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What Does It Mean For Each Animal Sanctuary Resident To Be An Individual?

A mother sheep and her two black lambs standing together.
How can you best honor the individuality of each animal sanctuary resident?

If you’ve spent any time at animal sanctuaries, or just reading some of the many animal resident resources available here at The Open Sanctuary Project, you may notice that we frequently refer to residents as “individuals”. When we and other sanctuaries use the word individual, we do not use it lightly! This word has substantial meaning, and these tenets of individualism at sanctuaries should always be respected in a sanctuary environment.

Here’s what we mean when we say that sanctuary residents are individuals, and how that should be reflected at an animal sanctuary:

An Individual Resident Has Their Own Story

Although a herd or flock of residents may look quite similar as a group, an animal sanctuary must recognize that each individual has their own history, which will impact them differently depending on their own personality, health, socialization, and other factors. It’s important for sanctuaries to consider each resident’s history, even if they came in as a group of residents, and take this into account when creating care plans for them and sharing their stories with the public. How can your sanctuary honor each individual from a group rescue? How can you help tour-goers see each individual rather than “the turkeys” or “the goats”?

An Individual Resident Has Their Own Preferences

Just as each human you know has their own preferences, governed by countless factors both known and unknown, sanctuary residents are much the same! It’s critical for sanctuaries to honor the likes, dislikes, and potential traumatic triggers of each individual at the sanctuary, and do their best to not inadvertently make them uncomfortable, even if other residents of the same species may enjoy certain things like specific locations or food. It is not compassionate to subject anyone to anything that they don’t like if it isn’t a medical necessity! Doing so can be extremely harmful to individuals who are fearful or exhibit confrontational behaviors towards certain elements.

This is especially true of enrichment strategies; for instance, if three cow residents seem to enjoy an enriching photograph placed in their enclosure, but a fourth finds it extremely upsetting, this is not an appropriate enrichment strategy for that cow living space. The needs of each individual within a group must always be evaluated carefully!

Just Because You Don’t See it…
It’s important to always keep in mind that sanctuaries are spaces for the residents, not primarily for humans. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that, as caregivers, humans always know what’s going on with individual residents, but this is not always the case. You may have a much more limited understanding of a resident’s preferences, activities, and favored companions than you may think! This is not because you are “bad” at your job, but instead because certain things don’t translate across species very simply!

An Individual Resident Needs Individualized Care

When a sanctuary commits to providing lifelong compassionate care for an individual, that means committing to learning exactly what a resident needs to thrive in sanctuary. Often, this means working with a qualified, experienced veterinarian who can help determine exactly what an individual needs. For some individuals, this may require specialized treatments, diets, supplementation, vaccinations, specialized health examinations, surgeries, recovery plans, and a lot more, but this is just part of responsible sanctuary operation!

Individualized care also means that the sanctuary does not perform any treatments as a group, unless it has been specifically suggested by a veterinarian who has seen each individual in the group- simply treating a group of residents out of convenience rather than because every individual needs a treatment does not honor the individuals of the group!

An Individual Resident Deserves To Have Their Needs Considered Prior To A Potential New Admission

Part of honoring a resident’s individuality means carefully considering how an additional resident may affect their lives. For instance, would a new resident mean that an individual suddenly has less space, a substantially more difficult time in the pecking order, or fewer financial resources committed to their lifelong care? Will they still be given the one-on-one staff time required for their compassionate care? Sanctuaries committing to any individual must carefully consider this before saying yes to additional residents!

For more information on this topic, check out our resource: 25 Questions To Help Guide Responsible Intake Decisions At Your Animal Sanctuary!

An Individual Resident Has Their Own Routines

Individual residents will each have their own routine, even if it seems like a group of residents all have similar aims throughout the day. It’s important to recognize the routines that each individual chooses, as well as what makes them comfortable and content. Part of recognizing these individual routines means recognizing that each resident may have their own reaction to a disruption or change in routine for things like healthcare or changes in living arrangements, which must be conducted carefully with the individuals in mind.

An Individual Resident Will Have Their Own Mannerisms And Reactions To Discomfort

Recognizing the individuality of a resident at a sanctuary means recognizing that, just because you know the general body language and mannerisms of a species, this does not necessarily apply to all members of that species as a monolith! Individual residents will have their own thresholds of what makes them uncomfortable, in addition to what tactics they will choose in order to avoid discomfort. This can be heavily influenced by their history, especially their history around humans, but it can also simply be how they are. It’s important for caregivers to recognize that each individual will have their own language, and this must be both learned and honored to prevent uncomfortable or unsafe situations.

An Individual Resident Has Their Own Relationships Both With Humans And Other Residents

Just like humans, individual residents each will have their own likes and dislikes of others, including within their herd or flock, other residents at the sanctuary, and humans at the sanctuary. And just like humans, relationships are not always mutual! Some residents may forlornly have one-sided friendships that make the other resident uncomfortable, which must be carefully considered when making effective living arrangements.

Resident-human relationships are also critically important to recognize; some residents may be more apprehensive (or potentially even exhibit confrontational behaviors) towards human caregivers (or just some humans that remind them of more difficult times in their lives), and this must be considered in a sanctuary environment. It is not a sanctuary resident’s job to be nice or happy to see humans, but it is important for caregivers to provide the best care possible to residents while keeping themselves, volunteers, and visitors out of harm’s way!

In addition, because residents have their own way of showing affection or discomfort, there are times when caregivers may not be aware of important relationships or strife within herds or flocks at the sanctuary. We have heard stories of sanctuaries not recognizing a resident’s attachment to another resident until after a living arrangement has been modified, or more sadly, when a resident passed away and caregivers found unlikely individuals grieving for lost companionship.

While this is not a comprehensive list, we hope this gets you thinking a bit more critically about what it means to provide sanctuary, and how each and every sanctuary resident should be considered!

Updated on August 3, 2020

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