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Do you really know what running a rescue involves?

Starting an animal rescue to many seems a wonderful idea and on many occasions people looking into opening a rescue centre have asked me for advice. Many people see the work of the RSPCA and Blue Cross and think they to could open a rescue centre, but the sadly the reality to running a rescue is far from the dreams and visions of many. Not only are the hours involved with such work tiresome, but also you all have to deal with heartbreaking situations.

The truth behind running a rescue of any sort is a lot of hard work for very little if not any gain at all. You feel like you are constantly taking two steps forward and six back. Not only the never ending cage cleaning, handling and feeding but the constant phone calls, people messing you around and the costs spiralling out of control.

It takes a very special sort of person to run a rescue properly. On many occasions rescue workers have seen first hand what happens when a rescue goes wrong. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as, lack of money, lack of new homes, pregnant animals or even lack of thought. Sadly when things go wrong the well managed small independent rescues get tarnished with the same brush. At present there are no regulations grading becoming a rescue, any Tom, Dick or Harry can open the floodgates to unwanted pets. They may well have very little experience when it comes to caring for the animals or very little knowledge on how to care for them properly. These people may well have big hearts and a true love of the animals but sadly that is not enough to manage a rescue successfully. If the new animal welfare bill is passed it will require all rescues to be licensed and have 18 monthly vet inspections. The small independent rescues will be required to register with their local councils.

Rodents and rabbits get the bum end of the deal in rescues at present. Many large rescues only cater for cats and dogs and the ones who do deal with rodents and rabbits only cater for a very small number. The rescues which solely deal with rodents and rabbits are usually independent rescues ran from someoneís home, but now even these needed rescues are being closed down by local councils through planning regulations. Which I know all to well as it happened to me in September this year. I can only comment on my local area but a centre catering for rodents and rabbits is desperately needed. At present, there are only three centres catering for rodents and rabbits and two only cater for a very small number. The slightly larger centre can hold a maximum of 30 rabbits but has been known in the past to have over 60, as people would dump them at the gate. In a single year my small rescue took in approximately 80% of the unwanted rats in my area and we had over 300 unwanted rodents come through the centre with at least ĺ of that number being rats. Where are these animals ending up now?

This is a huge problem for rodents and rabbits all over the UK and the small independent rescues are struggling to find extra space to save these animals from being put to sleep. But at some point a rescue is full and there is nothing they can do to help no matter how much they would like to. With these facts in mind it is hardly surprising that well meaning people open rescue centres in their homes. But how many of these people not only think it through properly but also have the correct experience with the animals and the required skills to manage a rescue successfully?

Things to Consider

There are many things to consider when it comes to opening a rescue, such as, considering whether or not you personally can cope with the demands that running a rescue will entail but also whether or not you can financially support a rescue and if you have the required skills when dealing with the animals. For example are you happy never to have a holiday again? Can you afford a £100 vet bill and still feed all the animals in your care? Can you sex animals correctly? These are three very simple questions but in a few cases people donít even ask them selves these.

Running a rescue does not allow you to have a personal life, the rescue is your personal life. Your social life is chatting to rabbits, rats, hamsters or whatever animal/s your rescue will take. This is not a 9-5 job and you donít get time off for good behaviour. These animals will need you 365 days of the year with out fail, whether it is beautiful sunny day or the middle of winter. These animals not only require you to feed them and clean their cages but in many cases they will need you to help them regain their trust in humans once again. You may think you are pretty successful at managing your time and you may well know that it takes you 1 hour to clean all the hamster cages. But what happens when the phone rings and you chat to someone either about what animals would be suitable for their circumstances or trying to reason with someone to stop them from dumping Thumpa in a box by the side of a road. By the time you put the phone down you have lost 30 minutes of that hour and are now running behind. You may well plan ahead to allow you to have Sunday off but believe me you are always playing catch up when it come to cage cleaning. Running a rescue means running your life and managing your time one day at a time, never looking further ahead. Are you happy to finish at 11pm each night and start again at 7 am or even earlier? Before you look any further into running a rescue you really need to think long and hard about how much you value your social life and your friends. If you canít bear the thought of not going to Spain then donít open a rescue.

Financially how do you intend on supporting the rescue and yourself. If you plan on the rescue paying you a wage so you in turn can pay your bills forget it. You will be lucky for the rescue to support the animals alone let alone you. If you work away from home say in an office 9-5, 5 days a week or even part time, when are you going to fit in caring for the animals? You may well think during summer that it is not a problem to clean a few cages each evening but will you still want to or be able to do that in the winter with the dark nights. Running a rescue even a small one will equate to a minimum of a part time job if not a full time one for no wage at all.

