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    Determining Your Animal Sanctuary’s Capacity For Responsible Care

    A stack of many river rocks, with some more likely to fall than others.

    Updated December 22, 2020

    It’s no secret that most people involved in the animal sanctuary movement would prefer that all animals be spared from exploitation in the world if possible (we here at The Open Sanctuary Project very much included!). Unfortunately, when taking into account the current state of animal agriculture, farmed animal sanctuaries face serious limitations in terms of how many animals in need they can possibly provide lifelong responsible care for. This is not only a testament to the nearly unfathomable scale of animal agriculture, but also of the paucity of resources that nonprofit animal organizations typically have access to.

    A Sadly Common Sanctuary Story

    One of the biggest, most serious challenges that nearly every animal sanctuary worldwide faces is exceeding their organization’s capacity for responsible care. Consider this scenario:

    After exceeding their capacity and committing to far too many individuals, an unnamed sanctuary’s expenses and compounded challenges quickly spiral out of control, leading to compassion fatigue and burnout, unacceptable care standards for individual residents, and very frequently, the closure of the sanctuary.

    When this happens, residents of these former sanctuaries can find themselves in situations comparatively as bad or worse than the lives they had before being provided sanctuary. Most tragically, it is not unheard of for former sanctuary animals to be sold at auction directly back into the system of exploitation they had escaped, although a lucky fraction of former sanctuary residents find their way into other sanctuaries with the help of rapid community coordination. This tragedy plays out all the time, every year, all over the world.

    Sanctuaries can avoid falling victim to this destructive cycle by determining their capacity for responsible care and committing to a manageable population of residents. This capacity will change as an organization evolves over time (or possibly even week-by-week), so a sanctuary’s staff should always have honest, open communication about what they can responsibly provide and what the organization’s current limitations are.

    When You Can't Say No

    Sometimes, a potential resident or rescue opportunity will take precedent over concerns of limited capacity. We fully understand that there are many circumstances where a sanctuary decides to say yes, even though managing the additional population will be a challenge. Just be aware of what capacities are being exceeded, and have a plan to alleviate these issues in a timely manner!

    The Variables Of Capacity

    Although it may appear straightforward at first glance, determining an organization’s capacity for responsible care involves a combination of hard figures and more nuanced discussions about what can realistically be achieved with available resources presently at hand. A sanctuary that happens to have an abundance of only one or two particular resources does not necessarily have an abundant capacity for responsible care! All of a sanctuary’s resources must be weighed and considered equally valuable as parts in the machinery of responsible sanctuary management. Here are some (though certainly not all!) common variables that can help influence a sanctuary’s capacity:

    Spatial Capacity

    The amount of physical property or space is an important part of a sanctuary’s capacity, but it must not be considered the sole variable in a sanctuary’s capacity for responsible care! Overall size determines whether a certain number of residents could comfortably live out their life at a sanctuary and should be taken into account, especially since larger species will need more space than smaller ones. Certain sanctuaries may reach capacity for one species but still have ample space for others. This can especially be true if there are limited structures available for residents to be provided shelter in; a property with dozens of acres still faces capacity limitations if they can only provide a few indoor living spaces and shady areas!

    The Sanctuary Shuffle

    Equally important to the overall physical space at a sanctuary are flexible living arrangements. By this, we mean that a sanctuary should have the space available to separate residents who, for whatever reason, can no longer live together. It is not uncommon in most species of farmed animals for conflicts to arise between individuals, even between residents who have been happily living together for many years. Alternatively, acute or chronic illness, injury, or aging may make a current herd or flock no longer safe for everyone. A sanctuary should always have the spatial flexibility to adjust herds or create separated herds (including providing safe pasture time and safe interior living quarters) if necessary. Thus, it can be prudent to leave some living spaces unoccupied and ready for the unexpected. Although an outside visitor may see an open stall in a barn and think that a sanctuary has plenty of room for more residents, this area serves an invaluable purpose that would be compromised by filling it.

