Share On

Jump To

Jump To Section

Share On

Jump to
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Jump To

    Jump To Section

    Managing Cruelty, Seizure, And Escapee Cases At Your Sanctuary Or Rescue

    A person in an SPCA uniform embraces the head of a donkey looking over a fence, while another person looks on and other animals stand in the background.
    An SPCA constable with a donkey during an inspection at a roadside zoo in Canada. Photo courtesy of We Animals Media

    Reminder: We Aren’t Your Lawyer!
    The Open Sanctuary Project is not a law firm, and this resource is not a substitute for the services of an attorney. If you are contemplating participating in cruelty cases or busts, it is a good idea to consult local counsel with regards to local laws and, in particular, if the situation with which you are involved may involve litigation. Accordingly, you should not construe any of the information presented as legal advice that is suited to meet your particular situation or needs. Please review our disclaimer if you haven’t yet.

    Content Warning
    This resource will include some general discussion of animal cruelty. Out of sensitivity to caregivers, however, we will not share graphic images of busts or seizures.

    Resource Goals

    1. To understand the many factors that may play into seizure, cruelty and escapee cases.
    2. To assess whether your organization has the capacity to handle such cases, both in terms of new resident capacity and caregiver capacity.
    3. If so, to get a greater understanding of the kinds of legal, recordkeeping, and care issues that may play into your care of the survivors of cruelty cases, seizures, and escape.


    If you run an animal sanctuary or a rescue, chances are that at some point, you may be approached by local animal control authorities, shelters, or law enforcement, asking for your help when it comes to a cruelty investigation, seizure, or escapee case. You may even get requests from the public to intervene or investigate these kinds of situations! Please note that in such situations, since neither “sanctuary” nor nonprofit status confer upon an organization the right to conduct investigations or law enforcement activities (unless your state has provisions for humane investigation and has appropriately licensed your staff to do so), the best move is to refer members of the public to their local animal control and law enforcement authorities.

    While we might immediately associate cruelty and seizure of animals with criminal activity, situations like this can arise in a myriad of ways and the associated considerations and complications can come up in virtually any context. There can be situations involving animal hoarding, animal neglect, escapees from former keepers, slaughterhouses or stockyards, or outright animal abuse like cockfighting. And of course, they can also be related to other kinds of criminal activity, such as domestic abuse, gambling, and sometimes even gang-related activities. These situations can even (and do) happen in a sanctuary or rescue context, where an organization may have exceeded their capacity, and run into serious concerns as a result.

    While every cruelty case or seizure will have its own unique set of circumstances, there are still some very important common considerations that you should observe as you navigate collaborating with animal control, shelters, and law enforcement. Collaboration with animal shelters can be an indespensible way to ensure positive outcomes for animals, in addition to building mutually beneficial relationships within your community. For more on how to build positive relationships with shelters, check out our starter guide

    Your sanctuary or rescue can play a critical role in assisting animals who must go through the legal system, particularly when those animals are species with whom shelter staff are unfamiliar. You may spot issues that they may not recognize, and assist in getting supportive intervention for individuals whose medical or behavioral conditions might otherwise be overlooked.

    However, this kind of rescue work has some very unique considerations associated with it. Keep in mind that even a case involving a single animal can come with unexpected legal twists and turns, involve intervention from law enforcement intervention and the broader legal system, and can also be a source of significant trauma for both the animal or animals involved and the caregivers trying to help. As a result, there are some critical things that your sanctuary or rescue must consider before agreeing to work on these kinds of cases.

    Threshold Questions Your Sanctuary Or Rescue Should Consider Before Working On Cruelty Cases and Seizures

    First, there are always important questions that you need to consider before embarking on any kind of rescue as an organization. Hopefully your organization already has a rescue policy in place. If not, then sitting down as a team and considering both the challenges of responsible rescue as well as asking yourself the following questions to help guide your intake decisions will be very helpful. It’s critically important that you do this work early on, so that when a crisis occurs, you have a good internal organizational understanding of your limits and capacities. 

    When it comes to questions of cruelty cases, seizures and escapees, in addition to the above, your sanctuary or rescue should consider the following questions carefully, discuss them internally with all relevant personnel (particularly caregivers), and develop a consensus on the answers before deciding to work on these kinds of cases. Again, in an ideal world, you would have these discussions before you are ever asked to collaborate on this kind of work. Under the pressure of a sudden cruelty case or seizure, emotions can be heightened and you may find yourself having a hard time saying no in the absence of a preexisting internal organizational understanding on the matter. The questions you need to think about with regards to your cruelty case, seizure and escapee capacity include the following:

