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    Choosing The Right Site For Your Animal Sanctuary

    A sign in the desert suggesting you must go left or right.

    Updated October 18, 2022

    In order to start an animal sanctuary that is best for the residents, best for the organization, and best for the community you wish to engage with, you must be prepared to spend a great deal of time to find the right location for your organization to call home. It can be tempting to jump at the first parcel of land that you find, but ignoring the unique challenges of sanctuary site location will lead to significant (and potentially costly) woes down the road!

    Video Resource: Choosing The Right Site For Your Animal Sanctuary

    Picking A Spot On The Map

    A potential sanctuary should carefully consider where exactly they should be located. Typically, the first location that a potential founder may have in mind might not be the best choice for their organization for a number of technical reasons. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to choose where to put a sanctuary, but there are a few guidelines to think about before beginning your search:

    • Climate: Different regions have vastly different climates, which present their own challenges and opportunities when caring for different species of residents. You should be aware of how the weather and precipitation affects different populations, especially if there’s a species you’d like to focus on. For instance, many cows are typically more content in colder climates than high heat, but the opposite can be true for many pigs!
    • Urban Versus Rural: Establishing a sanctuary out in the countryside can have big benefits in terms of cost and resources; land is typically cheaper, there are fewer regulations about what can be done on the land, and there tends to be more access to agricultural suppliers, which can be critical when sourcing things like hay, construction materials, and agricultural equipment maintenance. It can also potentially mean easier access to large animal veterinary care (although this can present its own hazards as well). However, the further away from population centers you get, the more difficult it will become to convince people to come to your sanctuary, either as visitors or, more importantly, volunteers. On the other hand, if you place your sanctuary nearer to population centers like cities, you are much more likely to attract visitors and volunteers due to the convenient location, but sanctuaries near urban areas tend to have much higher operating costs and reduced access to agricultural necessities and may have a more difficult finding a veterinary practice that regularly sees large animals such as cows or pigs.
    • Access To Veterinary Care: Speaking of veterinary care, it’s important to think about whether or not you will have access to proper veterinary care when looking at potential locations. While large animals are often seen by mobile veterinarians on sanctuary grounds, and you might have an easy time finding a large animal veterinary practice in a rural setting, there will be times when a large animal resident may require care that can only take place in a hospital setting. If you are looking at locations that are far away from a veterinary hospital that can provide care to the species you plan to take in, you could find yourself in a situation where you must drive significant distances, potentially in an emergency situation. If you plan to care for avian species, you may actually have an easier time finding an avian specialist who is used to providing individualized care nearer to an urban setting, though this is not always the case, and not every avian specialist will have specific experience with species commonly cared for at a farmed animal sanctuary.
    • Other Sanctuaries: If an area already has one or more farmed animal sanctuaries nearby, even if they aren’t necessarily serving the exact population or mission you’d like to serve, you should think very carefully about whether you want to open a sanctuary in the area. If you truly believe that your sanctuary is a good fit for a location already served by other animal sanctuaries, it’s important to establish a good relationship with them and understand the nuances of the sanctuary community in your region prior to opening your doors. Ask them questions about the lessons they’ve learned operating a sanctuary in the area, and think about reliable funding sources beyond local support that you can regularly seek in order to help fund your operation.

    To Rent Or Buy

    Ideally, a sanctuary should have the resources on hand to purchase their land. This is not always feasible, but renting or leasing property means that you will always face some possibility of losing access to the land, and may face serious restrictions on the necessary improvements you’ll have to make the best homes for residents. Sanctuaries have faced significant unexpected challenges when, after years of investment and development on a piece of land, they are told to pay a significantly higher sum to remain on the property or are evicted outright.

    If a sanctuary has a mortgage for their property, the revenue stream used to pay for the mortgage must be protected from being spent on something else and highly predicable.

    Sanctuary Property Vs Founder’s Property

    In ideal circumstances, a sanctuary (especially if operating as a registered nonprofit) should be assigned full ownership of the property or land on which it operates, as opposed to simply leasing the land from a founder, or not being assigned any kind of formal land agreement as an organization separate from its founder. Not being granted full ownership can lead to numerous challenges down the road. Most concerningly, if a founder were to depart from the organization or become unable to continue their duties, this arrangement could be a significant threat to the continuance of the sanctuary. It’s always important to look at the longterm implications of how a sanctuary is setup long before it becomes a concern in the future! If you are unsure of whether assigning land to the sanctuary or the founder is right for your organization, we would highly recommend asking a qualified attorney, as each region may have laws and regulations that could highly influence your final decision. Often, a sanctuary may start on a founder’s property. One solution for this common scenario is for the sanctuary’s nonprofit to raise money to legally purchase the property from the owner rather than “taking” the property as a donation, thus increasing organizational safety and sustainability while not putting an undue burden on a founder.

