How to Start an Animal Rescue or Shelter

WSW How to StartIt’s not uncommon for animal lovers, brimming with good intentions, to fantasize about founding an animal adoption center. It’s a noble pursuit, and America is desperate for more safe places to keep pets between homes, but opening a shelter or rescue takes a lot more than good intentions.

Of course, if you’ve done some basic research, you already know that starting an animal rescue or shelter takes money, staff, business and accounting know-how, marketing, solicitation of donations, contacts, major commitments, and much more. And, if you already assessed local need and found that an additional adoption center fills a void or provides necessary support, you’re ready to proceed.

Put Together a Team of Experts

Opening an animal shelter or rescue requires a good deal of expert advice and services. Assemble a team of talented, passionate individuals who fill the gaps in your own experience and expertise. Some team members will be essential through the planning stages, while others will continue working with you after your adoption center is up and running.

A veterinarian is important in planning for animal needs, and every shelter and rescue requires a vet’s services. You need a lawyer to help with business and adoption contracts and other legal matters. An accountant helps with financial planning, weighing options like incorporating or filing for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, and keeping the books. Find someone with marketing, PR, and fundraising experience and someone with management experience, too.

Figure Out the Specifics

There’s a lot to figure out. What types of animals will you accommodate and how many can you properly care for? How will you handle euthanasia? If you intend to run a no-kill shelter, you generally must be privately funded. Vocalizing goals with your team is a great start, but get an official mission statement, a complete business plan, and organization bylaws down on paper.

Take your team to other area animal shelters and rescues to see how they look and operate. Open the lines of communication with these other establishments, as you’ll need a good working relationship with them. Find out how your adoption center can complement existing ones to relieve certain burdens or tend to underserved areas of the business. You and your team members should also spend some time volunteering at other area adoption centers for experience and an insider’s perspective.

Pick the Location

Find an ideal location for your adoption center that’s commercially zoned for keeping animals. The property must be large enough for your intended capacity and be suitable for separating animals by species, age, and size and for removing pregnant, nursing, and sick animals from the general population. Make sure the space can house and show animals, allow them out-of-cage time, provide a veterinary area, and meet all the other requirements for a rescue or shelter. If you found the perfect spot without the right facilities, are conversions or construction feasible?

Talk to Government Agencies

The various licenses, insurance, fees, and other legal requirements associated with setting up an animal shelter or rescue vary widely from state to state, county to county, and even town to town. Contact your city council and work with your lawyer to learn about these aspects of the process. Reach out to your local animal control agency, too. If, like many adoption centers, you want to apply for 501(c)(3) status to be declared a tax-exempt charitable organization, request an Employee Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS and file IRS Form 1023.

Begin Seeking Donations as Soon as Possible

The life of an adoption center proprietor is often fraught with financial difficulty. Even if you’ve secured the funds to get started, money will probably be in short supply on an ongoing basis. It’s never too early to start soliciting donations of money and supplies. Get your website online, make use of social networking sites, establish a newsletter, and start holding fundraisers. Research grants and create a prioritized list by application deadlines. Spread the word about your new animal rescue or shelter throughout the community, and remember that you’ll probably need volunteers soon, too.


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Comments & Responses

4 Responses so far.

  1. Bobby says:

    I would recommend consulting a lawyer to get set up. The laws can be confusing and overwhelming if you don’t have somebody to guide you through them!

  2. Kay says:

    Can’t hurt to be completely crazy either. 🙂 As someone who started their own rescue from scratch, I think it is absolutely critical that anyone who thinks they want to do this needs to spend AT LEAST A YEAR working at their local shelter doing EVERYTHING at least once. That is one of the hardest jobs in the world and if you can survive it and get out the other side with realistic expectations and your sanity intact then, maybe then, you will be able to set up something that will take over your life and make the world a better place if you run it properly. Trust me on this one.

  3. Alana says:

    The most important things IMHO
    1. A shelter is a business. Operate it like a business. Never take in an animal that you do not have the money in the bank to care for.
    2. Learn the word NO. You can NOT save them all. You can not take them all in. You must be able to say no when you are at capacity and stick to it. It is very easy to become over whelmed and over the limit you can properly care for.

  4. Mala says:

    I agree with Kay – too many rescuers get into trouble or get disenchanted, and it doesn’t get any better. Been doing this for 12 years, and it sucks the soul right out of you…but, you do a lot of good if you keep your head from exploding.
    PROCEED WITH CAUTION – rescue is not for sissies or the faint of heart.

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