    1. Do you have local legal counsel who can help you navigate your jurisdiction’s animal cruelty laws, and help advise you on how to proceed with regard to expense documentation, recordkeeping, and how legal proceedings may impact your care and the potential ultimate placement of the animals in question?
    2. While it is almost inevitable that you will encounter animal suffering when working in rescue and sanctuary, cruelty and seizure cases can be particularly intense. Do you have the resources to assist animals who may be in very poor condition and who may be intensely traumatized? Do you have an emergency vet, funds that can cover these kinds of expenses, and access to behavioral support for animals who may need it?
    3. Is everyone in your organization prepared to deal with the trauma you may witness and experience as a result of this? Do you have the resources to provide yourself and the staff who will be directly caring for the animals in question with the emotional support that they may need during this time?
    4. Is your sanctuary or rescue’s staff prepared to deal with sudden new demands on your resources, which may persist for a protracted period of time? This can include elements like:
    • Paying staff for overtime work and any emotional or other support they may need;
    • Veterinary bills for emergency and follow up care and documentation; 
    • Segregated tracking and documentation of expenses associated with survivors of cruelty, which often becomes necessary.
    1. Are you prepared to work with law enforcement? Some sanctuaries, rescues, folks working or volunteering with organizations, or veterinarians, may not wish to work with law enforcement for a variety of reasons. These sensitivities should be taken into consideration. Sanctuary or rescue community members who do not wish to collaborate with law enforcement should never be put into a position where they are forced to do so. This may mean that they are unavailable to take the lead or directly assist with the animals in question in cases such as this. This leads to our next point to consider:
    2. Are you (or anyone who has taken lead in caregiving for the animals in question) prepared to potentially participate in legal proceedings, including potentially testifying at trial? This includes your veterinarian! This additional responsibility can involve both a significant investment of time and energy, and can be very stressful. Your recordkeeping and internal documents with regards to these animals may well be subject to discovery and could be made public through court proceedings as well. Are you prepared to curate and maintain those records in a manner that can withstand scrutiny in a litigation situation? For example, while maintaining extensive veterinary records and caregiving observations is absolutely critical and helpful, work like this can be undermined or diluted by internal written correspondence that includes non objective and pejorative language around former animal keepers or others who were involved in the cruelty in question. It is important to keep written documentation as objective as possible, and this can be difficult when emotions are high.
    3. On a related note, if you correspond with government agencies (such as municipal shelters or law enforcement) with regard to a seizure or a bust, you should be aware that your written correspondence may be subject to Freedom of Information Act (hereinafter “FOIA”) requests. Are you prepared to carefully curate your correspondence accordingly, as all of it is potentially subject to being made public, either through court proceedings as mentioned above, or by media or other groups interested in the story? Again, maintaining written records in a manner that is free of language that could cast doubt on the objectivity of caregivers, or cast a negative light on the rescuing organization is important.
    4. If seized animals are ordered to be returned to their former keepers, are you prepared for the emotional toll that this may take on those who have cared for them, in addition to the possibility that you may have to absorb the costs of the resources that your organization has expended to care for them?
    5. Are you willing to take precautionary measures to protect animals coming from such situations, such as additional security on your property and keeping information about  these animals off of social media in order protect their safety and the integrity of any ongoing investigation?
    6. Are you prepared to cope with potential outside media attention? Although sanctuaries and rescues oftentimes welcome media attention to draw the public eye to their work in supporting the care of animals in need, narratives have a way of finding a life of their own, and given that media timelines are usually short, inaccuracies can find their way into stories and potentially create misunderstandings in the long run. Remember that accuracy and transparency are important responsibilities of your sanctuary, including to the media and the public.

    If your organization’s answers to all these questions are yes, then your organization may be in a position to help in these very difficult cases. However, please remember that there is no shame if your organization or staff find the potential of dealing with cruelty or seizure cases too overwhelming to undertake, and must say no. It cannot be emphasized enough that it is always critical for you to keep considerations of your capacity at the forefront, so that your existing residents continue to receive the best compassionate care possible, and it is similarly important to consider your caregiving team’s risk of compassion fatigue and burnout and to provide them with the support they need to manage these very real challenges.

    If you feel like you and the members of your organization have the capacity to address a case of this type, it can be helpful to know that, while every case will have its own set of unique circumstances, there are three kinds of patterns that these kinds of cases generally tend to follow. We will address each briefly, and then discuss what considerations you need to observe that are relevant to all of them.

    Investigation and Seizure

    The first kind of cruelty and seizure case is what most of us imagine when we think about this kind of work. In this kind of situation, law enforcement or animal control officials receive a complaint from a member of the public (sometimes this may be another concerned sanctuary or a rescue) regarding the care or status of an animal or animals. Following the complaint, the agency responsible for responding to such complaints will start an investigation. 

    If you have a good relationship with authorities, you might be alerted to such investigations in their beginning stages. This can afford you the opportunity to prepare to assist them in advance. This may be particularly true in cases involving large farmed animals because animal control facilities and shelters often lack the room or resources to house such animals. In some circumstances, authorities will not pursue such cases to the point of a seizure unless collaborating sanctuaries or rescues have been informed in advance and agreed to assist them with housing and placement for these animals. Again, please keep in mind that written correspondence with authorities may be subject to FOIA requests and possibly be made public, so curate your conversations accordingly.

    In cases and investigations like these, authorities may provide the keepers of the animals in question with notice of conditions that authorities consider to be in violation of the law, and give them an opportunity to remedy these conditions. If the keepers do not improve the faulty conditions, they may be subject to additional censure, such as citations and fines, and ultimately, the seizure of their animals and potential prosecution. The process will vary by legal jurisdiction and by local organizational culture.

