Biosecurity Is Not Optional
Operating an animal sanctuary means daily vigilance to maintain safety for your residents, the humans who work with them, and anybody else who visits your sanctuary grounds. Although the term might sound grim or overly dramatic, biosecurity simply refers to the measures and protocols that a sanctuary must employ in order to limit everyone’s exposure to illness and disease. Biosecurity should be considered in a sanctuary’s design, maintenance, resident care, written policies, contingency plans, and other critical elements of your organization. Each sanctuary will have its own unique characteristics, populations, and challenges that will influence their biosecurity needs. Use this article as a starting point to identifying and developing your own sanctuary biosecurity plan!
Consider Your Sanctuary’s Risks
Practicing good biosecurity means first thinking about what challenges your specific sanctuary faces by virtue of your physical location, property features, as well as the residents that you serve and those who interact with them.
You should be aware of any heightened disease risk in your sanctuary’s location. This could be in the form of any illnesses or pathogens that are more common in the environment or at regional locations that your sanctuary may be taking in residents from. It also means knowing what parasites such as flies, ticks, or mosquitos as well as which illness-causing plants are common in your region. Finally, you should be aware of any pathogens or parasites that may have developed resistance to common prevention treatments in your region. Your region’s agricultural extension service or knowledgable veterinarians can help you identify all of these environmental challenges.
Physical features of your sanctuary can pose different biosecurity challenges. This includes habitats for residents, areas for humans, separation between visitor areas and residents, entrance and exit points, roadways and paths, and geographic features such as natural and artificial water sources. You must think critically about how the design and layout of your sanctuary could contribute to or could protect against disease.
Different species and breeds of farmed animal sanctuary residents carry different biosecurity risks and needs. You should be aware of common diseases that a resident could potentially carry prior to taking in a resident of that species and have protocols for management. It is especially important to know about the diseases that animals from industrial farms commonly carry, including pathogens that have developed antibiotic resistance, and have a plan for whatever you may bring into your population. If you can know as much as possible about an individual resident prior to accepting them onto your grounds, you can create a much more robust, effective biosecurity plan rather than having to react as new information is learned.
The humans who spend time with your residents, whether staff, volunteers, visiting public, or contractors, must all be considered in biosecurity protocols. Each of these humans could be at risk of transmitting, spreading, and contracting illnesses if appropriate measures are not developed, communicated, and implemented.
Biosecurity Strategies: Incoming, On Property, And Outgoing
Once you’ve thought about what unique biosecurity challenges your sanctuary might face, you can develop biosecurity policies based on potential illness sources and how they can be addressed. Disease can come onto your sanctuary grounds from a number of sources, it can spread from existing sources at your sanctuary, and it can also spread from outgoing sources as well.
What Comes Into Your Sanctuary?
Whenever a new resident, human, provision, or wild animal enters your sanctuary grounds, there is a potential biosecurity risk to consider and an opportunity for prevention strategies to be implemented.
Incoming sanctuary residents, especially those accepted from cruel or neglectful conditions, are one of the largest biosecurity risks at your sanctuary. For this reason, it’s crucial to have a quarantine policy for every new resident who comes onto your property, regardless of whether you know where they came from or not (though getting as much information about their previous situation as possible is very helpful). Certain diseases may lie dormant and become symptomatic when a new resident is subjected to the stress of moving, a new environment, or even new food sources. Rare diseases might also spread from asymptomatic incoming carriers to your population with devastating results. Good biosecurity policies for incoming residents include isolating new residents from your population, isolating equipment and protective clothing for each new resident population, not reusing sterile gloves, not using porous fabrics around animals that are spreading discharge, and isolating their food and bedding from other residents or pasture. Some diseases legally must be reported to the local government.
There should be written biosecurity protocols for any resident in isolation, as well as detailed descriptions of their unique situation, diseases, and recovery plans if applicable. This protects both other residents and humans who may be treating this individual. Quarantine and isolation areas must be off-limits from the public in order to protect against spreading diseases to anybody, and staff members need training to ensure that they understand the biosecurity risks involved in quarantine and have the necessary skills required to keep everyone safe.
