The Animal Rescue Sector is Deeply Broken. What can we do about it?
There are so many misconceptions about animal rescue that need to be addressed that the organizations with the biggest reach have failed to be honest about. The dishonest portrayal of the daily struggles coupled with the lack of attention on the big picture of animal suffering and practical ways to end it is truly criminal. After eight years running this organization, I have many ways to answer the question, “What is rescue?” How can we even define what a good rescue is when there are so many misconceptions about this line of work?
From what I have seen in Vietnam and other countries in both the Global South and more developed countries, rescue and hoarding tend to be interchangeable in the mind of the public. Having dozens if not hundreds of animals locked up in small and unsanitary facilities with unending stress for both the animals and the people working with them tends to be a baseline. That coupled with a total lack of preventative work in the community and deeply speciesist messaging is the standard. Taking an animal from one horrible situation to another situation that declares itself a nonprofit is not rescue. It is moved misery. We have to expect better out of shelters and the way that animals are cared for when they have been “rescued”.
While the caseload of animals suffering never stops and overwhelms even the best funded and best staffed organizations in the world, the attention given to preventing animals becoming rescues is absent and preventative programs are desperately underfunded. The public prefers to fund before and afters of gory rescues rather than animal birth control, and the cycle never ends. Rescue is a drop in the bucket of animal suffering and that bucket is full of holes. We simply never get a handle on the problem, but just keep picking up the mess that we have not forced communities to solve.
While we assume that anyone with good intentions is a rescuer, we ignore the fact that animal caretaking is NOT unskilled labor and it takes not only extreme fitness and dedication to pull off well, but an addiction to cleaning plus many years of case management experience, animal care training, and a basic understanding of veterinary medicine for many species. Caretakers must understand infectious diseases and common ailments in several species plus how to prevent and treat these problems. This is not something you can do by loving animals. That is a good baseline to have, but it has very little to do with your ability to manage a facility safely for the animals in your care. Over the eight years of having over 150 people come and go in the shelter and clinic, this lesson has been learned again and again and still ignored by the public. The idea that we can run a shelter off of untrained and inexperienced volunteers and staff is batshit insane as anyone in my position will tell you. The reality is that most people have absolutely no clue how to care for animals, especially not large numbers of them, even if they “love” animals. Having a pet cat as a kid does not qualify you to care for animals in a shelter situation. I tried hard to run off of untrained volunteers coming and going in order to save money and give people a chance to gain experience at our organization. I cannot begin to explain how much I regret that, but there are so few options available to us in Vietnam where most people cannot competently care for a cat, much less a shelter full of them. The inability of the animal rescue field to focus on the professionalization of caretakers is detrimental to the mission of shelters. When we did actually get great staff with animal education and case management experience, we have barely been able to pay them enough to eat much less enjoy their lives outside of this extremely exhausting and stressful job. How long could we expect to keep good employees with the ability to move the mission forward and take excellent care of our rescues for $400 a month plus onsite accommodations?
We have been attacked for even having any paid employees, as people think all the funds should go to the animals, ignoring that the animals are only alive and well because of the humans who sacrifice so much and must have years of experience to be there. And then who gets the funds to feed those animals? Our pig, Julian, is brilliant, but he has hooves. He cannot write grants or keep up with social media. His financial skills are poor, to say the least. He is not going to do much to keep the shelter running, regardless of his brilliance. Humans do that. Humans eat too. They need health insurance, food, and hours and days away from working their asses off or they will be unable to continue their vital work. There is no way around this fact. Animal caretakers are not robots.
If a rescue organization cannot acknowledge the value of experienced, trained, reliable, trustworthy, and hard working staff and compensate them accordingly, they will never be successful. This has been the hardest part of running the organization for me, personally, and I learned over the years that there is no point at all to having a rescue if we have no qualified people to run it. There is also no point to having those people if we cannot provide them with a decent life while working their asses off. The batshit insane idea that in order to do good in the world we have to sacrifice all aspects of a normal existence and any comfort is what prevents people from doing good. Stop putting the people at the bottom of the totem pole in rescue.
In over a decade of my work in rescue, mostly in Vietnam, I have learned that I do not want to spend my life watching animals die preventable deaths whether in a clinic, on the streets, in a shelter, or in a restaurant where people who claim they love animals buy the corpses and products of animals who suffered immensely for a meal that is easily replaced. I have learned that this desire is not supported by the rescue community. The rescue community has always been deeply speciesist aside from farm sanctuaries, and as we started as a dog and cat rescue and added farmed and exotic animals, I have seen just how disgusting and hypocritical this field really is in regard to its nonsense claims of loving and protecting animals. I have seen people heralded as heroes for stuffing dozens of animals in crowded, stressful situations while still spreading the lie that dogs are suffering much more than the other species they put on their plates regularly. I have personally been attacked so frequently for being vegan as an animal rescuer that I just don’t even want to tell people what I do for a living anymore because their dumb shit response to me being vegan and having rescue cats and dogs makes me violently angry. The fact that people are so shocked when they learn that I am vegan and run an animal shelter says all you need to know about hypocrisy in the field of rescue. I do not harm animals in any aspect of my life and that makes me a freak in this field.
In the years of rescuing hundreds of animals and preventing the birth of thousands with our sterilization work, I realize how wrong I was to go into this field with such hope. I know now that the public will fund gory rescues on the day an animal comes to us, but when that same animal needs surgery 8 years after not getting adopted because they are shy, there is no response at all from donors. We live literally day to day on the tiny donations we get, and then are called financially irresponsible for being broke when we have worked our asses off not to be while addressing the needs we have for the animals. The only thing that ever funds us is absolute crisis- a near death rescue, having $20 in our accounts, being days from being kicked out of the building for late rent. The public loves a hero until that hero has worked 10 months without a single day off, years and years without turning off her phone, and she has heart problems and stomach ulcers and back problems as a result of this work (with no health insurance) at which point that human who sacrifices everything for these animals can go fuck herself if she needs a break. The idea that we ever should get tired of the endless bullshit from the peanut gallery who critiques from their recliner in their living room in England is not understood at all. We have to pander constantly to idiots with empty passports and no idea how hard our job is where we are, most of whom would happily eat half of the species at our shelter and still tell everyone what amazing animal lover they are. All the while, when we are honest about any of this, we lose the money we use to do the job we set out to do. Our mission is reliant upon donations from people who not only do not understand the work, but will only fund the least useful aspects of it.
The answer to the question of what is a good rescue is that there is none until the reality of the process of saving animals is honestly told to the public and projects centering on prevention are funded better than those centering on hoarding and speciesism. We have to care for caretakers, train them, and value them as the centerpiece to the functionality of the mission. Human resources aren’t expendable. We have to end speciesism at its roots and be honest with the public about animal suffering and how everyone can stop supporting it every day of their lives by being vegan. We must prevent animals from being put onto this planet rather than perpetuate the nonsense that animals are here for us to dominate, manipulate and use for the destructive whims of humanity. We must acknowledge that rescue is a necessary evil due to the lack of focus on prevention. The public needs to wake up to the ongoing need for basic overhead in a sanctuary. We need to acknowledge the hypocrisy in not only shelters, but the veterinary industry as well which has the technology and will to save a dog from pretty much anything and can barely diagnose common ailments in a chicken, much less have any vets who would not save just a couple species while eating any other animal. The rescue industry is badly broken, from ineffective funding policies to devalued human resources to the morally inconsistent messaging, and we have to face this and work towards a better way to work for all species of animals.