    If a seizure is warranted, how this works may vary widely based on the kinds and quantities of animals in question. In cases of animals such as birds or small mammals, a municipal animal control may seize all of the animals and put them into kennels at a shelter for evaluation and assessment by experienced rescue or sanctuary caregivers. In the case of large mammals, there may be absolutely no capacity for shelters to take on their care and they may immediately start to call rescuers and sanctuary caregivers to the site to assess, evaluate, and pull the animals in question immediately from the site. 
    In some cases, this may mean your organization will have a very specific and limited timeframe to go to the site and pull the individuals for whom you have capacity. It can be incredibly difficult in cases where you are working with traumatized and fearful individuals who are living with poor infrastructure such as compromised fencing. Catching individuals in such situations can be complicated and hard. A limited timeframe can also force your organization to make very difficult decisions with regards to the individuals without full information. Do you take a mother and babies who you might decide are more vulnerable than the others? Do you choose an individual who may be injured and who you think may not get help anywhere else? Do you choose individuals for whom you believe on first inspection (without a “close look”) that you may be able to accommodate more easily? At first glance, an individual who appears “fine” may in fact have significant underlying issues. It is practically impossible to know at first glance, so you must be prepared for (often unfortunate) surprises.

    These decisions are fraught with both philosophy of care considerations as well as pragmatic ones relating to your organization’s capacity. This is why it is so critically important to anticipate these questions in advance of ever being asked to participate in cases like this. Even in the context of advanced notice, these questions will arise, but they become even more difficult to navigate when you do NOT have early notice, as we will discuss next.

    Seizure Incidental To An Unrelated Investigation

    Another way that cruelty cases can arise is in the wake of an unrelated investigation. This could possibly be in connection with another criminal investigation. For example, investigation of reports of nuisance noise, unusual activity, and gatherings may uncover dog or cockfighting rings. A law enforcement officer called to intervene in a domestic violence situation may also find animals on site who have been abused. However, animal abuse can also be uncovered in situations where no criminal activity is suspected. For example, wellness checks on elders or community members who are ill can sometimes uncover neglect or hoarding. Even fairly routine traffic stops can uncover animal abuse. One rescuer recounted having multiple experiences with goats being found in cars after being stopped for unrelated reasons. This can also happen in the context of administrative inspections by organizations like state departments of agriculture inspections of animal care facilities, or even by agencies like the secretary of state, who may check in on nonprofit organizations, particularly if they have been alerted that something may be awry.

    In these kinds of situations, the officials involved will again be faced with a decision as to how to address the animals in question. In some cases, they may decide to give the keeper a notice of the problematic conditions and the opportunity to cure them, and in more egregious situations, they may elect to seize the animals immediately. Again, such decisions will be contingent on the specific circumstances, as well as local law and organizational culture.

    Abuse that is uncovered on an entirely unrelated investigation means a seizure may happen without any notice. This often makes this kind of case particularly difficult for sanctuaries and rescues because it leaves them in a position to have to make a decision with little to no preparation. This is why it is very important for your organization to have already considered the questions delineated above with regards to cruelty and seizure cases so that you have a good sense of your staff’s capacity, as well as your facility’s capacity to accommodate the care of more animals. We may all want to help in these situations, but you must remember your obligation to maintain your standard of care for your existing residents and carefully consider whether bringing in individuals from these contexts will detract from that standard of care.

    Animal Escapees

    Sometimes, in certain cases, animals liberate themselves from horrible situations. These cases generally involve a smaller number of animals, or even a single animal, and have their own unique considerations. Examples can include animals who jump from and escape slaughter or transport trucks, animals who escape from factory or hobby farms, or animals who escape from slaughterhouses or stockyards. However, because they can also involve government agencies and legal tangles over the “ownership” of the animal or animals in question similar to those from seizures and cruelty cases, we will cover them here for you to keep in mind. Even if you find or take in a stray escapee yourself, these issues may arise if their former keeper discovers you have “their animal,” for example via social media posts.

    These cases most typically arise when a shelter or government agency picks up a “stray” animal who is in fact, an escapee from a cruelty. In this particular context, please note that we use the term “cruelty” not in its strict legal sense, but in reference to any situation that involves the use and abuse of an animal, particularly slaughter situations, as these seem to be the most common ones from which animals liberate themselves.

    Depending on the jurisdiction, rules may differ, but often in cases such as these where government agencies such as animal control or municipal shelters are involved, they will put a “stray hold” on the animal in question. This means that the animal must be held for a designated length of time by the agency in order to allow a possible “owner” a chance to redeem them. In the case of large mammals, because of space and care constraints, shelters may well transfer the animal or animals in question to a sanctuary or rescue organization for the duration of their stray hold. During this time, the holding organization does NOT have ownership of the animal or animals in question, and this is critical to remember. Below we will discuss the question of “ownership limbo” in some depth, but this is one context in which it arises, and can have significant implications.

    As an example, consider River’s story, which had a happy ending, but could potentially have ended tragically:

    River is a sheep who escaped her keeper as a young lamb literally at the moment of her impending slaughter, fleeing him as he put down his knife for a moment. She was captured by animal control while running down the highway, and was brought into a shelter as a stray. The shelter contacted a sanctuary who came to get River since the shelter had no appropriate housing for her. However, the shelter also publicized River as a stray. Again, in most jurisdictions, animals found as “strays” are kept on “stray hold” in order to give a potential “owner” searching for a lost animal a chance to retrieve them. 