    Always Check The Zoning Laws

    Almost all potential properties will be governed by local and regional zoning laws that cannot be ignored. A location might seem perfect until you learn that you can’t have a certain species on property, or you can’t host public events, or that you can’t even build a parking lot for volunteers! It can be unpleasant to think of losing residents through natural causes or humane euthanasia, but if you plan on caring for large animals especially, you should consider whether or not you will be allowed to bury residents onsite when they pass away. If you cannot, you will need to figure out other arrangements, which may not only be costly, but may also be limited when dealing with pigs and cows. You must always check a property’s zoning regulations prior to committing to a lease or purchase, being aware that if you’re planning a sanctuary in an area that’s rapidly developing, the original property zoning could very well change after you’ve already purchased it. Check out our resource about zoning laws here!

    Potential Site Features

    Once you’ve landed on a site that seems like a promising location for an animal sanctuary, you must critically look at what’s currently on the property before committing to it.

    • Existing Structures And Fencing: It can be tempting to purchase a site that has existing barns or other structures on them, as buildings and fences are some of the most expensive parts of sanctuary budgets. Always critically look at these structures if you’re planning on housing residents in them; many designs are built for human convenience rather than resident comfort and safety. Safe ventilation can especially be an issue with older buildings. It would be advisable to research sanctuary structures and ask many sanctuaries questions before committing to a piece of property; retrofitting an existing structure to work for a population (including using resident-safe building materials and rodent-proofing) can sometimes be more expensive than starting from scratch! Fencing should be safe for all populations that you plan on keeping around the fencing. Different species have different fencing needs, and ignoring those needs could lead to dangerous consequences. Finally, you should be aware of whether existing paint, stains, and finishes are free of lead and are animal-safe.
    • Water: Be sure to consider if the property will be able to meet the potentially hefty water needs of the sanctuary. Don’t assume that just because the neighboring properties have green pastures that water will not be an issue. The neighbors could receive water through local irrigation projects that may not be available for new land owners.
    • Terrain: The quality of terrain, the softness of the ground, and the slope of the site can have significant implications for animal care. For instance, if there’s a hill from a resident’s indoor living space to a pasture, it may work fine for healthier residents, but that same hill may be impassable when residents become elderly or arthritic. Ground that is too soft can be difficult for larger animals to move around on. Ground that is too hard (or concrete) can be more difficult on animals who are prone to joint problems. Land with many divots or holes (or a large gopher population) around can be a serious injury risk and will need to be smoothed over. You should take all of a land’s terrain factors into account when considering if a site will be a good fit for the residents you plan on taking in. If you have natural water on property, such as a pond or creek, you’ll need to ensure that the species that have access to it are never endangered, especially if it ices over in the winter time.
    • Potential Emergencies: It’s important to think about potential emergencies that could arise or challenges that come with the locale. If the property is in a fire zone, you may need to take extra precautions to keep the sanctuary and its residents safe, such as creating and maintaining a fire break each year. In addition to fires, consider if there are other natural events that could put residents at risk such as hurricanes, mudslides, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, or other natural disasters and what plans you would need in place either to evacuate residents to keep them safe onsite during these events.
    • Environmental Concerns: You should be aware of what the property was used for in the past; some operations use chemicals or other materials that may live in the land long after ceasing operations that could be harmful or even deadly to animals on pasture. If you’re unsure of the land’s history, you can perform soil testing on the site prior to committing to it.
    • Foliage: Some agricultural properties for sale may not have the best foliage on them for appropriate grazing; for example, if you purchase a property that turns out to have exclusively alfalfa pastures, you would need to eventually tear up and re-seed everything to prevent animals from getting sick or overweight on the protein-rich pasture. Other properties may be home to numerous plants that are toxic or even lethal to certain species that you were planning on providing a home for. Shade is an important feature at sanctuaries; if residents are caught in direct sunlight day-in and day-out without a place to be able to cool down, it can lead to overheating and dehydration. But big shady trees must be safe for the residents who have access to them (for instance, common rhododendrons are toxic to many species!).
    • Drainage: You should be keenly aware of what the property looks like during and after precipitation. Mud and pooled water in a pasture (or water getting into existing structures) means muddy residents or sinking foundations. For many animal species, constant mud means a significant risk of foot and leg illnesses, some of which can permanently reduce a resident’s quality of life. If you’re set on a property with significant mud problems, you must commit to ensuring that residents have a dry place to stand and that their feet are frequently cleaned off. This can be a huge additional time commitment in rainy seasons with many residents!
    • Utilities: You should be well aware of the utilities that can be provided at different parts of the site you’re looking at. Very often, it can be a surprise to find that a planned structure cannot receive power or water without an expensive operation, if possible at all! The further water sources are from the residents, the more daily time will need to be dedicated to getting water to them. You should know whether there’s an issue of water pipes freezing in the winter, which can be a disaster. And if water access is overall a concern at a property, you could be putting all the residents at a significant risk. Not being able to provide electricity to living spaces can be a significant risk to residents living in seasonal cold or heat. Always check all utilities around your site before committing to a piece of property.
    • Predators: There are a number of animals that can threaten the health and well-being of sanctuary residents. You should be keenly aware of the species that you may have to protect your residents against in a certain area. For some sanctuaries, foxes and ferrets may be the top risks, for others, it may be coyotes and birds of prey. Different species of predators require different tactics and construction consideration. You should get in touch with the region’s agricultural extension service and ask them about risks in the area.
    • Rodents, Parasites, And Disease: Rodent populations must be managed at a sanctuary’s location. How a sanctuary decides to manage this population depends on their Philosophy of Care and personal ethics, but leaving them unmanaged will very quickly lead to an unfathomably large population of rodents on sanctuary grounds. This can lead to diseases (both in residents and humans), living space woes, volunteer discomfort, and potentially, serious injuries to sanctuary residents if there’s a large enough rat population. You should also be aware of the common parasites and diseases that affect animals in the area you’re researching; this is especially true if the proposed site is near agricultural operations, which can lead to diseases being spread from farm to sanctuary via parasites and flies. This can also be researched in a region’s agricultural extension service. In areas with known parasite resistance, such as areas with known Barber Pole worm resistance, you may want to avoid properties that previously housed species affected by these parasites (assuming you plan to eventually care for these species) or look into ways to ensure pastures are safe for your residents (possibly by tilling and reseeding pastures or waiting a certain amount of time before introducing a certain species to the land). Otherwise, you could be inheriting resistant parasites that will cause significant longterm challenges for you and your future residents.
    • On-Property Living Accommodations: A sanctuary must decide how to handle resident safety and needs during odd hours of the day. For many organizations, this means that at least one human (if not the founder) will live on or very close to the sanctuary grounds in order to be there for the unexpected. A sanctuary who is planning for a caretaker must find property that is suitable for human habitation, especially one that won’t be so isolated that it discourages qualified individuals from taking on the job!
    • Neighbors: What is nearby to the property? For many sanctuaries, they are surrounded by farms or rural communities. Consider that keeping a good relationship with your potential neighbors is highly important; if a resident gets out of the sanctuary and shows up in their yard, how would they react if you showed up looking for them or if they found the resident before you did? If you will be sharing a property line with a farm or an individual who cares for the same species you do, consider the potential challenges this may cause. We’ve heard of enthusiastic bulls breaking through fences to get in with sanctuary cows who are in heat, so you may find yourself in a situation where additional fencing is needed to keep uninvited guests out. Many times, sanctuary neighbors may be involved in activities that are in opposition to a sanctuary’s mission. It can be a delicate balance keeping positive relationships in cases like this, but a sanctuary must weigh the benefits of a happy neighbor who may not fully understand the sanctuary’s mission versus a more fraught relationship.

