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In the rescue “world” there are plenty of dirty secrets.  From rescues who only take in the animals they know they can find homes for, to rescue leaders living off the proceeds of their fundraising and adoption fees, there are surely enough things everyone knows but no one wants to talk about openly.  The logic behind the silence is that the public shouldn’t see their “heroes” as anything but perfect – endlessly giving, altruistic, all-knowing gentle and amazing uber-saints.  And why not?  They do the jobs none of us want to do, deal with the abusers and the abused, bring one to justice and the other to wholeness and then offer the whole animal to the “approved” public at a reduced rate.  What is there to be upset about?

All of this hinges on the assumption that rescuers don’t want to do the job.  What if they do?  What if rescuing feeds them in a way that say, shopping for shoes or playing video games does for other people?  What if the rescuers have an end game – a very real and tangible payoff either in the physical world or the emotional one?  Certainly we are all broken in ways, but what if the great majority of people who obsessively rescue animals are so broken they no longer trust any humans?  Surely this is not always the case, but how do we know when someone has crossed from helping animals as a part of a balanced life to dangerously tipping over the precipice into the gully of shameless exploitation?

One of such secrets (albeit not a well kept one) the rescue community as a whole has a hard time dealing with is when one of their own is caught out behaving just like the people they rescue animals from.  There is no greater risk of this happening than when a rescue or shelter takes in more animals than they can handle both physically and financially.  Many times this happens behind closed doors and is dealt with in the same way; where one “rescue” is busted with too many animals, others will take in the animals and absorb the cost and care.  If the animals end up in a publicly funded shelter or there are a lot of health concerns, the story might not be so easily concluded. (Here is a story of one such experience.)

Animal hoarding is different from object hoarding in that it does not appear to be as linked to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and does seem to occur most often with people who have had unstable childhoods where the only stable comfort was in the animals that lived with them (read here).   Like object hoarders, animal hoarders like to collect, but unlike object hoarders, they are collecting living beings who need care and maintenance to be healthy and content.  As hoarding is mostly about the hoarder’s comfort, they are quickly unable to meet the needs of the animals they have collected and equally unable to do anything about it.  Perhaps shame and fear play a big role in the reason why people who hoard don’t ask for help once they realize their animals are suffering; however since one of the hallmarks of  hoarders is their inability to reflect on their own behavior, it is unlikely they truly are able to understand the consequences of their actions to themselves or their animal charges.  We are all familiar with the inevitable conclusion of this behavior – the “Crazy Cat Lady” with over 100 cats in her home (here), the 93 dogs and 5 parrots that were seized in Arizona recently, the 263 dogs bred in Sarasota County in mill conditions  and dispersed to various rescue groups.  We’ve all seen the pictures from these horrible situations, and no one in the rescue world or in the general public contests that these are clear problems.  Where it becomes stickier is when there are people who care for a great number of animals and do a good or passable job at it.  Some are breeders, some are individuals in the general public and some have bigger visions directly related to rescuing.  The no-kill movement has spawned a new and attractive alternative to euthanization for many species: sanctuaries.

By definition, an animal sanctuary is a place where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives.  Best Friends and Hearts United for Animals are two larger sanctuaries that are more well known, but sanctuaries for all species from wildlife to budgies exist all over the world.  Some are independently funded, but the majority depend on donations to care for the animals in they house.  Depending on the species and the level of health problems the sanctuary deals with, the monthly bill for animal care and facility management can be extremely high.  Since sanctuaries deal mostly with animals who cannot easily find homes elsewhere, or as some sanctuaries have decided to not adopt their animals to anyone due to mistrust, it stands to reason that every animal in a sanctuary will need care (and funding for that care) for the rest of their lives.  The more animals the sanctuary takes in, the more funds needed to care for them.  It seems that in this precarious position (where the care needed exceeds the ability the sanctuary owner has independently available),  it seems that the decisions the sanctuary owner is confronted with determine whether or not the operation will succeed in the long-term.  Will the sanctuary turn animals away?  Will they adopt out healthy animals?  Will the operation stay within reasonable population levels by utilizing non-idealistic means?  Does one person make all the decisions about intake and care or will there be a board to make these decisions?  What are the limits to personal funding of the sanctuary?  Many sanctuaries in recent years have had to close their doors resulting in the inevitable demise of many of their charges due to a lack of donations or volunteer support.