    From Perception Problem To An Opportunity To Teach

    Having unoccupied living spaces, as mentioned above, may create a perception problem for some visitors who perceive open spaces in sanctuaries as proof that they are not at capacity and should say yes to more rescues. As this resource illustrates, this is not the case! One way to counter this perception is to create and display signage that explains what the unoccupied space is, and what essential function it serves. This way, visitors can learn about your responsible policies rather than having to have assumptions countered by sanctuary staff!

    Quarantine Capacity

    A more dynamic capacity variable that a sanctuary should always take into account is their quarantine capacity. Quarantine is an essential component of organizational biosecurity on sanctuary grounds. Lacking a quarantine protocol, and either a designated quarantine area or the ability to create one, poses significant risks to both existing residents and the humans who work at the sanctuary. If a sanctuary lacks the space to create a safe quarantine area away from other residents and does not have the option to begin the quarantine process elsewhere (for example at a trusted veterinary hospital), they should seriously reconsider any immediate new residents coming in until they are able to create a plan for quarantine. Quarantined and isolated residents often require an extra time commitment from caregivers, so a sanctuary’s personnel may have reduced care capacity during extended quarantine protocols.

    Personnel Capacity

    At animal sanctuaries, human labor and attention can be a scarce resource. There are simply a great deal of things to get done in a day, including daily care, cleaning, feeding, treatments, and health checkups. A sanctuary should always take into account the limitations of human power in their organization when considering capacity. Whenever a sanctuary accepts additional residents, staff and volunteers have to budget additional time and attention to each newcomer. Humans have a finite amount of mental bandwidth to provide individualized care; if a sanctuary exceeds their personnel’s capacity and does not bring on additional support, it can quickly lead to compassion fatigue, staff burnout, high turnover rates, and a significantly reduced quality of care for residents. This could manifest as a failure to provide basic healthcare like nail trimmings, hoof care, and timely health checks, or a failure to catch health challenges and illnesses that could’ve been easily managed earlier. In dire cases, there have been reports of neglect and even abuse of sanctuary animals due to human caregivers reaching their breaking point with no relief. To avoid exceeding their personnel’s capacity, a sanctuary must frequently check in with their staff and volunteer pool to ensure that they are not feeling chronically overworked, underappreciated, or unsupported.

    Individual Attention

    A qualified caregiver should be able to visually see each individual resident at least once a day, so that they can confirm they’re doing generally well or if something seems amiss. If a resident has specific daily healthcare needs, these must be provided. Every resident should receive a regularly scheduled, documented health check more thorough than a visual once-over to ensure they’re healthy. A sanctuary should never take in so many residents that anyone becomes an anonymous animal in a group who gets overlooked or ignored due to insufficient personnel capacity!

    Financial Capacity

    Funding will always be a significant variable in a sanctuary’s ability to take on additional residents. It can be quite expensive to provide responsible care to each individual, be it in terms of building and maintaining appropriate living spaces, as well as providing nutritious food, supplements, and enrichment. Providing sanctuary for an animal means a commitment to high quality care for the duration of their natural life, as well as dignified and peaceful end-of-life care. For animals at sanctuaries, some of whom could easily live into their twenties, this adds up quickly, especially when factoring in critical rainy day funds for unexpected veterinary care that could strike at any time. Whenever considering capacity, a sanctuary must take an honest look at their funding, both current and projected, and always weigh the financial resources that they’ve already committed to existing residents versus the cost of taking in new residents, especially if the potential new residents have immediate healthcare needs. Ideally, there should be contingency funds allocated for the unfortunate event that residents need to be sent to a new compassionate home. A sanctuary must also always keep the organization’s financial needs that aren’t resident-related in mind; lives can’t be saved if a sanctuary goes bankrupt!

    Regulatory Capacity

    A sanctuary must determine whether they need to abide by any zoning restrictions when it comes to which species (and how many) can live on their property. Failing to abide by zoning regulations can lead to significant (or even existential) challenges to an organization. This limitation will not likely change over time unless an organization moves to a new location.

