Many big-hearted individuals around the world have long dreamt of founding their own farmed animal sanctuary (we here at The Open Sanctuary Project included!); the idea of caring for animals who deserve compassionate treatment and respect, especially species who are denied compassion worldwide, can ignite a passion within like few other causes for animal lovers. Perhaps you’ve visited a number of the beautiful sanctuaries around the world, connected with individual residents, and have thought deeply about how more individuals can be given better lives. Maybe you’ve thought about the impact that resident stories might have on visitors, spreading a compassionate message worldwide. Or maybe you’ve never set foot at an animal sanctuary but it just seems like starting your own is the right next step for your life!
Before you put down a deposit on that parcel of land you’ve had your eye on, before you sign the adoption papers for that abandoned potbellied pig in need at your local humane society, and before you file your incorporation papers for the nonprofit animal sanctuary of your dreams, it’s important to think critically about what founding an animal sanctuary entails!
This resource is not meant to discourage anyone from starting their own sanctuary, but to provide a sanctuary-centered perspective about the many facets of sanctuary life and the unexpected challenges that may arise along the way.
First, Consider The Commitments
Time is one of the most precious resources in our lives, and founding an animal sanctuary means devoting a great deal of it to the cause.
Daily Necessities: Just like any companion animal, taking on a resident at an animal sanctuary means that you’re committing to daily care for them, including feeding, ensuring their water source is clean and full, making sure they’re not falling ill or distressed, bringing residents to and from pasture, and changing their bedding as necessary. These relatively simple daily tasks compound quickly the more residents you plan on taking in. It can be a literal all-day affair at some sanctuaries to do the daily rounds of making sure animals are being responsibly cared for, especially if there isn’t regular volunteer support or caregivers on staff. And once the sun rises again, almost all of these tasks must be repeated, day in and day out, every single day of the year!
The Longview: When you take in an animal with the intention of providing compassionate care for their entire lifetime, you must consider how long you’ve committed to doing this time-intensive work. For farmed animal species, you could very well be looking at caring for a chicken for up to 18 years, a cow for 20 years, or a horse for 30 years! Of course, most sanctuaries have visions of taking in far more than one resident, which pushes the time commitment further with each new life being provided for. Starting an animal sanctuary means that everyone you commit to depends on you for their whole life, including a peaceful end-of-life. Until a Founder moves on from the organization they start, these lives are ultimately the Founder’s responsibility.
An animal sanctuary providing responsible care to its residents must commit to providing the best life possible for everyone at the sanctuary, including high quality food, supplementation, vaccinations, bedding, appropriate habitats, and regular veterinary care.
This responsibility is even greater for residents taken in from intensive animal agriculture; think about what it would take to provide quality lifelong care to a dog or cat who has a chronic health condition or who has survived significant trauma. For many industrial farmed animal breeds, the cost involved in medically managing their human-created health problems can be staggering.
In addition to a responsibility for the residents, there are many other costs associated with running an animal sanctuary which must be taken into account. A typical sanctuary operating budget includes the need to allocate finances for the following:
- Land and property upfront costs
- Structures, habitats, construction, fencing, renovations, and maintenance
- Equipment, vehicles, and their maintenance
- Food, bedding, and supplementation for all of the residents
- Electrical, gas, and water utility costs
- Health and veterinary care
- Contractor and staff salaries
- Regulatory costs, taxes, and legal support
These are only the bare basics to keep a sanctuary running. Adding in a robust education and outreach program, public events, and other operational expansions will add even more expenses on top of the critical operating expenses. It’s not uncommon for even smaller sanctuaries to have budgets that add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
The Personal Costs
Outside of all of the organizational and resident concerns, as mentioned, starting an animal sanctuary is an extraordinarily time consuming and emotionally challenging endeavor to individual Founders. It is a commitment to long days and nights of work with sometimes faint (if not non-existent) praise, a modest (if not non-existent) salary, and at least initially, a pronounced lack of time off. Caring for the residents is a non-negotiable daily reality, so if nobody else can do the work, it’s on the Founder to be at the sanctuary making sure the residents are provided for. If you are someone who needs frequent vacations or time to decompress, starting an animal sanctuary may not be the best decision for you! Even if a Founder is physically absent from the sanctuary in an attempt to take a break, many Founders have reported difficulty being able to “mentally take a break” from the sanctuary. There’s simply too much to do and plan for!