    Consider A Survey!
    Property surveys can give you a precise understanding of your property’s boundaries, but they can also do so much more! Surveys are a visual indicator of restrictions on land such as rights-of-way, setbacks, buffer zones, and easements, environmental concerns, or things like encroachments on land by structures on neighboring properties like fences or buildings. All of these are essential things to be aware of when you purchase a property, or plan construction, so that you know exactly what you’re buying and what you can and cannot do on the property! We have a resource on surveys and how they can help your animal sanctuary, which you can find here

    Think About Your Longterm Goals

    When making the important decision of choosing your animal sanctuary’s location, you should try to keep in mind your longterm vision for your organization. Are you planning on taking in a certain number of residents at a time down the road? Do you foresee the need for space to build additional structures, such as a visitor center or a better-organized parking lot? Even if many of these goals wouldn’t be implemented for quite a long time, you should consider whether a certain site will support the growth you envision. If you’re looking at a small tract of land with hopes of expansion, would it be possible to purchase additional land to add onto your property, or is all of the land nearby occupied? Will the zoning support what you eventually want to do? Although it’s not unheard of for sanctuaries to move when they grow and evolve, this can be highly costly, especially if you have to walk away from all of the improvements you’ve made at your previous site. And of course, you’ll have to begin the search for the right property anew if your first site wasn’t right. Few sanctuaries have the resources on hand to select a property that has everything they want when just getting started, but if you can swing it, buying a property with ample room for growth and development can save many headaches down the road!

    Weigh Everything, Then Make A Judgment Call

    Given all of the factors involved in animal sanctuary location choices, it’s highly unlikely that the absolutely perfect property will be available at a cost that a sanctuary is able to afford when getting started. Although a sanctuary shouldn’t ever feel pressured by a sense of time in this decision (since location is one of the most critical elements of the organization), eventually a decision will need to be made. A founder should take extensive notes on different property choices, look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, talk to other sanctuaries about what they wish they had known before choosing their site, and make a decision with the information that they have. There will always be surprises at every location that could not have been planned for, but sanctuaries should learn early on that their days will be filled with the unexpected!


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    Choosing A Site by Amber D Barnes

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