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Running a Sanctuary

This is a summary of the presentation I gave for the “Running a Sanctuary” panel at AR2015. The first speaker on the panel was the founder of the International Primate Protection League, Shirley McGreal, who gave us glimpses of IPPL’s gibbon sanctuary while discussing the challenges of offering refuge to survivors of vivisection and zoos. One highlight of that talk was an IPPL staff member’s imitation  of gibbon vocalizations. Next up was Jenny Brown of Woodstock FAS, who discussed some of the logistics of running a sanctuary, such as attending to zoning regulations, and who also strongly advised people who are thinking of starting sanctuaries to go to work (as a staff member, intern, or volunteer) for an established sanctuary first, in order to gain requisite animal care skills and also to get a feel for whether or not you are cut out for the slog of hard outdoor work in all seasons, not to mention the emotional toll of sanctuary work. Jenny also raised a number of concerns about the new idea of “micro-sanctuaries.” Since that hot topic then took over the discussion, I’ll cover it after summarizing my own remarks, which focused on the ethical and emotional components of sanctuary work.

VINE Sanctuary is an LGBTQ-led refuge for survivors of meat, dairy, and egg production as well as cockfighting, petting zoos, pigeon racing, canned shoots, and other uses of animals as entertainment. The more than 500 sanctuary residents include 40 cows, hundreds of chickens (both roosters and hens), and smaller numbers of sheep, turkeys, geese, ducks, emus, pigeons, peacocks, guinea fowl, and other birds. We began as a two-acre refuge for chickens literally surrounded by factory farms in the place where industrial poultry production began and now inhabit more than 100 wooded, hilly acres (half of which we preserve as wildlife refuge) in Vermont.

It all began when we found a chicken in a ditch, and thus we did not have the chance to learn the bird care skills we needed in advance. But we studied hard, and from the start we had the constant support and advice of Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns. Through her, we joined the community of farmed animal sanctuaries and began to draw upon the accumulated wisdom of places like Farm Sanctuary, Animal Place, and Poplar Spring. To this day, we make the kinds of difficult animal care decisions I’ll be talking about here in close consultation with our peers at other sanctuaries.

At the same time, VINE is very different from other sanctuaries, in ways that flow from our intersectional approach to animal liberation. For example, we’re very “green,” and therefore much more interested in making creative use of salvaged materials than in looking manicured for visitors. Since we believe that animal advocates ought to have actual relationships with those for whom they purport to speak, we do welcome  visits from scholars and activists who work for nonhuman animals, but we don’t invite the general public to come and gawp at the animals, some of whom are survivors of petting zoos and all of whom deserve their privacy.

We do not draft nonhuman animals as ambassadors for their species, since that would be just another way of using animals. Instead, we aim to create a multispecies community and, in so doing, model a different way of being with nonhuman animals. We don’t disparage sanctuaries that use tours as a way to promote personal veganism, but we focus our efforts instead on promoting plant-based agriculture in regions where the economy currently depends on the exploitation of animals.

All of which is to say that there is not one single, self-evident way to run a sanctuary. From the start, deep philosophical decisions must be made, and those decisions will determine the character of the place. For example, when we started what was initially a chicken sanctuary, cofounder Miriam Jones and I decided that our motto would be “let birds be birds.” This meant that we would recognize the primacy of their relationships with each other. We would be very happy if any bird wanted to make friends with us, but mostly we would set up a situation as close as possible to their ancestral habitat and then get out of the way while they pursued their own projects and forged their own communities, intervening only to promote health and safety. And so, our sanctuary came to be a place where chickens who demonstrated the ability to do so safely might choose to sleep in the trees rather than roost in the coops.

Like the question of whether or not to give tours to the general public, most of the ethical questions you will have to answer in setting up a sanctuary have no single “right” answer. This is also true of many decisions you will have to make in the course of animal care. You will be called upon, often, to make literally life-or-death decisions, very frequently in the context of incomplete information. And so, before you think about zoning, before you set about learning how to treat bumble foot in a chicken or handle the emergency of a cow who has begun to bloat, before you worry about where you will get the money to fund it all, you probably ought to think long and hard about whether you have the internal wherewithal to grapple with the often anguishing ethical and emotional dilemmas of sanctuary work.


Before learning to drive a tractor, deciding what style of barn to build, or figuring out where to find the money for hay, you’ll have to make plenty of weighty and difficult decisions.

You must be prepared to make ethical decisions, not only about the mission of your sanctuary but also about matters such as allocation of resources, your ecological footprint, and exactly how you will respect animal rights in practice. How, exactly, will you respect the right of self-determination insofar as possible within a world where animals might be shot for straying onto what some other human considers their property? When and under what rationale will you substitute your own judgements for those of adult animals in your care? What about reproductive freedom?

