, missing residents turn up relatively quickly, and the reason for their departure is rather easy to discover. Panicking will likely make it much more challenging to conduct a thorough, informed investigation, and can cost valuable time in time-sensitive situations.

Which Resident Is Missing? Is Anyone Else Gone? 

The first thing to do in the case of a missing resident may sound obvious, but for sanctuaries with larger populations in each living space, it’s important to know who exactly isn’t accounted for, and if anyone else is also missing.

For this reason, it’s critical to keep an updated list of the populations expected to be in each living space on sanctuary grounds for accurate headcounts, especially when bringing large populations indoors for the evening or during inclement weather events. You may personally know each resident who is supposed to be in a certain living space, but this information can easily be lost at important moments if you are not personally present and another staff member or volunteer must quickly determine if anyone else is missing! Consider implementing a sanctuary-appropriate identification method to maintain these records.

Is It Likely They Have Left Their Living Space? Could Their Absence Indicate That They Are Having A Health Emergency?

Depending on who is missing, you may have a good idea of the probable cause. For instance, having a working knowledge of a resident’s overall health, personality, and their history at the sanctuary may lead you to suspect that they have taken advantage of an opportunity to go exploring outside of their living area, while in other cases your first thought might be that they are in trouble somewhere.

Is There A Chance They’re Just Hiding Or Accidentally Trapped Somewhere?

There have been numerous occasions where caregivers have been under the impression that a resident was outside of their living space, only to later discover the resident in unexpected places within their indoor or outdoor living space, such as:

  • Under a large pile of bedding
  • Nestled between a straw or hay bale and a wall
  • Spending time in a bucket or bin (or accidentally trapped there)
  • Hiding among a tool or piece of machinery (for this reason, it’s very important to locate a missing resident before conducting sanctuary maintenance in their area!)

This Can Happen To Larger Residents Too!
Although one might immediately think of smaller residents, such as rabbits or avian species being hidden or stuck in their living spaces, this can also happen to bigger species. For instance, it’s not unusual for pig residents to have a particular affinity for creating huge straw nests to sleep in, or for intrepid goat residents to accidentally close themselves into a particularly inviting tack room or closet if a door is left ajar (in the latter case, this can be extremely concerning if a ruminant has access to large amounts of grain).

Being well-hidden or stuck in an outdoor living space in the evening can still be a safety risk for residents who are vulnerable to certain types of predators, so even if your staff suspects that they are around, it’s important to still find the resident and confirm their safe return to their indoor living space in cases like this!

A Missing Avian Resident Outdoors At Sundown Is An Emergency
If you cannot locate an avian resident when closing them in for the evening, this should be considered an all hands on deck situation for your staff. The chances of locating an avian resident as it gets darker are very low, especially if they do not have a known spot they like to hide out in, so every effort should be made to locate them once it’s reported that they are missing. If your sanctuary has avian residents, consider writing specific policies to address the critical need to locate avian residents at closing.

Evaluating Living Space Perimeters

If it’s evident that a resident has likely left their living space, it’s important to prioritize identifying how this was done. Ideally, while one person checks to see if anyone else is missing, another person (or multiple others) are checking the living space for any breaches. Otherwise, even though there was only one individual who was missing when you started this process, you may find yourself with multiple residents who are missing when all is said and done. If it is not possible to conduct this assessment in a timely manner (for example, if you need to check the fence line of a very large pasture space), it’s best to move residents into a secure area temporarily. This may be their indoor living space or a smaller outdoor living space.

A perimeter breach at a sanctuary could be as simple as a gate accidentally left open (which is why having multiple securement systems for all gates is a critical safety practice at sanctuaries), or a more pressing infrastructure issue to be immediately addressed, such as a broken fence, a damaged wall, or holes that residents could squeeze through. If a breach is identified, be sure to address these areas before allowing residents access to the space again. It may be easiest to come up with a temporary fix and then create a plan for a more thorough repair after everyone is accounted for. In addition, if there is any loose hardware such as screws, nails, staples, sharp corners, or broken wood or metal, these must be addressed quickly to prevent residents from getting injured.

Health Emergencies

If your first concern is that the resident may be having a health emergency somewhere in their outdoor living space (this may be more likely with residents who have expansive outdoor areas), then steps should be taken to have multiple people search for the resident. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon scenario for sanctuary cows who may find themselves unable to stand due to injury or chronic arthritis, or simply because they are laying on an incline that makes rising difficult. If residents live in outdoor spaces that prevent staff from having visual access to the entire space, you will need to conduct a thorough search of the area.

Consider A Missing Resident’s Personality And Species

By learning about each resident as an individual, staff can better understand what might motivate or influence a resident to go missing, which can lead to a more clarified plan of where to search for the resident, and can also hopefully help to assuage caregiver anxiety. For instance, a resident may be more motivated than others to:

  • Spend time with other residents outside of their living space
  • Seek a hidden place to lay eggs
  • Avoid specific environmental triggers that frighten or upset them
  • Explore areas that they do not typically have access to
  • Look for treats or tasty plants that they do not normally get to nibble on, or travel to spaces with lush vegetation if their current outdoor space is lacking
  • Distance themselves from residents who exhibit confrontational behaviors towards them
  • Hide from others as an instinct due to illness or injury

The species of a missing resident can also strongly influence these factors. For instance, depending on your sanctuary’s set-up, an avian resident may be more likely to be found in an unexpected place within their living space (perhaps in a well hidden nest), whereas larger sanctuary mammals may take advantage of opportunities to explore or visit residents they enjoy the company of. Of course, there will always be exceptions to these scenarios!