(Content warning for the following paragraph: mention of self-harm and suicidality. For those who wish to avoid, skip down to “Caring For Humans” below.)
Working with residents, especially those who have poor health, can be frequently exhausting, frustrating, and heartbreaking. People who work with animals face disproportionately high rates of grief, depression, compassion fatigue, burnout, and sadly, self-harm and suicidality. Rarely is there time to give oneself the space to process these complex emotions, and painful experiences can often happen in short succession. A potential Founder must be resilient and willing to step back and take care of themselves when necessary. They must be able to have the strength to recognize that self-care is not a weakness or retreat, but a key factor in being able to keep doing the work in the long run.
Caring For Humans
All of the personal challenges that a Founder faces are also faced by staff and volunteers to some extent, which can be a source of burnout and high turnover at a sanctuary. Not only does a Founder need to be able to take care of the animals and themselves, but they must provide an organization that supports and looks out for those who work there as it grows. Oftentimes, those who are called to start animal sanctuaries and care for animals may not have the experience necessary to manage employees and handle all of the challenges that management entails on top of the sanctuary’s daily operations. A Founder must be willing to look critically at their abilities and hire somebody to manage staff effectively if needed. This role in itself is a full-time job!
The Public Spotlight
Unless you plan on starting a private animal sanctuary, like it or not, you will have to have frequent interactions with the public, be it for financial support, to help spread your residents’ stories, or to have them visit to learn about the plight of farmed animals.
A common compounded difficulty to sanctuary management can be public perception and feedback from vocal critics who don’t have the full picture of the complicated work and painful decisions that sanctuaries face. You can try your best to do right by a resident, or protect your organization, and face backlash or even a loss of community support because of a lack of understanding or outright antipathy. As a Founder, you must be prepared to stand by your decisions and answer critiques skillfully.
As a sanctuary’s public profile grows, it’s unfortunately not unheard of for them to face threats of theft, vandalization, or even violence by those who oppose their mission and message. It can be shocking how people react to an organization trying their best to save animals!
Property And Location Can’t Be Prioritized Enough
Those who are interested in founding an animal sanctuary must commit to a long, thorough evaluation as to where they would like their animal sanctuary to be located. Although it may be tempting to open a sanctuary where you live, or on a plot of land that has been made available to you for a tempting price, a hasty purchase without serious research and thought can lead to significant woes down the road! A sanctuary’s Founder will have to determine:
- What region they should start a sanctuary in (in terms of climate, urban versus rural areas, and whether a location has many other sanctuaries already nearby
- Whether they are going to rent or purchase the property
- Whether the zoning is appropriate for what they want to accomplish
- What specific features of the proposed site work well for sanctuary environments and what might become problematic down the road.
To learn a lot more about each of these considerations, check out our resource on choosing the right site for your animal sanctuary here!
Founding An Animal Sanctuary Is Founding A Nonprofit
Founding an animal sanctuary, regardless of whether you formally incorporate with the government or not, requires the same attention to regulation and detail as running any other nonprofit organization. Prior to taking any concrete actions, you should plan for an animal sanctuary as if it were a business- except animal sanctuaries do not generate profit! In addition to learning all about compassionate animal care and sanctuary-specific issues, a potential animal sanctuary Founder would do well to learn as much as they can about responsible nonprofit management! Many sanctuaries have closed due to poor organization management that could have been avoided with research into common nonprofit issues.
Where will your funding come from? Unless you can self-fund the sanctuary in perpetuity (which would require a realistic look at the significant annual and unexpected expenses before that commitment), you’ll need a diverse set of income sources so that if any one source were to unexpectedly drop out, your residents and organization wouldn’t be endangered. Sanctuaries need a surplus of funding on hand for emergencies so if a resident falls ill, everything can keep running. Effective fundraising is a complicated, time-consuming job in itself, and many sanctuaries would do well to ultimately plan on hiring a Development Director to keep a sanctuary’s financial resources on a path to long term sustainability.
It’s highly unlikely for a sanctuary to run effectively and for many years with a sizable resident population without bringing on additional staff members. Between daily resident care, maintenance, public outreach for support, managing volunteers, administrative duties, and legally-required accounting, there is simply too much to get done in the course of a day for a Founder to accomplish alone without significantly compromising some aspect of organization management or resident quality of life. If you believe that only you will get everything done at your sanctuary, this mindset will not serve your residents! If a Founder is also the Executive Director of a sanctuary, they must be able to manage a team and perform all of the associated human resource duties of being an executive in addition to all their other sanctuary duties. Failing to provide quality management and care to staff has been known to result in high turnover and reduced staff effectiveness in sanctuary positions.