You also must follow all regional laws when it comes to animals being transported to your sanctuary. Failing to do so could cause existential threats to both the new resident and those at your sanctuary if a government agency feels that there was a potential disease outbreak risk due to noncompliance.
And finally, always stay up to date on disease outbreaks in your region that affect animal populations that you care for. For certain outbreaks, you may determine that your sanctuary must say no to certain new arrivals until the outbreak subsides in order to protect the lives of your existing residents.
Humans entering your sanctuary grounds pose a potential biosecurity risk. There’s the risk of spreading disease from other animals that the humans spend time with, or disease traveling on their clothing, shoes, tools, or via infection. Humans can even potentially spread pathogens from plants or soil that they’ve recently walked through off-property. One way to minimize this risk is to require clean clothes or that anyone spending time near the animals either disinfect or wear shoes specifically for their time at the sanctuary around higher risk residents.
Pathogens could also be spread in rare cases by traveling on vehicle tires (or potentially wheelchair wheels). For these reasons, it’s good practice to keep all vehicle access and parking lots away from where residents live, keep parking lots free of excessive mud or standing water where illnesses could spread, and have written policies for wheelchair access at your sanctuary.
Those who work with other animal populations should take extra care not to spread any illnesses, and if there are any reported diseases at other shelters or sanctuaries, volunteers of these organizations should possibly be discouraged from visiting your sanctuary until the disease is managed.
Contractors who work with outside animals, such as farriers and compassionate sheep shearers must receive extra scrutiny to ensure that their clothes and tools are clean before working with your residents, or they risk spreading disease from other populations who can sometimes be more prone to disease if confined within industrial conditions.
If possible, minimizing the number of entrances and exits is a good biosecurity measure, as it isolates the potential risk of pathogens coming onto your sanctuary grounds and creates a manageable point to protect in the event of an emergency biosecurity protocol being placed into effect.
Regular provisions coming onto your sanctuary grounds such as food and water must be considered potential biosecurity risks. Residents could get sick eating spoiled or rotten food, or hay or straw that has been contaminated with a disease. Everyone could get sick at your sanctuary if your water supply is contaminated. Regularly inspect food and straw coming in for all of your residents to prevent suspect substances from causing illness. If you suspect someone got sick from something brought on property, take abundant caution in investigating the source before continuing to serve it to others. Conduct regular water testing on each of the water sources at your sanctuary to ensure that no human or resident suffers from a waterborne pathogen or illness.
Wild or domestic animals who visit your sanctuary can be a major source of disease. Many diseases can be spread by wildlife, including birds, rodents, deer, and insects who travel on the bodies of these animals. Even roaming non-feral dogs and cats could potentially either spread an illness that they carry or spread something from one part of your sanctuary to another. Although most sanctuaries cannot realistically prevent all instances of disease risk from these outside sources, you can put measures in place to lower risks, such as:
- Ensuring that your fencing is robust and does not allow free travel of wild animals into your sanctuary where possible
- Discouraging rodents from entering your sanctuary by securing all food, rodent-proofing structures, and employing other rodent prevention measures that fit your sanctuary’s ethics
- Having a biosecurity protocol prepared to protect sanctuary birds in the event of a disease outbreak carried by wild birds; which could potentially mean needing to close all open air access to the outdoors for your avian residents while still affording them fresh air and sunshine
- Having written policies in place for service animals and where they may and may not travel on your property
- Preventing mosquitoes and pathogens like cholera and algae blooms from spreading at your sanctuary by ensuring that areas with standing water are regularly disinfected, drained, or regularly agitated or aerated if undrainable
- Frequently cleaning or dispersing any fecal material on your pastures to prevent fly larvae from growing
What Could Spread Within Your Sanctuary?