    Unfortunately for River, and before her legally mandated “stray hold” expired, her former keeper contacted the shelter and claimed her. As a result, River and her sanctuary caregivers were escorted by law enforcement to River’s former keeper and instructed to relinquish her, since under the law in that jurisdiction, the planned slaughter was “not considered cruelty.” Luckily for River, the caregivers successfully made an impassioned plea for her surrender, and convinced her former keeper to relinquish her to them. She now lives her life in safety and sanctuary, however, her situation was perilous and fraught, and to this day her caregivers remember the fear and anxiety they experienced when they negotiated her surrender.

    While River’s case ended happily, not every escapee story, cruelty case or seizure ends so well, and many can involve a significantly higher number of animals who have survived horrifying conditions. This story illustrates and brings us to the implications of “legal ownership” when it comes to survivors of cruelty.

    After Seizure: The Question of the “Ownership” And The Legal Status Of Seized Animals

    In situations where officials deem it necessary to seize animals, it is critical to remember that this does not necessarily mean that the animals are now “property” of the state, or that their “ownership” is immediately transferred to their new caregivers after seizure. In general, these animals are considered to be “evidence” and are still the “property” of their former keepers until they are surrendered by that keeper or a court adjudicates the matter. 

    The process of how ownership is transferred in situations where seizure is warranted can vary widely depending on the circumstances. Generally, after seizure, officials will offer the keeper who has “ownership” of the animal or animals the opportunity to elect to surrender them. If the keeper chooses to surrender, then the “ownership” of the animal or animals in question will shift to the governing authorities, who may then transfer them to rescuing or sanctuary organizations. However, if the keeper does NOT opt to surrender the animals, then the animals remain their “property,” although they are now in the custody of the state pending judicial resolution of the matter.

    At this point, the status of the animals in question exists in a bit of a state of limbo. Generally, they must be held and cared for if and until: 

    • Their former keeper decides to ultimately relinquish them (which often happens as a part of a plea bargain); or 
    • Until a court of law decides the case, and determines whether to return them to their former keeper, or make them the property of the state, who then becomes responsible for placement and adoption.

    It is so important to remember the “limbo of ownership” in these cases. Until animals are surrendered and are “property” of the state, there is always a possibility a court decision may mandate that the animals must be returned to their former keeper. Sometimes, relinquishment occurs immediately or very quickly in a case. Other times, relinquishment happens before judicial resolution, but can take time as prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiate plea deals. In some instances, animals exist in this limbo for months or even years as the cases around them are litigated. These situations can be very frustrating for interim caregivers of animals in this position because the possibility of a court order allowing their return to their former keeper always looms. 

    The “limbo of ownership” also has other implications. For instance, you may not be able to transfer animals out of state, which may limit your ability to get help with fostering animals in other homes or sanctuaries. It can also have impacts with regard to care and documentation around care and expenses. For example, you may be limited in the kinds of veterinary care you can offer animals from these situations until “ownership” is resolved. You may even find that your veterinarian is unwilling to work with animals who are in “ownership limbo” based on concerns around their potential liability should the animals be returned to a disgruntled former keeper. This will bring us to another critical aspect of managing cruelty and seizure cases, which is the incredible importance of having a supporting veterinarian involved, who is fully apprised of what is happening and has the capacity and willingness to assist.

    The Importance of Veterinarian Involvement

    Keep Your Vet Informed Of What You’re Doing!
    As always, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with your veterinarian, and part of that is clear communication. Working on cruelty cases and seizures can necessitate involvement in legal proceedings like trials, and key witnesses may even be compelled to testify even if they do not want to, so you must fully inform your vet about what you’re dealing with. Your vet should be allowed to decide whether or not to work on such a case, which could potentially take a significant amount of their time, especially if it goes to trial. Again, as mentioned above, if a case involves law enforcement and other governmental organizations such as municipal shelters, veterinary records may be discoverable through litigation or through FOIA requests if your vet is corresponding with governmental authorities, and may thus be potentially made public. Your veterinarian may have feelings and opinions about this, and those feelings should be respected. Consider again the threshold questions we presented at the beginning of this resource and run them past your veterinarian well in advance of your decision to work on a cruelty or seizure case.

    The most critical thing you can do to assist in cruelty and seizure situations is to get veterinary care for the individuals involved as quickly as possible, which includes comprehensive evaluation and treatment. This is always an important thing to do with any intake of a new resident regardless of the circumstances, however, for survivors of cruelty and seizure situations, this documentation has an added weight due to the likelihood of legal proceedings around the individuals involved. It is essential in these cases that you document the conditions of the individuals you take in as soon as possible upon intake so that you have detailed written records of their condition on seizure. These records ideally should be made by veterinarians, who can also potentially help you design ongoing recordkeeping protocols. 

    An image of a man holding a game rooster with a bandaged foot tight to his chest. The rooster is dubbed, which means his combs and wattles have been cut off.
    After a cockfighting bust, rooster rescuers collaborated with the seizing shelter to triage all the birds involved, name each bird, and identify the most vulnerable and ill. After the birds became “property” of the seizing shelter, rescuers took the two roosters in the worst condition to their avian veterinarian, where they were further documented and hospitalized for nearly two weeks. Mike, pictured here, had to undergo two surgeries, one to amputate a damaged and infected toe, and one to debride and clean a serious wound on his chest. He is now recovering in medical foster and awaiting adoption. Photo courtesy of José Alberto Perez.