You also need to consider where your rescue will operate. If you plan on running it from home check with your local council first. If you plan on renting somewhere how do you plan to meet the rental cost? People are generous and do help with donations but people will need to trust you first and that takes time. Speaking from my own experience when I first started rescuing in Devon I pleaded for donations to buy cages with hardly any response. I was a no one asking for money, but over a year and a half people have seen the work I have done. They have been through a lot with me and offered huge amounts of help. With out these people I would have never have got so far and saved so many lives. I am hoping to find premises to rent within the next six months. I have been putting out feelers to see how rental costs can be met. These people now know me and the work I have put into saving lives, they are happy to support the rescue and I once again.

The financial side of running a rescue is a constant drain not only on your pocket but also your time and energy. As soon as any money comes in it goes straight back out. During the first few months if not the first year you will be lucky to break even at the end of each month. After the first year to 18 months you will be lucky to have a surplus at the end of each month. People will not just knock on your door and hand you over cash. You need to have time to run sponsorship schemes and monthly standing order donations. You will need to spend time raising awareness about your rescue and doing fund-raising events. Remember that all this needs to be fitted in whilst caring for the animals, re-homing them, taking them in, working and taking phone calls. Depending on the numbers of animals you will take as well as species will directly affect your outgoings. For example rabbits are very expensive to rescue, many require neutering and vaccinating before going to new homes. You are looking at least £60 per rabbit to do that, if you are only asking a minimum adoption fee of £30 per rabbit you have only recouped half of your costs not to mention if you have had that rabbit for six months prior to homing the cost of food and bedding within that time needs to be considered. How do you propose your rescue will fund the out standing costs? You also need to consider vets bills for unwell or injured animals. Sadly some times you may well have to put an animal to sleep as the cost of treatment can spiral out of control. What is your cut off point?

Working in rescue is emotionally demanding and many people on the out side canít grasp the scale of the hard decisions you will need to make. When working in rescue you need to look at the greater picture not just a single animal. This is a very difficult part of the job as you have offered your time and dedication to helping save lives not taking them away but on occasion you need to think about the other animals that need your help present and future. For example if you have an animal in your care that needs extensive treatment or has serious aggression problems are you going to re-home that animal. By this I mean is any one going to offer this animal a home when it needs constant vet treatment or will attack you whenever you reach in the cage. In all honesty the answer is probably no, and if that very special home does come along it could take months or even years with rabbits. Within that time that cage space could have helped X number of happy healthy animals find homes, but you have tied up that space with an animal which is difficult to re-home. So what do you do, keep that animal in the hope a home will come along or put that animal to sleep allowing you to help others with no where to go? There is no right or wrong answer to this question; it comes down to your own personal opinion and choice. It is not an easy decision to make either way, what is your cut off point for an animal to become regarded difficult to re-home? Personally I believe that to put healthy, happy animals to sleep just because they have been with you X amount of months and not found a home is wrong but I do completely understand why some rescues take this standpoint. Once again there will always be more animals needing your help and only so much time, space and funds available. So by putting the long stay or elderly animals down will free up space for you to help other unwanted pets, which may well find new homes quickly. You will need to decide for your self how you will deal with these situations and what your policy will be on this matter.


Policies are very important to running a rescue and I highly recommend thinking these issues through before opening. As already mentioned will you have a non-destruct policy? Will you state in your policy that you will never put a healthy animal down, if so what constitutes stepping over the line to un-healthy, i.e. is a rabbit who has dental problems classed as un-healthy. This animal will be difficult to re-home as many people do not want the expense of taking this animal to the vet once a month to have itís teeth clipped. In difference areas of the UK some animals are harder to re-home for example I found re-homing rabbits very difficult but rats very easy. But in Norfolk they can re-home rabbits easily but find it hard to re-home rats. This needs to be taking into account, as rabbits in my area are desperate for spaces in rescue as there are very limited places offering to help them, add to that the fact that even happy, healthy rabbits can take over six months to re-home, do you put the rabbit with dental problems to sleep so you can help others or not? When considering this think carefully as the rabbits you are unable to help while you are housing the rabbit with dental problems may well end up put to sleep anyway. My head says to put the animal down but my heart says to try to re-home him locally and advise the new owners they can return him to me to have his teeth clipped free of charge. You will also need to consider your re-homing polices for example will you re-home to children or allow the animals to be bred from. Will you require animals to be returned to you if they can no longer be kept? What will be your policy on animals dumped out side your house? What animals will you take and how many will you house? Have you written out your adoption forms and in take forms. What will you do if animals arrive pregnant will you cull litters to prevent your self from becoming over run? All these questions and more need to be answered before you open your rescue.

The Battle of Head and Heart...

