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Fostering Positive Relationships Between Animal Sanctuaries

Two humans reaching for each other over a large gap.
How to bridge the gap between animal sanctuaries

Updated September 3, 2021

Most animal sanctuaries share the following in common as a reason for their existence: an outpouring of compassion for animals, and their subsequent decision to help create gentler outcomes for a number of tragic situations. Hundreds of animal sanctuaries and rescues across the world have been founded with a similar series of good intentions. This creates a wonderful opportunity for collaboration among sanctuaries to promote their shared values, missions, and understandings surrounding the compassionate care of their residents. Many sanctuaries and rescue organizations can and do collaborate together to this end, and the result can be a robust and solid network of caregivers, all focused on sharing work towards a collective goal.

There can a flip side to this however, as unfortunately, when humans get involved with any sort of pursuit, human complications can come along for the ride!

When two or more nonprofit organizations that serve similar populations operate within a close distance to one another, there can be some friction between the two organizations on occasion. For certain animal sanctuaries, this occasional tension sometimes unfortunately grows into frustration, or even outright animosity.

When conflicts like this arise, maintaining compassionate communication around the underlying concerns can really help sanctuaries work towards maintaining a cordial relationship, and if appropriate, potentially work together to do even more for animals in need!

Every Situation Is Unique

While we would like to be able to provide effective specific guidance for creating more positivity amongst sanctuaries in each and every community, there will always be unique challenges, histories, and communication channels between specific organizations, which will add degrees of complexity to managing cordial inter-organizational relationships. Always take the unique situation of your sanctuary community into account when considering these general principles below.

What May Cause Friction Between Organizations

Typically, adjacent sanctuaries may come into conflict for a few reasons:

Acknowledging Sanctuary Difficulties

It’s important to always acknowledge the individual challenges that can also contribute towards friction, especially at other sanctuaries in your area. Burnout and compassion fatigue are universal issues that individuals working with animals often face, especially in sanctuary environments. These are not necessarily organizational failings that should be grounds for criticism, but universal occupational hazards that can affect everyone engaged in this work. When folks are suffering from these challenges, outside suggestion or critique can often feel hostile rather than constructive or helpful. Always try to remember to see the individuals behind each organization and try to offer them some compassion even if it seems like there’s tension in your community.

Ways To Maintain Friendly Relations Between Animal Sanctuaries

Actively working to avoid the above three friction-causing elements whenever possible are some of the best ways to maintain a friendly relationship with another sanctuary in your area, especially using the following tactics:

Communication Is Key

When working with other animal sanctuaries or rescues in your area, it can be very productive to introduce yourself to those in charge, and keep a friendly channel of dialogue open. Although disagreements may arise, keeping in mind the other sanctuary’s shared compassion and goals can keep tensions from growing. Actively articulating your common ground together can be a positive exercise that can help build solidarity between organizations.

If organizations have a friendly rapport established, open communication can create significant mutual benefits, such as effective technique and policy sharing as well as mutual support in times of need!

Think Carefully About Giving Unsolicited Advice

It may seem kind or compassionate to give suggestions or advice to another organization in terms of their policies or standards. However, even if you have the absolute best intentions in mind, please think very carefully before providing advice without having been asked for it. It could very well be perceived as condescending, or even hostile, especially if burnout and compassion fatigue are factors. As an alternative, you could find a way to gently bring up nonpartisan resources that have been beneficial for your organization (such as those from The Open Sanctuary Project) that might be beneficial to another organization.

Synchronize Schedules

One easy way to collaborate and ensure mutual support for both your organizations is to keep each other up to date on your calendars and events throughout the year. This way, your organizations will never incidentally hold important functions at competing times, which ultimately may end up splitting the community’s support for both organizations.

If your relationship is particularly strong, you can even conduct outreach events together off of sanctuary grounds. This way, you can show your community the impact of a unified front for the animals!

Just make sure that if there are any fundraising elements to a multi-sanctuary event, everyone should first discuss how funds will be distributed, if at all. Short “memorandums of understanding” done in writing in advance of such an event can help clarify agreements and avoid any potential misunderstandings. Never operate on assumptions when it comes to other organizations and revenue!

Ask Before You Refer

If a member of the public makes a request to your organization, like asking you to provide sanctuary to an animal or provide support to a cause in some way, it’s not unusual to need to kindly turn them down. In cases like these, it may seem appropriate to refer the individual to other animal sanctuaries or organizations in your area. Prior to using any other organization as a referral, have a conversation with them and discuss whether this is something they’re comfortable with.

It is important to recognize that having to say no to “owner” surrender requests for example, can be very emotionally draining and upsetting. Having a discussion directly with another sanctuary about having received such a request and checking their capacity before referring the request can help relieve some of this burden associated with having to refuse it. Often, it can feel hostile to constantly get redirected requests without such discussions!

For sanctuaries who already maintain a positive relationship, you can establish a rescue and request network, either informally or on social media, to help create more solutions for animals in need while cutting down on unsolicited referrals between organizations.