    Aside from being incredibly important for the well-being of the individuals involved, intake recordkeeping can also protect your organization by establishing a “baseline” health status for the animals upon intake, as well as how they progressed after intake. This is particularly important in the event that the case proceeds to litigation. You will want to identify all health and other conditions that may be present in the animal or animals quickly upon intake. This will ensure that there is no way any implications could be made that health conditions arose after the animal or animals came into your organization’s care, and that you are thus responsible for them.

    There are three kinds of documentation you will need to implement when you embark on this work: initial medical documentation, ongoing daily observation and documentation, and expense documentation. You will need to check in with your veterinarian on every step, and again, always make sure they are a willing and informed partner and participant. Some veterinarians may be happy to work on cruelty, seizure, and escape cases while others may have no inclination to do so. Please respect your veterinarian’s boundaries and make sure that they understand the long term implications of their participation if they are willing to work on a case with you.

    Initial Medical Documentation

    Any survivor of a cruelty, seizure or escape situation needs a full detailed assessment by a veterinarian, which is made in writing by the veterinarian and ideally, includes photographs. This should be done as soon as possible, ideally immediately after intake. This assessment should include a full physical examination, bloodwork, fecals, and cultures in case anyone is suffering from any kind of infection and needs an appropriate medication to treat that infection. Information should be relayed in writing versus over the phone. Oftentimes, animals seized from these kinds of situations have been given “at home” treatments with unknown doses of antibiotics or other drugs. This can cause antibiotic-resistant infections, so cultures are particularly important in these kinds of cases. Additionally, for diagnostics like fecals, you should request a quantitative fecal – specifying fecal egg counts, as opposed to a qualitative fecal, for similar reasons.

    With regards to a physical examination on intake, in addition to weighing new residents, determining their body condition score can be helpful for documentation, especially if animals are underweight. In some cases, a general determination of “overweight” or “underweight” may be sufficient for law enforcement personnel who are trying to convey information to prosecutors, but a body condition score can provide more specificity, and follow-up scoring can be done to document an individual’s progress after rescue. While caregivers can be trained to perform body condition scoring, we recommend that you have your veterinarian do this and document their determination, as this may carry more weight. However, when it comes to large breed animals such as Cornish Cross chickens or large breed pigs, you may find that veterinarians are unfamiliar with the typical body condition of a healthy individual and may deem an individual to be at a healthy body condition when in fact, they are underweight.
    As in any caregiving context, it is very important to get veterinarians who have experience and knowledge about the species that they are evaluating whenever possible. Someone who is experienced with farmed mammals may not have a lot of knowledge or experience with farmed birds, and vice versa. If your sanctuary or rescue is collaborating with law enforcement on a seizure, bust, or escapee situation it is critically important to have species-specific evaluation and care, as well as foundational knowledge around the kind(s) of animals who are in front of you.

    If you do not know about the species you are being asked to help with in these kinds of situations, it is crucial to ask for support from other sanctuaries that have knowledge about them, as well as for help in accessing veterinarians who are specialized in the species and willing to consult. For example, if you are a pig-focused rescue or sanctuary, it may be helpful to ask a bird-focused rescue to help you if you are contacted about a cockfighting bust. Similarly, if you are a bird-focused rescue, and you are contacted with regard to a sheep or goat, it’s important to contact someone who knows more about that species and ask for their help. Mutual collaboration and cooperation between sanctuaries and rescues are so important in these situations.

    The Importance of Ongoing Daily Careful Observation and Documentation

    Careful daily objective observation and documentation of survivors is critical when it comes to cruelty or seizure cases. It is essential that you document each individual from a cruelty case on a daily basis and in writing. The manner and form of this written documentation is also important. You should maintain a consistent and comprehensive format, and try to remain as objective as possible. Having a template such as our Ongoing Treatment and Observation Record may be valuable in these circumstances. Not only is this task a crucial part of compassionate caregiving, it can be a key component to documentation in ongoing legal proceedings.

    Photographic documentation is always incredibly helpful as well. In a legal context, when you are in front of a state’s attorney, a jury, a judge, or any other relevant decision maker, pictures can say a thousand words. For instance, one caregiver recounted a story through a series of images of a goat beginning from the date of his seizure to several months later. This documentation convinced a cruelty defendant to surrender the individual and take a plea deal so that they were ensured safe housing in sanctuary for the rest of their life.

    Expense Documentation

    Expense documentation is important for two reasons. First, documenting the cost of care for animals seized from a cruelty situation can be helpful for prosecutors who need to “make their case.” Sadly, this is often the most weighty evidence in cruelty cases because legally animals are generally considered to be “property” and there are not many effective methods in the law for measuring animal suffering. “Showing animal suffering” from a sanctuary or rescue narrative context is often insufficient to prove cruelty, so we often have to quantify it in monetary terms. Having vet bills, especially in states that do value the lives of farmed animals (at least monetarily), can help illustrate the cost of rehabilitative care for individuals that come from these circumstances. As a result, the “quantification of suffering” by using expense documentation is often the clearest language for judges and juries to understand.