Biosecurity measures to prevent illness from spreading at your sanctuary mostly means taking great care of all of your residents, their habitats, and treating all communicable diseases promptly and effectively. This means adopting resident biosecurity measures such as:
- Following a recommended vaccination schedule for all residents to prevent common diseases from taking root among your population
- Regular health examinations of all residents and daily walkthroughs of habitats
- Using antibiotic treatments responsibly and sparingly in order to prevent antibiotic resistance outbreaks at your sanctuary
- Ensuring all habitats and pastures are appropriately designed and regularly cleaned. Waste and dirty bedding materials must be securely removed with equipment designated only for this task; it is unacceptable to ever clean using chemicals or water while a resident is still in the area
- Regularly scheduling habitat deep cleans, providing dust masks, protective clothing, and eye protection for those doing the cleaning
- Avoiding any overcrowding or stressful resident living situations such as frequent bullying, which could lower immunity
- Keeping all sources of food far away from where animals go to the bathroom
- Preventing rodents and pests from getting into food supplies
- Keeping all habitats appropriately ventilated and at an appropriate temperature for residents, depending on individual needs
- Regularly disinfecting and cleaning of tools, vehicles, and containers
- Proactive isolation protocols for residents who are displaying signs of illness to prevent the disease from spreading through the population or to humans
- A frequent fecal testing schedule to ensure that no parasites are being shed and spread throughout the population (and in some cases, potentially to humans)
- Regularly ensuring that toxic plants do not grow in an area that residents could access
- Clearly labeling containers of all kinds on your property with relevant information to prevent someone from being exposed to a dangerous substance or material
- Ensuring that all staff who work with the animals always practice good hygiene, including frequent handwashing, wearing clean clothes, and not tracking secretions, mud, or damp materials across the sanctuary
- Providing hand sanitizing stations and emergency eyewash stations where appropriate,
- Having protocols in place to treat staff promptly if they contract an illness or injury
- Conducting staff training on individual resident personalities, behavioral cues, and safe handling needs to prevent physical injuries to residents or humans
- Having a strict “no human food or drink near the residents” policy to prevent both behavioral challenges and potential illnesses from spreading such as Salmonella
What Could Leave Your Sanctuary?
Whatever leaves your sanctuary grounds also could potentially pose a biosecurity risk to people inside and outside of your organization. These elements could include:
- Cultures and samples from residents for healthcare purposes, which must be clearly marked, sealed, and follow any governmental standards of documentation and identification
- Humans leaving your sanctuary must ensure that their hands, clothing, and shoes are clean to not track diseases out to other animals, humans, or organizations they may travel to
- Any outgoing waste from your sanctuary must follow whatever standard your regional government requires, which could include special containers or transportation services in order to prevent humans from getting sick from pathogens shed in resident waste
- Residents who are being adopted out of your sanctuary but are currently ill most likely should not leave your sanctuary grounds until their health issues are managed. Transporting an unhealthy animal could be a massive risk to the resident, the resident’s new home, as well as a huge legal risk to your sanctuary in the case of certain communicable diseases being contracted by others
- If a resident passes away on your property, you must be especially careful to follow biosecurity protocols when handling the deceased resident to prevent diseases from spreading to anybody
- If there is a highly infectious or widespread disease outbreak at your sanctuary, you may have to prevent people both from coming into and leaving your grounds until the risk is managed. There would be catastrophic consequences if your sanctuary was identified as the source of a major disease outbreak
Tell Everyone About Your Biosecurity Protocols
Ultimately, biosecurity is the responsibility of everyone, but people won’t know their role in your policies if you do not make these policies known!
- Make sure that your sanctuary has appropriate signage about safety, potential risks, and how humans can prevent the spread of disease (such as through regular handwashing)
- Provide regular staff and volunteer training about biosecurity measures that they must take (and the consequences for ignoring these measures)
- Keep good records of everything that takes place on your sanctuary or with your residents in order to have a trail in case something goes amiss (and documentation for officials if they have concerns about the biosecurity of your sanctuary)
- Make sure to have written, reviewed contingency policies that cover your biosecurity measures, especially in the case of a Zoonotic disease outbreak, an unexplained death at your sanctuary, a herd-wide breakout of illness, or an environmental outbreak that mustn’t find its way to your residents. It is far more valuable to have plans in place to elevate your biosecurity measures and never need them than get caught without a strategy in a dire situation
And finally, make sure your biosecurity measures evolve and receive thoughtful revisions as your organization grows. Situations, resident populations, and organizations change. Safety should never be stagnant!
National Zoo Biosecurity Manual | Australian Government (Non-Compassionate Source)
Biosecurity: A Practical Approach | Pennsylvania State University (Non-Compassionate Source)