The No-Harm No Kill site outlines the 5 freedoms they believe necessary for any animal in care:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: access to fresh water and diet to maintain full health and vigor;
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area;
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment;
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: sufficient space, proper facilities, and company;
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: ensuring conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering.

All reputable and accountable rescues, shelters and sanctuaries agree with numbers 1 through 3, and do well with ensuring the physical care of the animals they care for.  However, where many of them fall short is with numbers 4 and 5, and none more so than with sanctuaries.  Take a look at this photo:

This comes from a well known rescue that manages feral cat colonies and houses cats of all ages like this, 90 of them previously in the rescue owner’s home and now in a small warehouse that houses 130+ cats.  The warehouse lacks proper ventilation and has no windows to the outside in the area where the cats are kept.  There are common rooms for the kittens (30+) and for some adults, although the space largely consists of cats in crates like this one.

Here is another:

Here someone has taken a picture of feeding time at a horse sanctuary that houses 77 horses.  The well had run dry, forcing import of $1200 worth of water each week.  The running of this sanctuary where 482 animals live costs $4000 a week.

The caption on this picture read: “We had many volunteers picking up old Hay Bale plastic wraps and ropes that were all over the property. Only one lady works this Refuge and is extremely busy just keeping order and feeding these wonderful animals. Volunteer days are essential and rewarding for the people who come.”  This group of volunteers felled old buildings, started on essential fences and is calling for more volunteers to help in this “amazing” place.

According to this NBC news article, a full quarter of the 6,000 cases of animal hoarding discovered every year belong to rescues, shelters and sanctuaries.  That is a huge number.  How can it be that the very same people who step forward to help homeless and abused animals are keeping them in conditions that are at the very least perilous and at the most extremely abusive?  While there remains very little oversight for these organizations, it is up to the volunteers, general public and animal care professionals to question when they find conditions lacking.  Kate Hurley describes in her article, Sick To Death,  how the misguided notion that packing cages and rooms to over capacity in shelters doesn’t help and in fact leads to more and more problems for the animals.  PETA’s article, ‘No Kill’ No Excuse for Hoarding – Solution Is ‘No Birth’ here takes a more aggressive approach to the problem, and uses the story of  Angel’s Gate as an example.  Could there be anything worse than further neglect of already suffering animals?

Could it be that by following the well intentioned path of saving each animal in need that the rescue community has created an even bigger problem?  For the animals that live and die each day deprived of their 5 Freedoms in the hands of the public’s “heroes”, might it have been better for them to have a quick and painless death?  It seems that our fear of  making the difficult decision to end a life has relegated many innocent lives to a lifetime of pain and psychological agony.  Just like most animals bred and kept in a mill, animals kept in hoarding and overcrowding conditions for periods of time in rescues don’t often recover.  They have long term physical and psychological needs that require another rescue to care for…. which means even greater donations needed.

While we are striving to be a more humane and tolerant society, it remains imperative that we don’t allow the psychological needs of “rescuers” to override the needs of some of our most vulnerable beings.  This is true for human care as well as animal care.  In my research for this blog post I came across a term I was not familiar with:  pathological altruism.  Pathological altruism is essentially “selflessness gone awry”, as termed by Dr. Burton (explained further here).   In essence, pathological altruism hinges on the belief that there is a pay off for everyone who gives of themselves to others and an equal, if not higher, emotional and physical drain.

If we are to truly help the vulnerable animals in our society, we must recognize that much of our current methodology is corrupt and some people in it manipulative while others are manipulated.  We will have to unplug from our fears, hold people accountable for their actions and realize that in our unbridled efforts to help we may likely be hurting instead.

Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

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