You must be prepared to make all sorts of decisions, including literally life-or-death decisions, in the absence of certainty. Will you authorize an operation that might lead to greatly enhanced quality of life but might also lead to death under anesthesia? Which of the two medications the vet says might work, each of which has different potential side effects, will you use? If an insect-borne illness such as fowl pox appears in your flock, will you vaccinate everybody, knowing that the vaccine itself is certain to kill some of the birds? Or will you isolate and treat affected birds, using biosecurity measures to contain the outbreak? Remember: There is no one right decision.  I suggest consulting with experts from places like the Pharr road animal hospital and after you have consulted veterinarians and talked it over with people at other sanctuaries, you will still have to decide… and then live with whatever happens as a result of your decision, never knowing for sure what would have happened if you had decided otherwise.

Which brings us to the emotional challenges of sanctuary work. Nobody lives forever. Even if you provide perfect care, sanctuary residents will die. This will happen sooner rather than later if you are taking in animals whose bodies have been ravaged by abuse or who are inherently vulnerable due to generations of breeding for particular characteristics. Hens from egg factories, for example, are particularly prone to reproductive cancers. Both birds bred for “meat” and male calves who escape the fate of the veal crate grow into unnaturally large adults who are consequently prone to heart disease. You must be prepared for more accumulated grief than you ever imagined a person could feel. You cannot, in fact, be prepared for this. All you can do is ask yourself, privately and candidly, if you are likely to be able to bear it.

And then there’s this: Everybody makes mistakes. If you do sanctuary work long enough, you will make some error or decision that leads to somebody’s death. And you will have to go on for the rest of your life living with that. It’s not impossible! ER doctors and veterinarians also must cope with this. But it is very emotionally challenging, and not at all what most people are thinking about when they dream of running a sanctuary.

Of course there are very many rewards of sanctuary life too. Just the other day, our full-time animal caregiver Cheryl and I were standing in the pasture chatting when I became aware that we were in the midst of a multi-species interaction of a sort that very few people would ever have the opportunity to witness (a goose was overseeing a flock of ducklings as they walked past first a rooster then a peacock and then some sheep). We form deep and mutually rewarding relationships with nonhuman animals who extend care to us too. It is an often very difficult but also deeply satisfying life.

If, after hearing all of this, you still think that you might like to start a sanctuary, let me make one urgent request: Make space for roosters! At present, we are in the midst of a crisis caused by the fad for backyard hen-keeping. We ourselves have expanded again and again, and I know other sanctuaries have done the same, but we can’t keep pace with the number of roosters landing in urban animal shelters and needing placement at sanctuaries. Roosters are among the least costly animals to house and feed, so this is one way to help a large number of animals with relatively little cash. We were the first sanctuary to rehabilitate former fighting roosters, and we are always happy to help other sanctuaries figure out how to house and keep the peace among roosters, so feel free to give us a call if this is something you decide to do.

Coda: The Question of Micro-Sanctuaries

As I mentioned above, Jenny Brown made some remarks about micro-sanctuaries in her presentation, and so I felt obliged to do the same in mine. That topic then sprawled into the discussion, at which Jenny Brown clarified her concerns about individuals who may be caring for two or three animals they adopted from a sanctuary calling themselves a sanctuary and, on that basis, both raising funds and dispensing sometimes dangerously false advice online. Shirley McGreal mentioned that, in the realm of “exotic” animals, there has been the problem of people who have what amounts to a petting zoo or small collection of personal pets calling themselves sanctuaries. I did not mention that I have seen small farms that in fact exploit animals using the word “sanctuary” in their names. I did make some comments, both during my talk and during the comments, about micro-sanctuaries. Here’s the gist, which represents my own views rather than any formal position that VINE has taken:

In a world where nonhuman animals are exploited, displaced, and killed by every imaginable means, we need refuges of all kinds, including micro-refuges. I do encourage anybody who has any amount of land to figure out how to turn that into a refuge for somebody. This might mean building a coop for roosters but also might mean offering a refuge to the raccoons who might otherwise be persecuted by one’s neighbors. Remember that free-living animals of all kinds need refuge too!

But creating a refuge is not quite the same thing as calling yourself a sanctuary, filing for 501(c)3 status, and collecting donations. To do that, I think one must intend to offer refuge and care to animals of a particular kind on an ongoing basis, in conjunction with some sort of effort to advocate for those animals. One ought to be willing to join the sanctuary community, both in terms of sharing resources and in terms of seeking oversight.

When we started, we got a lot of help from other sanctuaries. I still remember the day that, at the close of an event, Farm Sanctuary gave us the contents of their donation jar, because we needed it more. Karen Davis once told one of her major donors to buy us a chicken coop, and he did! In that same spirit, we kept our own fundraising modest during the years when we were caring only for chickens, understanding that the costs of sanctuaries caring for large animals were much higher. I think that if micro-sanctuaries exercise that same kind of circumspection, perhaps by looking for support from within their own social circles rather than in any way competing for funds that might otherwise go to sanctuaries with greater needs, that might be an excellent way to grow the net number of dollars available to sanctuaries collectively.