Battles between your head and heart will occur on a daily basis so which will you rule your rescue with? Head or Heart, which wins? The hard thing here is that you have decided to open your rescue with your heart as I refuse to believe anyone prepared to sacrifice their entire life to run a rescue did that with their head. In my opinion I believe that people who run rescues with their hearts alone are the people who get into trouble, for example if your rescue is full and your funds already stretched to meet the weekly bills for food and bedding alone and you receive a phone call from someone telling you that if you do not take in 10 French lop rabbits today he is quite happy to break their necks that afternoon. You chat a bit further about these rabbits trying to get as much info out of him as possible only to discover they are all siblings at 8 months old, to make things even worse they are all running together and he has no idea how many males or females there are. So you are now thinking to your self worst case scenario that 9 of them are girls all pregnant and could drop between 4-10 babies each so that could leave you with 100 rabbits to find homes for. Not only 100 rabbits but 100 bloody big rabbits that canít fit into a 4ft hutch and are difficult to find suitable homes for due to their size. You also have to remember that you will have to neuter, spay and vaccinate all these rabbits leaving you with at least a £6000 vet bill.

Now someone ruling their rescue with their heart may not have even asked any further questions after they heard the man say Ďbreak their necksí and if they did go on to discover more about their situation would they consider the pregnancy angle or are they still hung up on the neck breaking statement. Now of course this guy may well be bluffing, and in fact he has no intention of killing these animals, but he may well be 100% serious, so you wonder if this guys really knows how to break a rabbits neck without causing it any pain and actually kill the animal out right. All you can now see is the image of 10 rabbits lying on the floor suffering as his killing spree has gone wrong. So these half dead suffering animals are now dumped in a bin liner and thrown into a skip where they suffer horribly before finally dying. This is not a nice thought and whilst typing it I wondered whether or not I have gone to far but in truth if you are thinking about opening a rescue this scenario will happen to you many times and this article is about the reality to running a rescue. Now of course the RSPCA can prosecute his man for such cruelty but he wonít give out his address or telephone number to you so how will the RSPCA find him.

It comes back to your head and your heart. Your heart will be screaming at you to help these rabbits as they donít deserve this cruelty and that you will worry about everything else once you have saved these animals from such an awful ending. But in truth it should be your head that rules your decision. You have no space for these rabbits and as usual the guy has no hutches he can donate to you. You are struggling to feed and bed the animals you currently have with you and what if these animals are ill and need vet treatment. You have tried to reason with this man and pleaded with him give you his phone number or ring you back in a week or so to see if you have any space to take some or been able to arrange spaces in other rescues you have contact with but he is not budging it is today or not at all. You have to say NO, and inform him that all you can do is try to secure places in other rescues and transport to get them there and that he will need to contact you again in a few days to see what you have been able to arrange. To take these animals would only directly affect your ability to care for the animals currently in your rescue, you have made a commitment to save these animals from neglect or death you canít fail them now by taking in these 10 French lops. The people running their rescues with their heart would have taken these rabbits in and many of you reading this would now be cussing me for suggesting saying no. But this is not a one off situation these kinds of telephone calls will occur regularly and if your heart allows you to say yes to every animal in need, it will not be long before you your self needs rescuing and the animals beginning to suffer in your care. You did not open a rescue to cause suffering but to protect animals from suffering and by over loading your self both financially and time wise the animals will suffer.

In many cases your answer will directly affect the fate of that animal, it may well end up put to sleep by a vet if it is lucky. Or killed at the hands of someone who has no idea what they are doing causing terrible suffering. The animal may well be dumped in a park or by the side of a road, or just be completely neglected for the rest of its days and die of dehydration or starvation. But you have to remember that you are not responsible for how someone else treats his or her pet and you canít save the world. All you can do is help as many animals as you have the time, space and funds for. Overloading your rescue is a recipe for disaster and it will be the well managed rescues which will have to bale you out or the animals will have to be put to sleep anyway as they have once again got no where to go.

It is very important for your head to run a rescue and you cannot allow your heart to become involved. Many rescue workers will happily tell you that if they knew then what they know now they cannot honestly say whether or not they would have started. I to have learnt from trail and error when running my rescue and it was hard work both physically and emotionally. I felt drained at the end of each day and dreaded what the following week would bring. However, I would never have stopped if it were down to my own choice. I knew that these animals needed my help and if I didnít help them who would. I can only describe my rescuing as a calling not a choice. I feel that I had/have to rescue, I have to help and I have to change things for future generations. I am now in the position were the rescue has been closed by my local council on the grounds that it was unsuitable in a residential area. I now have lots of free time and no demands on my emotions. While writing this I question my self on whether or not I wish to find somewhere to rent to re-open the rescue. I know this will make even greater demands on my time and energy than before due to the travelling between my home and work place and to the rescue. The 4 hours I have just taken to write this article will never exist again, unless I write it at 10pm one evening. At present I am concentrating on getting well as an 8 month battle with the council has left me on the verge of a breakdown and with still no let up on their part I cannot climb back out of the black hole they have forced me into. I also have incredible debts not fully down to the rescue but it caused a major part of them. I need to find a second part time job to pay these off before starting again.