    The second reason why this kind of documentation is important is because your jurisdiction may have a mechanism for reimbursement of caregiving expenses for seized animals. Many states have laws regarding the care expenses in the case of a seizure or bust where the animals exist in “ownership limbo” (i.e. have not been surrendered) and whose “ownership” must be decided by a court. These are known as “Cost of Care Laws” and their purpose is to shift the burden of the costs of care of animals in “ownership limbo” from the state back to their former keeper. These laws vary widely by state, so this is another reason it’s important to consult with experienced local legal counsel to determine what rules apply in your jurisdiction.

    In states where strong Cost of Care laws exist, animal keepers whose animals have been seized may be subjected to a special judicial hearing where they will either be required to surrender their animals to the state for placement, or post a bond to pay for the amount of the animals’ care while litigation is pending. The amount of the bond is typically determined by the seizing agency and is based on care costs to date, as well as estimated future care costs. It is also subject to judicial discretion.

    In other states, Cost of Care laws can take a different form. Reimbursement may have a different timeline and come after conviction versus prior to trial. Certain states also have laws that give judges the discretion to order a former animal keeper to reimburse agencies or organizations for the cost of caring for seized animals in the event of a conviction in a cruelty case. Again, the amount may be subject to judicial discretion, and it is often the case that the convicted animal keeper may never pay the ordered amount. To learn more about Cost of Care laws, you can refer to this resource by the ASPCA.

    Some states have weak or nonexistent laws with regards to Cost of Care for seized animals. This means the care expenses that either you or seizing agencies may incur for individuals who are survivors of cruelty or seizure who are returned to their former caretakers may not be repaid in full or even in part. You may also be told that your jurisdiction will not cover certain expenses, such as expenses they consider “above and beyond” whatever standard of care your particular jurisdiction decides is appropriate for this particular animal. This may include spay or neuter surgery, as well as anything else that rescues and sanctuaries consider to be “basic care” for certain animals. For example, if your sanctuary’s health protocol for hens involves implantations, you can be almost certain that any compensation you receive will not include coverage of this care. In consultation with your local counsel and your veterinarian, you will need to work closely with the seizing authorities to get a full understanding of the limitations you may encounter in this regard.

    Do Not Commingle Expenses For Seized Animals With Those Of Other Sanctuary Residents! 
    Regardless of whether you are in a state that has Cost of Care laws or not, it’s important to accurately and transparently represent the expenses that you incur with regard to seized animals. In addition to complicating matters for authorities, prosecutors, judges, and juries who need accurate information to make decisions around seized animals, commingling expenses can give a poor impression of your sanctuary or rescue organization and may even create the misapprehension that your organization is not being honest. This is a problem when it comes to the administration of the animals in question and can also create a real public perception problem for your organization, and may even lead to further scrutiny by governing authorities. If you are assisting with a cruelty case, seizure, or escapee please make sure you have the resources to maintain separate financial records for seized animals and that you can maintain the segregation of these records from those of your other residents diligently.

    Living Spaces And Other Sanctuary And Rescue Considerations For Seized Animals

    There are a few other matters of care that are of particular importance when it comes to animals who are seized and whose ownership remains “in limbo,” or for those who may have been surrendered, but continue to be a matter of interest for prosecutors of cruelty cases who may want ongoing information about them to use as evidence in their case.

    First, you will need to consider how to safely house and care for seized animals in a way that you can best accommodate their needs, as well as work around the constraints of the legal system. Health comes first, so you will need to quarantine all newcomers. This means you must keep these individuals separate from your existing sanctuary residents. 

    It is also important to remember that these animals are not “your property” until they are either surrendered from their former keeper and then placed with you by authorities, or they are adjudicated to be “property of the state” by the court responsible for deciding the matter and then surrendered officially to your sanctuary or rescue. As a result of this, you may need to take special considerations with regards to these animals. 

    Specifically, you will want to avoid integrating seized animals with your existing residents until you are certain they will become permanent residents of your sanctuary. By certain, we mean that you have a written order from a court or a written assurance from the seizing agency that the animals are now “yours.” Verbal assurances should not suffice in cases like these. 

    Aside from the usual concerns that you need to have around quarantine, this is important because you do not want to create a situation where animals who may not be long term residents of your sanctuary bond with long term residents when their future placement remains uncertain. When custody of animals reverts back to their former keeper, having to separate bonded animals is heartbreaking for both the seized animals and permanent sanctuary residents with whom they bonded.

    Integration can also be more challenging with certain species like pigs, where it is likely that some individuals will not get along. Some scuffling is usually an unavoidable part of the integration process. Of course you always want to avoid injury to residents of your sanctuary, whether they are seized or not. But if seized animals are not yet “owned” by your sanctuary, you will want to avoid putting them in any situation where they might be injured, which can muddy waters for authorities when it comes to prosecuting cruelty cases and potentially make your sanctuary subject to scrutiny.

