Rescue, Shelter, or Sanctuary
How do you know if a rescue is like the crazy ones you see featured in documentaries? How do you know the money you donate is going for the care of the animals? How do you know if the rescue you are supporting is one of those drama filled organizations with lions, tigers, and bears in their backyards.
The words rescue, shelter, and sanctuary are often used interchangeably, and this can be confusing to the public. Sometimes the misuse of these words is intentional. There are no legal definitions of these three words in our state so there is no way to gage if an organization is legit by what it calls itself. Many people are leery of donating to animal-based organizations because they do not want to unintentionally support an organization that is not what they appear to be.
For the sake of simplicity we will use our rescue as the main example here.
We are a rescue. We take in animals, wildlife specifically, and rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild as soon as they are ready. That is our mission. We keep wildlife wild. We are not a shelter nor a sanctuary. We do not provide long-term placement for wild species. We do not foster nor adopt wildlife. Native wildlife that NEEDS long-term care is placed with other permitted facilities who can provide the specific care that species needs. We cannot allow visitors because wildlife cannot be released if it is human habituated or imprinted. Most wildlife rescues are home-based to keep the animals from being exposed to multiple people. We rely on other agencies to let you – the public – know we are legit, and our animals receive proper care.
Shelters are usually for domesticated pets or exotic species. Shelters are a very important part of every community. Shelters are typically a place where people can safely surrender their pets. Shelters may also rescue an animal and provide care until the animal finds a permanent home.
I know. It’s already a little confusing. Be patient with me.
Sanctuaries are the places getting the bad publicity at the moment and rightfully so in many cases. When most of us think of a sanctuary we picture a peaceful, serene place where non-releasable animals -both wild and exotic- can live their lives in habitats that mimic each species natural environment. You may even picture hundreds of acres of land with more than enough room to roam. Because there is NO LEGAL definition of what a sanctuary is, in most states a sanctuary can be a place that just keeps animals in cages forever. No minimum amount of land required. They can get nonprofit status. They can solicit donations. And other than providing adequate shelter, food, and water there are no standards that must be followed. The key word here is adequate. The word sanctuary gives a false sense of comfort that everything is legit.
How can you tell if a rescue/shelter/sanctuary is legit? Here are some simple questions to ask. There are exceptions to rules sometimes but use your judgement and ask more questions if needed.
-Check the nonprofit / 501 C3 status of the organization with the Internal Revenue Service. In SC nonprofits should also be listed with the Secretary of State as a charitable organization if they are soliciting donations. You can view the transparency of the organizations by visiting the website for the IRS and SC Secretary of State. The SOS will even list how much of the organization’s funds are used for the organizations mission. Keep in mind that it can take up to a year for misuse to be reflected on these sites.
-What does the organization do? Are most of the animals purchased or traded for other species to have on display? Some rescues and sanctuaries are actually petting zoos in disguise.
Animals on display DOES NOT equal bad intentions. Some sanctuaries will actually (legally) solicit donations for the animals they keep on display. The big question is: Were the display animals TRUE rescues or were they purchased from breeders with the intent of being displayed. If it’s the latter, you should question why these places bring in animals to have on display and then ask YOU for donations to pay for them.
-Is breeding allowed? Unless the organization has designated conservation status and is permitted to work with threatened and endangered species, the answer should always be NO. FYI – there are no wildlife rescues in South Carolina that qualify for conservation status. Sure, we all work towards conservation, but none have conservation status.
-Do they allow public contact with WILD animals that are intended to be released back into the wild? This should be a no-brainer. Wild animals being rehabilitated for release should never be part of a petting zoo or display. Ever.
-Is the organization involved in the community? This is very important. If an organization needs your support to operate, they should also contribute to the community that supports them in some way.
Not all shelters and sanctuaries allow visitors due to ordinances or safety rules, but if they do you can see for yourself if they are clean, organized, and if the animals are healthy. I know of a few sanctuaries in our county that are amazing! The bottom line is KNOW what you want to support. If you want to support a wildlife rescue whose mission is to keep wildlife wild and release rehabilitated wildlife back into its natural habitat (wink, wink) then be sure that is the mission of the organization you choose to support. If you donate to a shelter that provides care and placement to abandoned, neglected, or homeless pets then be sure that is what they do. If you are passionate about an animal sanctuary, be sure they meet YOUR definition of the word sanctuary. All of the above should be community helpers. None of the above should ever operate for profit or personal gain.