All I can tell you is I will return to the world of rescue as once it is in your blood you find it hard to stop, but the most valuable thing I have learnt over the last 18 months is you canít give 110% without burning out and a rescue requires you to give 120% if you want to run it successfully. Can you give that and cope with the burn out? When you get up one morning and look at all the cages which need cleaning and all you feel like doing is going straight back to bed and not looking at them ever again can you still bring your self to muster the energy and will to clean them out? When you sit there feeling that everything is out of control and you canít see a way to get back on top of things are you the person that will crumble under the pressure or will you get up and get on? You will question why you are doing this and what the hell made you start. You will feel terrible, with huge bags under your eyes and you will just want to jack it all in and emigrate to the Bahamas. Are you the type of person to cope with all these demands and not go to bed feeling guilty about the 3 rats you said no to earlier that day? As I said it takes a very special sort of person to run a rescue properly and if you are not that sort of person then there is still so much you can do to help. You could volunteer at a local rescue, help with fund raising, and help with home checks or even offer to foster animals. Please do not think that running a rescue is the only way to help that is far from the truth and if you are still unsure whether you have what it takes to run a rescue volunteering will help you know whether you can manage it alone.

The Positives...

So with all of this in mind you ask yourself why do people runs rescues if they receive nothing but stress, worry and heartache. The answer to this is simple, the lives you save. In 18 months Ratty Haven helped nearly 300 unwanted, abandoned or stray rodents. In many cases Ratty Haven was the last hope for these animals and had my door not been open, these animals would have been put to sleep, they are now in loving homes with owners who dote on them. If that doesnít cancel out all the hard work, sleepless nights and stress what can? I have seen and heard some horrid stories over that time and animals have arrived with me needing lots of TLC, a warm bed, a good meal and in some cases vet treatment. The reward for all the work is watching these animals gain strength, trust and finally going to the loving homes they deserved. I have a final story to end on, one that will stay with me forever and makes me realise just how valuable my work as a rescuer is and that is the story of Hamnpork and the London Girls.

These 12 rats were the last remaining group of about 50 that were removed from a terrible rescue in London. They had been left for at least 6 months with no food, water or a clean cage. Many rats had died due to dehydration and starvation and the survivors were eating the remains of their cage mates to stay alive. These rats had nowhere to go and were facing being put to sleep having never known the love and care of a good home. I offered them shelter and a kind man drove these animals from Surrey to Exmouth to get them to me, the only place able to offer them help. When they arrived they were totally un-handable and would scream and run in terror as soon as you went near them. Some were in a worse state than others and one died the evening she arrived. We can only put her death down to stress and the terrible conditions she was forced to live in. I looked at their little faces and the terror in their eyes and sat and cried. What these animals had been through was unimaginable and I knew that they would never be able to go to a new home. Hamnpork was the only boy and at first was placed by himself. The girls all went in a big cage together with another 4 does that were also untamed. After a few days to settle in they were all caught and sent to the vet were the were man handled to get mite treatment and cream for their injuries as they had started eating each other alive. They all had bad respiratory problems but we decided that treating them would only cause more stress to these poor animals. After a few weeks in quarantine Hamnpork was slowly introduced to some new friends, 3 other old bucks who had come into Ratty Haven and were to retire here due to their age. He took a bit of time to settle with them but slowly they became good friends and he learnt to trust me also. The girls also grew to trust me also and although they never became pet rats, I could handle them to clean them out and they would take food from my hands. Hamnpork however, became a loving boy who loved to sit on my lap and eat yoghurt drops. They all had clean cages, plenty of food and water which to many rats was taken for granted but these rats could not believe the food bowl was filled each day and for the first few months cleared the bowl with in an hour not trusting that it would be refilled. Sadly one night not to long ago Hamnpork died in his sleep, I found him in the morning curled up in his bed with one of his new friends. He looked so peaceful and that is why I rescue, to know that these rats all ended their days knowing the comfort of a full belly, clean cage and that one human did love them and in return they respected me enough to share their lives with me and eat yoghurt drops on my lap.

For all the negative points of running a rescue, for all the demands on your time, for all the bastards that ring you, for the new CD you could never afford and for the days when it all seemed too much all the animals I have helped were worth it and more and that is why you rescue. To look into the eyes of another living breathing creature when you send them off to a new home and know that with out you this day would never have come for that animal or when that animal finds it in their heart to trust you and allow you to handle them for the first time you know in your heart that everything you went through that week was worth it for that single moment in time, when nothing else matters.

I hope this article has helped people understand just what running a rescue entails. I am more than happy to offer my advice to any one considering opening a rescue please feel free to email me at Siobhan@rattyhaven.co.uk

Article written by Siobhan and republished with permission

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Last modified: February 08, 2017