You've seen the posts of the adorable, happy animals on their Facebook pages. You laugh along with the funny stories, and cheer when a new animal is saved. But what really goes on behind the closed 'barn' doors? Maybe after following sanctuary pages you decide that you want to run your very own sanctuary. What does the average animal lover and sanctuary follower really know about the darkside of sanctuary? These 4 key facts jumped out to me while writing
You Will be Judged
Yes, it's true. You will be judged. It sounds awful, right? We devote our lives to saving and caring for animals, and yet we must endure harsh judgement by both people we know as well as people we don't. Many people will judge us on petty things like a messy barn yard, but sometimes it goes deeper. Some people may berate you because they feel you are not doing enough, and many times it's by people who have never run a sanctuary, or stayed up all night with a dying animal, or had to make the heartbreaking decision to humanely euthanize a suffering animal. For example, just recently we saved two 'meat rabbits' from the meat industry. We received a message shorty after asking why we didn't save more. What is worse is that sanctuaries are sometimes judged and/or publicly called out by other sanctuaries! Fortunately this isn't as much an issue here in Ontario Canada, but it sure is a problem in other parts of North America, and depending where you are located, the world. With social media being so prevalent even a successful sanctuary can have their foundations rocked by nasty or deceptive opinions being shared online.
You Will Make Mistakes
Most people do not start a sanctuary knowing everything. There is a tremendous learning curve. You will make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes negatively affect the animals in your care. There are a lot of judgement calls and the wrong one could mean an animal in your care could get sick or could die.
Relationships Will Suffer
Before you open a sanctuary you may have a paid job, you may have a spouse or children, an active social life, or even hobbies! Once you open your sanctuary the hope is to maintain these very important things, while carrying the responsibility of running a sanctuary successfully. Depending on the size of your operation, it will take a lot of your time. Your time and energy will become limited being that that there are only 24 hours in a day no matter where you live.
If your spouse or partner is not on board 100% there may be serious issues that arise between you. You may desperately want to take in another animal, they may not. You may want to expand, they may not. They very well may start to resent the time you spend in the barn and away from the family. They may have issue with you being on your phone or computer so much outreaching or updating social media. Sometimes there will be desperate questions from people that you feel you must answer or you are helping with a rescue and your kids want to play or your partner wants time with you. This happens late at night and early in the morning. Even if your spouse is on board, there are many serious decisions that must be made and as such disagreements and hurt feelings may emerge.
When running a sanctuary your life will revolve around opening and closing your barn and feeding your animals, which can make socializing very difficult. Finding someone you trust to care for your animals while you are away can be extremely difficult and as such things like weekend getaways or vacations become very scarce. You may not be able to visit with family and friends on holidays or special events which can also damage relationships.
You Just Can't Save Them All
There is no doubt about it - you must be both physically and mentally strong to successfully run an animal sanctuary. Along with being judged for your mistakes and damaging your relationships, there will be a massive amount of guilt and sadness because you just can't save them all. Concerned followers will start to send you posts of animals in need - many from online communities like Kijiji or Facebook livestock pages. People often assume you can take any animals in need and may not understand that you must keep space for the extremely urgent animals or that you simply don't have space. The sad truth is that there are so many animals being discarded online that you simply can't save them all. There's just too many. You may have horrible nightmares, or anxiety and stress over the animals you can't save.
Although the above 4 situations plague many if not most sanctuaries, there are many other issues we must face in the sanctuary world.
Your world view will shift and you will see the dark side of humanity. Holidays may take on new meaning to you. Instead of celebrating traditions by sitting together and eating a turkey or a lamb, you will start to see it as it truly is. A dead animal like so many that you have saved, tried to save, cared for or cried over when you couldn't save them. You will wonder how others don't see this too. Or maybe you'll have nightmares once you get a glimpse of humanities' dark-side. You will see the world and the humans in it in a different light. That is a guarantee.
Animals will die in your care. Are you emotionally prepared? Do you have a means of burial? Can you move an 800 pound pig? Or a thousand pound horse? Where will you put their bodies if it happens while the ground is frozen? Will you have them cremated? Do you know a company that does this? Would you have the funds on hand?
Sometimes people die or you have to deal with personal tragedy. What if you have to leave quickly to go to a funeral or go to someones aid? Do you have someone who can look after your animals? What happens when you want to retire? What if you die or become disabled? Do you have a plan?
You must be a good communicator. It's a fact. You have to communicate with people. A lot of people. And not always just on the computer, you need to meet people in person too! You have to be a personable and engaging.
It's expensive. You may run out of money or go in debt. Don't think that you can just start up and fundraise right away. People won't generally hand over their hard earned funds if you haven't yet gotten your feet wet or proved yourself worthy. There are a lot of farmed animals in need, and as such there are a lot of farm sanctuary's. Not enough, but a lot! The fundraising dollar only goes so far and pockets are only so deep. What if you grow too fast relying on donations and those donations dry up? Can you afford to keep things running? What if you can't? What impact will this have on the animals? Can you afford expensive vet bills? Many vet costs are unexpected and these are often the most expensive. Animals cannot wait for you to fundraise when it comes to their health. You MUST be able to cover the costs at least upfront. Most animals that come to sanctuary are sick, old, injured or not adoptable for various reasons. They will settle into their new life and grow to trust you. They will have expensive vet bills and will rely on you to care for them.
Running a sanctuary is a lifestyle, not a hobby. You must be in it for the long haul as running sanctuary is a long-term commitment. You can't just decide after a few years that this life is not for you. Besides your schedule revolving around barn opening and closing you will do and see very disgusting things, you will always smell faintly of barn, you will change your world views and ethics and you will likely start a new social network. Your whole social circle may change. On top of all of this you have to always be 'on'. People will ask you questions at all hours. And most of the time, people want you to answer quickly. Followers may not understand that you are a regular person with a regular family and are not a business.
You may have other stresses in your life yet still need to run the sanctuary. And running the sanctuary doesn't just mean ordering supplies and keeping it clean. Each and every being in your sanctuary needs you. They all need you for good shelter, warmth, food, and safety, but they also need you for companionship. They will want to bond with you, or at least coexist with you, they will need maintenance on hooves and tusks for example. Many farmed animals are extremely affectionate, just like cats and dogs, and will look to you for affection and comfort. And this all happens amongst personal tragedies. Just like human children, they will rely on you to provide all of their needs and it is your responsibility to meet those needs.
Last year I posted a video entitled 'So You Want to Run a Sanctuary'? If you are interested in taking on this endeavor please give it a watch. Among all the dark-sides of sanctuary life there are many, many positives. First and foremost is saving lives! You will grow as a person and can spread so much good and light and compassion.
Happy Tails Farm is family run and operated and receives no Government funding. To donate to Happy Tails Farm Sanctuary please click here.
Carla Moore is a trained Humane Educator and strives to bring attention to the needs and depravity experienced by animals used as food and the atrocities of animal agriculture. As a vegan and social activist Carla believes that animals should not be used by humans and further that humans could greatly benefit from removing animals from their plates.