Neutrality, Or At Least Not Outward Hostility

If things just don’t seem like they’re going to ever go particularly well between multiple animal sanctuaries, at least consider establishing an internal policy of public neutrality towards other organizations. This could include basic considerations like not talking negatively about other organizations to other members of the public or amongst your staff, and not critiquing them on social media. This includes avoiding “vaguebooking” other individuals or organizations (where one calls out somebody with varying degrees of obviousness without directly using their name). What may seem like a “subtle” or diplomatic commentary can easily be taken badly by others, even misconstrued by people you may respect, and can cause many unintended hurt feelings.

Ultimately, public bickering amongst sanctuaries doesn’t help animals; it only harms residents who need support and can lower the public’s perception of the animal sanctuary community as a whole. If you feel the need to explain why your sanctuary does things differently, you can do so gently and with supporting information, without putting down any other organization. 

If another organization makes the unfortunate choice to openly critique you, consider the benefits of taking the high road and avoiding put-downs or public arguments; the community will always be paying attention, and most community members typically favor calm over calamity!  Remember, the hard work of providing animals with sanctuary and compassionate care is an end in and of itself. It is not a competition unless you choose to make it one!

Actions Steps To Enhance Community Among Animal Sanctuaries

Equally as important as the steps you can take to avoid and mitigate conflict between sanctuaries are taking measures to build and enhance the relationships between them! There are many ways that sanctuaries can work together in order not only to foster a strong sense of shared community, but also to improve the lives of their animal residents, create a wider net of support for more animals, and enhance public perception of the sanctuary movement as a whole.

Such steps can include:

  • Sharing Transport Resources and Creating Transport Chains: Many sanctuaries are lucky enough to have volunteers who are willing to help with transport of animals in need. When sanctuaries network these transport volunteers together, they can often create transport chains that expand their reach to help support animals in need far beyond what they might be able to ordinarily accomplish alone. 
  • Acknowledging And Utilizing Each Others’ Expertise With Different Species/Specialties: Some sanctuaries are known for their special skills with particular species, or for their knowledge of care of certain conditions.  It is important to acknowledge that, with the wide breadth of care requirements associated with different species and conditions, not every organization can (or should!) be specialized in the same ways. Instead, it is helpful when one sanctuary lacking a certain knowledge base, say for instance, with respect to disabilities, can feel comfortable asking for and drawing upon advice and support from another sanctuary that might deal with them on a daily basis.  Humility and respect on both sides of this kind of interaction are crucial to getting the animals in question the best care possible, which should always be the foremost goal.  
  • Sharing Knowledge And Past Experience With Respect To Caregiving and Other Professionals: All sanctuaries should always be on the lookout for the best possible caregivers for their residents, whether those are veterinarians, farriers, shearers or other professionals. It can be very helpful for sanctuaries to share knowledge amongst themselves about their experiences with such professionals. Similarly, sharing knowledge about other professional service providers such as accountants or lawyers can also help sanctuaries save time and energy when they are searching for such services.  
  • Sharing Knowledge With Respect to Vendors: Similarly, sanctuaries can help each other by sharing information when it comes to their preferred vendors of things like food, supplies, or even referrals to builders that they may like and recommend. It may even be possible for sanctuaries in proximity to negotiate shared discounts for joint purchases. Again, clear communication in these situations is critical, and it’s always helpful to have the terms of arrangements like shared purchases or commissions memorialized in writing in advance.   
  • Collaborating In “Matchmaking” When Helpful to Residents: Many sanctuaries have residents who flourish in certain kinds of groups, or some individual residents who may prefer or best be kept with certain kinds of companions. For instance, one sanctuary with large breed chickens may keep these particular individuals in their own separate flock apart from non large breed chickens, due to their specific dietary requirements. If another sanctuary welcomes a large breed chicken but does not have other similar residents that would be good “matches” for this individual, it may be worth considering transferring the new arrival to the sanctuary who has an established flock into which the bird may be integrated. Sometimes, a situation may arise where a resident loses a long term companion, and there may be no other individuals on site who will make a good “match.”  In such a case, collaborations between sanctuaries can be very helpful in helping to find appropriate companions and friends for individuals who need them, provided of course that all proper quarantining and health check precautions are taken.
  • Sharing Information About Emerging Medical Issues: Sanctuary caregivers can be in a position to note shifting trends in animal health, particularly when it comes to new resident intakes. Keeping track of such trends and comparing notes with other sanctuaries can help everyone stay aware of and ahead of any issues that could impact their residents.
  • Staying In Touch With Respect To Other Community Developments: While sanctuary work can seem all encompassing and involving, it is important to remember that sanctuaries do exist as members of a larger community, and there can be many other community issues, events, or causes which can serve as common grounds to align sanctuaries. For example, if there is mobilization behind state humane legislation, sanctuaries in that state may choose to align together to share support for that legislation.  If local zoning changes can potentially impact sanctuaries, it can be helpful for them discuss and coalesce their views and action plans. Even outside of animal related issues altogether, animal sanctuaries can find common ground. Increasingly, sanctuaries are exploring things like community gardening both to supplement residents’ food supply and to offer support to local communities in need of food support. Sanctuaries can support each other in such endeavors by sharing experience, seed sharing, and sharing surplus.   


Positive by Amber D Barnes

5 Tips For Nonprofit Collaborations | National Council Of Nonprofits

How Sanctuaries Can Work Together to Help More Animals in Need of Rescue | One Green Planet

Updated on September 3, 2021

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