In 2019 we had two farm animal sanctuaries close their doors here in British Columbia, Canada. From the experience of working through those two closures, as well as discussions with farm animal sanctuary owners who have watched many others come and go before, we would like to share our findings. Although it will be obvious to some, we have found it important as a neutral third party to inform the public (as well as anyone interested in starting a farm animal sanctuary themselves) as to common reasons why farm animal sanctuaries fail or close down.
The most prevalent causes are finances, inadequate knowledge of animal care, and struggles with mental health. All three will be discussed in more detail below in their own categories as well as afterwards discussed how they are interlinked.
When starting a farm animal sanctuary, individuals should not expect or assume they will get financial support from the public. It can take years of promoting your sanctuary and lots of hard work to get to a point where you hopefully will have sustainable financial and volunteer support from the public. Even getting your charity status takes lots of time and paperwork. So when starting a sanctuary you need to be able to financially support any animals you take on for at least the first couple of years, but also actively promote yourself at festivals and on social media. Added costs should also be factored in and generally include infrastructure and medical bills of your animals, and business expenses like a website, email, accounting services, festival setups etc.
You are, in a sense, starting a business, whether or not you like to think of it that way. There are also lots of other “businesses” like yours, nonprofits, competing for donations, volunteer time, and the public’s attention. Donor fatigue is very real and something to be aware of. You need to develop a sustainable financial model for your sanctuary; constant or ongoing gofundme’s or crowdsourcing campaigns are not sustainable and will exhaust your support base.
Most sanctuary owners are good hearted individuals that start a farm animal sanctuary because they want to selflessly help animals. Most are not driven by ego or invested self interest. They might start a farm animal sanctuary assuming people will start donating hundreds or thousands of dollars to them, support them with volunteering, and when none of that happens realize they cannot sustain it themselves. They might have also not learned the very important, but heartbreaking truth: they need to be able to say no. No that they can’t take on anymore animals, because if they do, they won’t have enough time in the day, infrastructure and housing, or financial resources to properly take care of all the animals they already saved, which leads to neglect. That becomes physically, emotionally, and financially draining. For someone who started a sanctuary because they wanted to save animals, saying no to saving a life is soul crushing. So many take on too many animals, and very often too fast.
As a rescue, PEACE is constantly balancing and feeling out who we should ask about housing a given rescue and who we should not. We stress to all sanctuaries we work with that you need to be able to say no. We are not a regulatory organization and each sanctuary is their own business. We cannot prevent sanctuaries from taking on more animals even if it becomes apparent that they should not. We can just advise.
Inadequate Knowledge Of Animal Care
This is a hard one. We have stressed it before with our resource “So, you want to start a sanctuary?”, and we will continue to do so. Please: do your homework; become an intern at a farm animal sanctuary; read all the resources available with regards to animal care; go train with organizations like Farm Sanctuary NY. Lots of sanctuary owners come from a background of either growing up on farms or have a background in stable management; those are often the sanctuaries that have the most knowledge and know what they are getting themselves into in taking care of farm animals. We do not want to discourage individuals that don’t have any background in farm animal care from starting a farm animal sanctuary, but know what you don’t know and learn it before you start.
Unfortunately, having good intentions does not ensure that animals won’t suffer. Anyone in animal rescue, even dog and cat rescue, has seen neglect from inexperience but good intent. Again, PEACE is not a regulatory body and therefore has no legal authority to confiscate any animals, even if we have concerns. The only organization that does have the needed authority is the SPCA, and they are not a vegan organization and do not hold farm animals in the same regard as pets or companion animals. Most farm animals confiscated by them are killed. This can make it extremely challenging for individuals in the farm animal sanctuary community to navigate previous and ongoing cases, where it’s obvious certain individuals should not be running a farm animal sanctuary. When individuals have little or no knowledge on how to take care of farm animals, these animals’ lives are put at risk. This risk is heightened further if someone is unwilling or unable to learn or to realize they should not be running a sanctuary.
This also reflects poorly on the competence of the farm animal sanctuary community in general if individuals start farm animal sanctuaries but have no experience or know how. So we will stress this again, and continue to do so: Do not open up a farm animal sanctuary unless you have received proper training. The resources listed on our website can hopefully serve as a starting point.
Mental health conditions like depression, compassion fatigue, burn out, anxiety or other conditions can flare up or become exacerbated by the stress that comes along with running a farm animal sanctuary. The financial strain, saying no to saving animals, as well as mourning animals that have passed in your care all add up on top of the physical work that goes into looking after farm animals. It can become overwhelming. It is hard work mentally and physically and not to be taken lightly. There is a wide range of both mental health conditions and considerations. Individuals with these conditions certainly have the capacity to run a sanctuary, but it is vital that a very dedicated support system is in place. The sanctuaries which we have seen close down frequently do not have this kind of support in place. To ensure that animals will not suffer, we urge individuals with mental health considerations to have solid support in place to ensure longevity, safety and the utmost of care for themselves, and the animals in their care.
What It Takes
Individuals looking to operate a farm sanctuary need to first undertake proper training in running a successful nonprofit and in the care of farm animals, and must also have strong emotional support available. When this is not done, the financial strain, lack of knowledge of proper animal care, as well as the physical and mental strain of running a farm animal sanctuary drives owners down a bad path that leads to their closing their doors. We ask that please, before you consider starting a farm animal sanctuary, do your homework. We all are here because we care very much for these animals and their well-being. We owe it to them to ensure that before we take them into our care we are fully prepared for that responsibility. If we don’t, it is they who will be at risk of further stress, disruption, and harm when they once again find themselves without a home that can care for them.