    Even if you may not be entitled to any compensation for the care of the seized animals in your jurisdiction, expenses incurred outside of veterinary care will likely be of interest to prosecutors and other authorities. As such, it is incredibly important to keep track of these expenses separate and apart from those associated with your other residents. These kinds of expenses may include:

    • Documentation of outside care expenses such as farriers or shearers. It is not uncommon for hooved animals who come from cruelty situations to require significant intervention with regard to their hoof care, or for sheep or other fiber-bearing animals to be heavily matted and require shearing. Keep track of these expenses and keep them separate from other resident expenses for outside care.
    • Documentation of food expenses. This can be particularly tricky if you purchase food for your residents in bulk, as most sanctuaries do. But keeping track of how much food seized animals are consuming and keeping those expenses distinct from those of other sanctuary residents is important.
    • Documentation of bedding costs. Again, keeping track of how much bedding is used by seized animals versus other residents may be tricky, but is important.
    • Documentation of new infrastructure expenses. This may include new enclosures, housing, fencing or even items like wheelchairs for disabled seized animals. 
    • Documentation of new gear that may be needed by caregivers, such as disposable booties or other personal protective equipment.
    • Documentation of the expense of additional staff time that may be required to handle the cleaning, feeding, care and recordkeeping of seized animals. 

    Assisting With Seized Or Escapee Animals Held by Shelters

    In some cases, shelters may retain custody “in house” of certain animals pending owner surrender, or even after surrender, until placement can be found. This usually comes up with smaller animals such as cavies (guinea pigs), rabbits, or birds, where it is much more likely that a shelter will have the spatial capacity for them. However, the seized animals and the shelter staff may still require your assistance, particularly if they lack experience with the species in question.

    For instance, shelters unfamiliar with chickens may think that placing chickens in a dog run is sufficient to house them, and may not know about the importance of predator protection or protection from the elements for the birds. Shelters may also not realize that cavies require food that is fortified with vitamin C, and that they cannot subsist long term without that. They may not know the importance of hay to rabbits or cavies.

    You can play a critical role in situations like these by working to educate shelter staff on the needs of unfamiliar seized animals. You can also donate appropriate food, collect donations for shelters, and offer training to shelter staff in appropriate and safe handling techniques. You might even be able to coordinate with the shelter to get animals in need of immediate medical attention from veterinarians who are specialized in the care of a particular species. For more ideas on how to assist shelters in these situations, you can refer to our guide on the subject found here.

    The “Moral Remainder:” When You Cannot Save Everyone

    For caregivers and animals, the worst part of cruelty and seizure situations is when you cannot bring every individual to safety. Unfortunately, if you embark on this work, it’s inevitable that you will eventually encounter this situation and be confronted with impossible decisions to make. Knowing that some individuals will be left behind and that you’ll have no say or control in their ultimate fate, who do you save and why?  There are no easy answers, but a recent real world example may help illustrate some important takeaways.

    In a recent cockfighting bust, rescuers were confronted with this question. As a direct result of concerns surrounding an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, they were already at capacity due to significant restrictions on foster and placement efforts. Further, after working with and triaging all the birds seized in conjunction with the shelter vet, rescuers realized multiple birds had urgent medical needs. Given the particular difficulties surrounding placement of ex-fighting birds, they also knew that taking more fosters who they would potentially have to hold indefinitely would create significant challenges for caregivers in the group.

    Knowing that their organization had limited resources and limited capacity to house survivors, and that their veterinarian also had limited capacity to take and treat birds who might require intensive and long term hospitalization, they chose to pull the roosters who were most in need of urgent care in pairs first, while also working on safe direct placement for birds who were in better condition. However, shortly after their first pull, the seizing agency got an offer from a cat rescue with connections to “hobby farms” to take and distribute all the remaining birds to these farms. Because the shelter was desperate for space and already overflowing with other animals in need of homes, they decided to take the offer.

    With no control over the placement of these birds, no way to ascertain the ability of these homes to care for ex-fighting birds (which would most likely not meet the rescue’s standards for such individuals), nor any way to gauge their willingness and ability to provide the much needed medical care that these birds required, the rescuers were devastated. Having invested in the care of the birds, and having named, handled, and documented each individual, it was a situation that took a heavy toll on them, not to mention the angst of realizing that they will likely never know the ultimate fate of the birds involved and imagine the worst case scenario.

    Multiple rescuers from this situation were compelled to seek mental health care to address their trauma over this result. If your organization ever participates in a similar seizure, it is critical that your sanctuary or rescue supports caregivers’ mental health when they undergo trauma like this. As is the case when a rescuer incurs a physical injury in the process of a rescue, mental trauma is a valid reason to seek support and assistance as well.

    Some of those rescuers also took comfort from a concept that derives from ethical scholar Bernard Williams. Williams acknowledged that ethical and moral decision making is complex and nuanced. As a result, instead of recommending a specific moral framework for determining a “right” or “wrong” answer to an ethical question, Williams suggested that instead of being “strictly wrong” or “strictly right,” any ethical decision may result in what he termed “a moral remainder,” which may warrant further consideration. In the case discussed above, the rescue group chose to honor their commitment to the individuals that were already in their care and their other constraints around capacity. While one might stamp that decision as “ethical,” it nonetheless had a “moral remainder,” which was the lives of the birds that they could have secured had they chosen to pull more birds, more quickly.

    Moral remainders are often one of the most haunting aspects of cruelty cases, busts and seizures. Caregivers grieve those individuals they cannot save, but maybe could have saved had they made different choices. It is so easy to second guess decisions. While having a good organizational understanding around your philosophy of care, your capacity, and the capacity of those you work with (including veterinarians) may help you to make the decision that is “right” for your organization, the outcome of that decision may not always “feel right.”