Identify External Risks To Investigate Quickly

Depending on a sanctuary’s geographical location and region, there may be specific risky locations where they certainly may not want residents wandering unsupervised towards. As a sanctuary, your organization should identify these risky areas and consider prioritizing investigating them early on in your search to protect residents. Examples of areas that may be risky to missing residents could include:

  • An unsecured body of water, such as a deep pond or lake
  • A busy roadway
  • Habitats of known predatory animals
  • The adjacent property of an organization or individual who is known to be unfriendly to your organization (another reason to try to maintain cordial relations with your community, as difficult as that can sometimes be!)

Return The Resident Safely To Their Living Space

If a resident is found wandering outside of their living space, it’s important to have a solid plan to return the resident in an appropriate, calm manner. This might include:

  • Considering how the resident’s likely motivations are influencing their current actions and how that might impact how they act when being returned
  • Ensuring that you use calm voices and gentle handling that is appropriate for the species, understanding that different species and individuals will likely react to being herded in different ways
  • Using species and individual-appropriate treats to coax them back into an appropriate area
  • Having appropriate restraints or tools, such as correctly-sized halters, carriers, or pig boards on hand if necessary

Consider How Many Helpers You’ll Need

Before engaging with a loose resident, it’s very important to think about whether you have enough staff or volunteers present for the situation. If treats or other motivators are known not to work for the individual, or if the individual is very fearful and likely to run from humans, it’s important to first calmly gather enough humans in order to gently encourage the resident to move to the intended location (either into their living space, a small area to properly restrain them, or perhaps into a trailer).

One well-intentioned person trying to encourage a resident to move or trying to safely secure them on their own could end up accidentally causing the resident to run in the opposite direction. In some cases, it’s best if the first person to find the individual waits for others to come assist (communicating using a cell phone or radio necessary), being sure to maintain visual contact with the resident while avoiding spooking them.

Try The “Guide Them To The Gate” Technique

One multi-species tried-and-true technique for returning a resident who has merely wandered off is simple but effective:

  1. If other residents are nearby the closest gate to the loose resident, close them away from that area so they cannot also leave through the gate or block the returning resident from entering.
  2. Open the closest gate to the loose resident.
  3. Gently coax the resident towards the gate, either with appropriate treats or other appropriate guidance. At this point, it’s not uncommon for residents to enter through the gate without much fuss.

And don’t forget that if a resident left their living space due to a broken perimeter, it’s critical that you address this issue before letting them back into that space!

If Necessary, Contact External Organizations

In the concerning event that you cannot locate a missing resident, consider who you need to notify in your region, be it neighbors, the governmental organization tasked with loose animals in your region, or volunteers who have expressed interest in helping conduct searches for missing residents. If you are absolutely certain that a resident has left your property, time may be of the essence, so you should have an idea of who you may contact before a resident ever goes missing!

Reflect On The Event

After your sanctuary has found your missing resident, it’s valuable to reflect on the event as a team (and perhaps write up an incident report together). Consider:

  • The timeline of events throughout the incident
  • How the resident came to be missing
  • How it was discovered that they were missing
  • What your chief concerns were during the search (even if they did not come to pass)
  • How efficiently you conducted your search
  • Whether you can improve written or verbal protocols or policies to improve the search process
  • Whether your staff had all the resources necessary to efficiently conduct the search

Events such as these, while stressful, can be excellent tools to help your organization refine policies and processes to prevent similar events from occurring in the future!

Writing Missing Resident Policies For Your Sanctuary

Based on all of the above points, consider how you can create actionable, accessible policies for missing residents at your sanctuary. Because each sanctuary has their own factors that greatly influence what will go into their policies, each policy will be different, but consider the following factors:

  • Who is to be contacted in the event of a missing resident? How much time should be spent searching prior to contacting them, if any? How can they be contacted?
  • Who is to be included in the search process? How many individuals should be involved?
  • What are the exact steps that should be taken during this process? Are there different steps for different species or living spaces affected? Are there designated roles throughout the search process, such as specific individuals who are to check the perimeter, and others to inform neighbors, or will this be assigned during the search?
  • Is there any equipment or any supplies needed during the search process, and if so, where should they be found?
  • Are there individuals or organizations outside of the sanctuary who should be notified? For instance, is there a neighbor whose property is likely where a missing resident would be found? Is there a certain volunteer you use to repair fences? If so, is their contact information easily available?
  • Is there to be a staff debriefing following the event?

Remember: Policies and procedures should be written in a way that breaks down information into clear, concise steps with easy to follow instructions- and then they must be kept in known locations that can be quickly accessed! Consider using our contingency planning workbook to see how to efficiently write these steps into an actionable contingency plan.

We hope your organization never needs to utilize this information in practice, but being prepared for concerning events such as missing residents is a critical responsibility of all animal sanctuaries!

Resource Requested By An Organization Like Yours!
This resource was researched and published after being requested by an organization like yours! Do you have a resource request or question for us? Get in touch!

Updated on July 16, 2020

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