    Emergency Response Capacity

    Although a sanctuary would hopefully never need to put such plans into practice, it’s critical to consider an organization’s ability to safely evacuate or otherwise provide safety to all residents in the event of an emergency, such as severe weather, flooding, or fire risk. While it’s helpful to be prepared for anything, start by considering the most likely emergency situations that may affect your sanctuary. Power outages, loss of water, and structure fires can affect anyone, but also consider the challenges that could arise given your location and the type of response will be necessary. For example, some emergencies, such as forest fires, could require emergency evacuation of all residents, whereas others, such as ice storms, may require resident shelter inside their indoor living spaces. Be sure to think through the various emergency situations that could occur at your sanctuary, and create a plan to keep residents safe. In the case of a possible evacuation, make sure you have access to the necessary shelter, personnel, and vehicles to rapidly and safely evacuate. A sanctuary does not necessarily need to own enough vehicles and trailers to transport every resident, but they must have plans and reliable relationships in place to ensure timely access to transportation and extra volunteers if necessary. If a sanctuary does not have the means to care for its residents in emergency scenarios within the often limited windows of time provided by such events, they likely do not have the capacity to responsibly care for additional residents without first rectifying their response capability deficits.

    How Not To Exceed Capacity

    The most important tool a sanctuary has for not exceeding their capacity for responsible care is both simple and sometimes unimaginably difficult: a sanctuary must be able to decline new residents if they can’t get the resources to care for them. This is oftentimes a heartbreaking decision, and those who make placement decisions often have a great deal of stress, both from being put in the decision-making position and from frequent negative comments from the public inquiring about rescue opportunities. The people involved in placement decisions must be given extra support from staff, as they face a much higher risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. Carefully considering and crafting a rescue policy can go a long way in making placement decisions less emotionally difficult.

    There May Be Other Ways To Help!

    Just because you can’t responsibly commit to the lifelong care of an individual, doesn’t mean you can’t help. Perhaps you can help look for an appropriate home, assist with transport, or agree to foster the individual temporarily (but be to consider what would happen if their future home falls through!). Depending on the situation, there may even be ways to help the individual in their current living situation (for example, donating food to a caregiver who has fallen on hard times, but is clearly committed to caring for the individual).

    Expanding Capacity

    If a sanctuary wishes to expand their capacity for responsible care, or alleviate strained resources due to stretched capacity limits, it typically takes dedicated financial commitment and additional volunteer solicitation. Some sanctuaries have the luxury of being able to expand into adjacent acreage, others may have to move their organization entirely if they wish for more physical space. Additional quarantine areas can be designed and constructed, though additional personnel support will likely be necessary if a large number of residents are simultaneously quarantined and in need of extra daily support. Personnel can be supplemented with additional care staff and volunteers, although this can be prohibitively expensive or time consuming for sanctuaries with fewer resources.

    Residents In, Residents Out

    Many sanctuaries maintain a higher responsible care capacity by managing robust adoption programs, where they carefully vet and release residents to compassionate forever homes. This way, more animals can be provided care over time without having to commit as many resources to each individual. However, responsible adoption programs require a great deal of extra personnel commitment to ensure that each unique adoption situation works and will continue to work for the resident and adopting party! Some sanctuaries budget additional resources so that if an adoption becomes untenable at any time in the future, the resident can safely return back to the sanctuary.

    The unfortunate truth is that, given the current prevailing social attitudes about animals, there will always be individuals in need of sanctuary. Ultimately, one of the best ways for a sanctuary to strive towards a sustainable future with years of lifesaving work is to start small and grow as resources and knowledge accumulate. It’s not only better for the sanctuary as an organization, but it’s more responsible to each and every resident in their care!

    Video Resource: An Introduction To Capacity- Webinar Excerpt

    The staff of The Open Sanctuary Project gave a webinar in 2020 as part of P.E.A.C.E. Canada’s Speaker Series, and we briefly talked about sanctuary capacity as discussed in the rest of this resource. Check it out below!


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