If you do formally incorporate your sanctuary (which has significant benefits for fundraising and tax relief in the United States), you’ll have to be mindful of all the regulations that must be taken into account, from the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act to The Operational Safety Hazards Act and all USDA regulations as they pertain to the animals in your care. Other countries likely have their own complex regulations to abide by. These regulations cannot be ignored in the name of being too difficult or complicated to follow; failure to comply can lead to steep fines or even existential threats to your sanctuary’s continuance. Check out our resource about the ADA here and our resource about OSHA here!
Part of responsible nonprofit management includes having a plan for when you’re going to exit the organization that you’ve created at some point. Ultimately, a nonprofit’s mission begins to suffer if a Founder refuses to ever depart to the detriment of organizational development. When creating an animal sanctuary, you should have an idea of when you’d like to walk away, what that transition may look like, and what sanctuary role (if any) you’d like to ideally have after departing your own organization.
Even if you aren’t planning on leaving for many years (or if you aren’t planning on formally incorporating as a nonprofit organization), having a succession plan is critical in case a Founder is suddenly no longer able to continue doing their job for whatever reason. It’s irresponsible to the residents to not have backup plans in place! Check out our resource about succession planning here!
Farmed Animal Species Have Unique Care Challenges
Although they may seem relatively easy to provide care for based on agricultural information sources on the internet, to truly provide lifelong compassionate care to farmed animals is highly complicated and can be an inexact science. Each species has their own needs with regards to appropriate habitats, nutrition, socialization, and healthcare that must be considered prior to taking them on. Animal sanctuary Founders should learn as much as they can about compassionate care for each species that they plan on providing care to, or at the least they need to hire on caregivers that have experience in compassionate care. Many standard animal agricultural practices are performed solely to benefit humans, not the animals, so it’s important that all care information is cross-referenced with sanctuary resources! It’s unacceptable to commit to animals that you aren’t prepared to properly take care of.
Finding A Veterinarian
Oftentimes, it can be highly challenging to find appropriate veterinary care for all of the residents in your care, as many large animal or avian veterinarians are not trained to provide the level of care that your residents require at all stages of their lives. Before starting a sanctuary, it’s important to know whether you have access to care that will serve the species you plan on caring for. Check out our resource about finding appropriate veterinary care here!
Providing Care For The Uncared For
Many farmed animal breeds have been altered over generations in order to maximize human profit at the expense of the animal’s physiology and comfort. Cornish Cross chickens, Broad-Breasted White turkeys, and industrially-raised pigs, among many other breeds, all face significant health challenges and confounding diseases that can be very difficult to counteract. More difficult still, most veterinarians have no experience with these breeds since the industry expectation is that they will be dead within a fraction into their lifespans. Committing to caring for these residents means committing to uncertainty, the unexpected, oftentimes revolutionary veterinary treatments, and unfortunately, typically a much higher cost of lifetime compassionate care.
Residents Are Who They Are
You must consider that the residents that you commit to are individuals, which has numerous implications. It is very difficult to predict what a resident’s personality may be like, especially when taking in animals who were abused or neglected, but you must be willing to meet them where they are. It can be emotionally taxing to care for residents who are avoidant or outright hostile to humans, but this is part of the commitment that you’re taking on when you take them in. If a resident can’t get along with other residents (or anyone), you need to find a way to keep everyone comfortable at your sanctuary, including splitting herds or having separate pastures, without neglecting any residents in the process. You can’t assume that everyone will get along in one habitat forever, and frequent bullying or abuse between residents is unacceptable. You may even have longtime residents, the best of friends, who decide one day that they cannot stand one another. This too must be handled to protect the physical and mental well-being of your residents!
Understanding Your Limitations
A sanctuary must understand their own capacity for responsible care and stick with it. Failure to do so is one of the leading reasons behind animal sanctuary closures. If you are not willing to limit the residents to a population size that you can compassionately care for with the resources you have, you should strongly consider whether starting an animal sanctuary is right for you. This is often the toughest, most emotionally challenging part of sanctuary management, but your residents depend on you to always have the resources on hand to care for them! This difficult reality of sanctuary operation can be made slightly easier by creating a rescue policy long before you open your sanctuary to residents. Check out our resource about determining a capacity for responsible care here!