    It is critically important that you honor the feelings of those who suffer when they think about the “moral remainders” of these decisions, and the individuals who were lost as a function of them. These feelings are very real. By providing empathy, community support, an opportunity to openly grieve without judgment, resources for mental health care, and a review of your decision making process, you can accommodate caregivers and residents and enhance the culture and community of your sanctuary or rescue.


    If your rescue or sanctuary has accepted animals from a seizure, cruelty, or escapee situation, and those animals’ “ownership status” is in “limbo,”  it is critically important that you keep all of the considerations delineated above in mind. Having an existing organizational understanding BEFORE you are asked to help in any of the above situations can go a long way to making decisions around them easier in emotionally fraught moments. Please ensure that your veterinarians are fully informed and on board with what you are doing. This is critical as you must get vet documentation on intake and you must develop ongoing protocols for ongoing observation and care, and carefully curated documentation of all this, ideally signed off on by your veterinarian. You must carefully document all financial expenditures you make pending judicial decisions around these animals, keeping expenses segregated from those associated with your existing residents. Last but far from least, you must make sure that your caregivers have the resources that they need to cope with the trauma that can often be associated with these situations. Consider that in some situations there is no way to avoid a “moral remainder,” and that giving caregivers time and space to grieve those who have been lost is a critical part of maintaining the sustainability of your animal sanctuary or rescue community.

    Action Steps

    1. If you are considering your ability to manage cruelty, seizure, or escapee cases, consult with local legal counsel to understand the protocols typical for your jurisdiction. 
    2. Conduct an organizational self evaluation with regard to capacity, considering how many residents you can accommodate reasonably without jeopardizing the care of your existing residents. Please also run our “threshold questions” past not only sanctuary or rescue leadership, but also past your caregiving staff and volunteers.
    3. Consult with your veterinarians in advance of ever being in this situation and see what capacity they have with regard to these kinds of cases. This may well involve discussing frankly with them the question of whether they are willing to collaborate at all, given that litigation may be an incredibly time consuming proposition and they may also have liability concerns.
    4. Be prepared for significant expenses associated with the veterinary and behavioral support of survivors of these situations.
    5. Be prepared with resources to support caregiving staff, including funding to pay for overtime expenses, and emotional support for them as needed.
    6. Be prepared to take on and responsibly curate (in conjunction with your legal counsel and veterinarian) recordkeeping with regard to the initial medical intake documentation of survivors, ongoing day to day observation and care documentation, and to segregate and meticulously keep track of all expenses associated with care.
    7. Keep in mind the special housing needs and other considerations that may be relevant to survivors of these situations.
    8. If survivors are kept in shelters, keep in mind that you can play a critical role in helping the shelter understand the needs of animals with whom they may be unfamiliar, provide them with appropriate supplies, and potentially help them get species specific veterinary care.
    9. When you face a situation in which you may not be able to save every individual at risk, keep in mind that there may be a “right decision” for your organization, it may not always “feel right” when individuals are left behind, or placed in less than ideal situations. It is important to acknowledge this “moral remainder,” and make sure to support caregivers if they experience grief and loss from it. If appropriate, you can also revisit your organizational understandings around these kinds of situations to come to a decision making process that feels better for your sanctuary or rescue community. 
    • Remember, there is no shame in saying no if taking on additional residents would put undue strain on your organizational capacity, and jeopardize the care of your existing residents. 


    Determining Your Animal Sanctuary’s Capacity For Responsible Care | The Open Sanctuary Project

    A Starter Guide to Understanding and Working with Animal Shelters for Animal Sanctuaries | The Open Sanctuary Project

    How To Create An Effective Rescue Policy For Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project

    The Challenges Of Responsible Animal Rescue | The Open Sanctuary Project

    25 Questions To Help Guide Responsible Intake Decisions At Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Accuracy And Transparency: Two Critical Responsibilities Of Your Farmed Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Recognizing And Managing Compassion Fatigue At Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Recognizing And Preventing Burnout At Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project

    What Does “Philosophy Of Care” Mean At The Open Sanctuary Project? | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Building And Maintaining A Good Relationship Between Your Animal Sanctuary And Veterinarians | The Open Sanctuary Project

    How To Conduct An Intake Examination At Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project 

    Fostering Positive Relationships Between Animal Sanctuaries | The Open Sanctuary Project

    The Caregiver’s Guide To Developing Your Observation Skills | The Open Sanctuary Project

    The Open Sanctuary Project’s Resident Ongoing Treatment & Observation Record | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Suprelorin Implants | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Establishing Safe And Effective Quarantine And Isolation Protocols For Your Animal Sanctuary | The Open Sanctuary Project
    Hello Porcine Pal! The New Pig Arrival Guide | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Advanced Topics In Resident Health: Avian Influenza | The Open Sanctuary Project

    The Freedom of Of Information Act – | United States Department of Justice

    Cost of Care Legislation | ASPCA

    Ethical Consistency | Bernard Williams

    Law’s Regret: On Moral Remainders and a Virtue-Ethical Approach to Legal Decision-Making | Iris van Domselaar Amsterdam Law School, University of Amsterdam

    Article Tags

    About Author

    Get Updates In Your Inbox

    Join our mailing list to receive the latest resources from The Open Sanctuary Project!

    Continue Reading

    Skip to content