I hope that people running micro-sanctuaries (or just new sanctuaries) will understand the need for oversight, and seek that out even though it is not legally required. That is what we did from the start and still do. Back when we were a chicken sanctuary, we made sure to invite Karen Davis to visit a couple of times a year. “It’s not an inspection!” she said the first time, but we all knew that it was. After that, she would just come to dinner or stop by on the way to or from an event, and we could sleep easier, knowing that THE most prominent advocate for chickens had seen and did approve of how we were doing things.

Then and now, we seized on any opportunity to be visited by founders or staff members of other farmed animal sanctuaries, as well as wildlife rehabbers and other animal care professionals. For example, just in the past year, we’ve been visited by several scholars studying farmed animal sanctuaries, by staff members of one farmed animal sanctuary, by a board member of another farmed animal sanctuary, by the founder of a prominent animal rescue organization, and by three wildlife rehabilitators who specialize in bird care.

These sorts of visits, combined with ongoing consultations with veterinarians and our peers at other sanctuaries as well as procedures requiring our highly expert staff members to consult with each other about animal care decisions, go a long way toward ensuring the quality of our animal care. That doesn’t change the fact that hard decisions (and sometimes mistakes) must be made, but it does help us sleep at night. I hope that those who start new sanctuaries, micro or otherwise, will do the same.

5 comments to Running a Sanctuary

  • I now understand the risks …Thank you for creating transparency and helping the residents of other sanctuaries through discussing the varied challenges and rewards.
  • CQ
    I learned lots from both your speech and your coda–and will share with a new sanctuary in my state. Thank you, pattrice.

    I wish I could sponsor every single hen, though doing so would keep VINE’s resident photographer-and-album-producer Kathy mighty busy!

  • Thank you for the (as always) profound and eloquent insights. I enjoy reading your comments, posts, and articles, because they factor in different angles of the problem. You don’t hurriedly blast off personal opinion; rather, it is obvious how much thought and consideration is put into these writings.

    I especially appreciate your saying there is no one “right” answer for these situations. Some vegan groups do espouse the one-action-fits-all philosophy, and I disagree with this 100%. Because society is made up of individuals, our advocacy must be comprised of a variety of methods. It also helps tremendously if we do think of ourselves as ongoing vegans, as opposed to finished “projects.” It keeps us humble. (And, I need that sometimes!)

  • Excellent piece! I think a lot of us don’t intend to become sanctuaries but instead, sort of fall into it.
    The first little pig here wasn’t even supposed to stay more than two days before going on to his intended home. I was merely a stopover…the delivery person, of sorts. He spent one night and it was obvious he was never leaving. Within a few short months came the first actual rescue…then another and another. There are now about 60 pigs here of all sorts and sizes and having many individual stories.
    Grow into your sanctuary slowly and know when to say “no”, even if it’s difficult…and it IS. If you overextend yourself the animals currently in your care will be at risk.
    Expect to never stop learning! Over the last 18+ years I’ve learned a lot and continue to learn.
    I am not, nor ever have been, a non-profit, though I’m very much a non-profit if you look at my non-existent bank account. Anyone planning on starting a sanctuary should plan on being able to finance it alone. Donations can dry up. I work 6 days a week to fund my charges. It makes it difficult to maintain things at home but they are fed and healthy.
    Have a regular veterinarian but expect to become your own veterinarian at times. Animals get sick on weekends and holidays and a vet isn’t always easy to locate. To save costs learn to treat some things yourself. Work with your vet and keep a supply of medications/antibiotics on hand. Know what, how, when and how much to give. Often by just discussing the problem over the phone the vet can recommend what antibiotic and dosage. Saves a farm call, saves the vet a trip out if he’s otherwise busy, and gets treatment started just that much sooner.
    I see a lot of “rescues” pleading for money for routine procedures such as spays and neuters. My fear is that if the person has only one or two animals but cannot afford even this most basic level of care, trouble will be brewing if the animal really gets sick. One can expect a veterinary hospital bill to start at $1000 and go up and plans should be in place to cover the cost.
    I also see many sanctuaries with no means to transport a sick animal. A suitable vehicle and/or a trailer should be readily available for emergencies.
    Don’t plan on vacations and travel. It’s very difficult to find caregivers for while you’re away.
    So much to think about before jumping in, but there is an ever growing need for homes and it’s very rewarding when you see a formerly unloved animal blossom into a healthy, happy member of your extended family.
  • Anne
    Awesome insights. I feel strongly about people needing to understand it’s a business, know how to properly run a business before doing anything and know thyself. Make a budget, get the advice of professionals and know the law. It’s also ok if people don’t want to take on the emotional aspects of rescuing- there are plenty of places to help or volunteer.

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