Planning For The Unplannable
If you’re starting a sanctuary, one of the hardest tasks is having contingency plans in place long before anything happens at your sanctuary. What would you do if there were a fire? A tornado? Flash flooding? If your head caregiver stopped showing up to work? If you needed to get all of your residents away from your property as quickly as possible? Responsible management means that you’ll need to be able to step up and have a plan to protect your residents and organizations in an emergency as much as you reasonably can. Check out our resource about creating effective contingency policies here!
Be Realistic About Consequences
It’s an unfortunate truth that animal sanctuaries are forced to shut down every year across the world, either due to a lack of resources, organizational mismanagement, or because of a failure to adhere to legal regulations. When sanctuaries close, their residents often find themselves in situations as bad or worse than what they experienced prior to sanctuary life; sanctuary animals have been sent back into exploitative situations and even slaughter auctions after losing their forever home. Fortunately, some sanctuaries are able to sometimes step up to assist in rehoming these residents to other sanctuaries or microsanctuaries, but this can be highly taxing on organizations that are already dealing with limited funding and stretched capacities. These rehomed residents are sometimes split from longtime family and herdmates, which is a traumatic process in itself.
If you’re interested in starting a sanctuary, you must be realistic about what the very real costs of closure look like, and you must be prepared to do whatever you can to keep your residents safe for their whole lives.
There Is No Organizational Template
Although there are many farmed animal sanctuaries in the world, there is no singular guide to follow for starting and managing a sanctuary (though The Open Sanctuary Project contains many resources to help sanctuaries along the way!). Due to the complex variables at play for every sanctuary (including location, resident species, population size, proximity to other sanctuaries, regional laws, funding availability, and more), it is unfeasible to look at an individual sanctuary and effectively recreate all of their practices and policies, although studying and volunteering at many sanctuaries can help you determine what might be a good fit for your organization! Ultimately, those who wish to start their own animal sanctuaries must have the fortitude to make a tremendous amount of judgment calls when it comes to organization management and animal care, many of which have no easy answer.
Alternatives To Starting Your Own Animal Sanctuary Right Now
Rather than jumping into the world of sanctuary management and all of the responsibilities of being a Founder, here are a few ways that you can get involved in the sanctuary community to learn more about establishing the kind of organization you may wish to develop in the future, or in lieu of starting your own entirely:
Volunteer Or Work At An Existing Animal Sanctuary
There are many farmed animal sanctuaries around the world, and most likely one is not too far from you! We highly recommend that anyone interested in starting their own animal sanctuary spend time at numerous sanctuaries, either as a volunteer, an intern, or as an employee, for at least a year, if not longer. The experience can help you understand the nature of the work and challenges that happen every week at a sanctuary, and provide valuable insider perspective on policies and decisions to consider adopting if you decide to move forward with the creation of your own sanctuary. Oftentimes, the daily operations of a sanctuary and the challenges they face are not known to the public, so merely visiting a sanctuary or two does not provide the full picture of the rigorous work that sanctuaries must do day-in and day-out. When volunteering, you should try to get experience in as many departments as possible and have honest conversations with those who have committed to the sanctuary lifestyle about both the good parts and the more difficult parts of their path.
Perhaps you’ll find that supporting an existing sanctuary, either as a volunteer, part-time worker, or board member, may be satisfaction enough rather than starting your own. Many sanctuaries would be delighted to have a dedicated, compassionate individual on their team!
Consider Starting A Microsanctuary
Rather than founding a sanctuary that supports many residents, consider providing compassionate care for a smaller population in the form of a microsanctuary! Microsanctuaries are a valuable way to care for animals in need with considerably fewer resources necessary than starting a larger sanctuary. In addition, microsanctuaries can provide unique community models for compassionate care in areas that may not have larger sanctuaries nearby. A rescued chicken living happily in a neighborhood might touch many more hearts than one dozens of miles from a community!
Still Interested In Starting Your Own Farmed Animal Sanctuary?
If you’ve carefully considered all of these challenges and considerations and you’re still excited to start your own farmed animal sanctuary, we’re here to support you! Starting a sanctuary can be challenging, replete with hard days, questions without good answers, and many unexpected hurdles that even we can’t tell you about, but for the right person, it can be incredibly rewarding and life-affirming work!