5 Reasons Animal Shelters Fail

As the director of an organization who has been on the financial edge for most of our shelter’s lifetime and have suffered from lack of human and veterinary resources locally, I have plenty to say about the rescue world and its challenges that remain hidden (more often ignored) by supporters, volunteers, and donors.  I also stand firmly against sheltering as a method of ending, or even reducing animal cruelty in the long term when faced with limited resources and seeking the most impact possible with those resources. 

  • Overcrowding- not understanding or implementing capacity limits and getting overwhelmed.

The founders, directors, and managers of animal rescues very rarely come from a starting point of professional training and work experience in animal facility management, and that is even more true when we speak of shelters in developing countries such as Vietnam whether managed by locals or foreigners.  Rescue is a profession of passion rather than skill and more often than not, people who “love” animals and are willing to sacrifice any sense of normality in their lives are the ones who start shelters rather than vets, facility managers, and professionally trained animal caretakers of some kind. 

Sadly, what happens is that the overwhelming needs of the community to dump animals on the shelter leads to rescuers becoming very quickly overwhelmed.  Without the time to handle both animal care and administrative duties such as fundraising and media, the animals keep coming and the resources do not.  The stress of the staff and volunteers raises very quickly as the welfare of the animals in their care decreases.

Handling behavioral issues, adoptions, fostering, severe medical case identification and treatment becomes too difficult and with most volunteers in rescues being short term, the full time, year round managers do not get breaks, are stressed to the point of becoming sick, and then many more crises happen where they can make decisions to euthanize the animals to reduce numbers, let them go out on the streets, or give them to unscrupulous people just to offload their stock.

  • Lack of administrative competence. 

Fundraising, marketing, and media. 

If you can’t do these three things really well or be able to pay someone else who can, you can’t run a nonprofit organization or any business relying on outside funds and support of the community. Most shelters are not self-funded and this is especially true in developing countries.  To have a sole benefactor that keeps the operation running is very rare.  Having the time and ability to work an outside job to pay the bills or an outside business for sustainable income is not common, but can be done with enough support (again very, rare).  Married couples may have one partner working an outside job to support the family, but still there are always legal issues, accounting, taxation, and the big communications projects that get the word out about your work.  In many countries, running a nonprofit as a animal rescue is not allowed, and Vietnam is one of those.  We are incorporated as an American 501c3 nonprofit and have a business license in Vietnam as a for profit to cover our legal bases at a great but necessary cost, but most other organizations have no legal standing and thus no protection from any legal issues that arise.  It’s a massive liability we cannot risk, so we have taken that step and make ourselves legally transparent and accountable.

Lack of administrative competence than can be hindered by the fact that most rescues and shelters do not have the manpower capable of handling this aspect.  I started an animal shelter with the idea that I could spend my life with animals, finding out quickly that I am married to my computer and phone talking to people and moving tiny amounts of money around every day. Because we now have full time shelter staff (for only a couple more months at this point…) which I do not consider negotiable, I can do this, but most shelters cannot pay someone to do both.  It’s hard work and takes a lot of time, and doing the hands on work full time will never mix with keeping communications and media updated and in good SEO standing. Fundraising on its own is a profession best left to full time, trained staff who know how to do this day in and day out for the long term.  Shelter managers tend to think we can do everything and until our health and sanity are completely gone, we generally keep trying to wear all the hats of the organization which are made to be worn by a dozen people.

  • The absence of consistent, long term, and experienced/qualified human resources

I cannot stress this enough in our situation but I find it to be true globally.  As we work in a country in which the average person, including animal lovers, do not sterilize/vaccinate their pets, still keep their animals roaming the streets of a country where most are stolen for dog meat, and feed often only rice and some old veggies as food for both dogs and cats, it is impossible to find Vietnamese staff who have been capable of caring for our animals in the shelter with the welfare, hygiene, and security standards we strictly enforce.  Not only that, but locally they do not have any experience in animal facilities and often have just had a cat or dog in their lifetime, often stolen at some point or dead from a preventable disease left untreated. Behavior issues are treated all the same as a bop on the head or being chained up.  Locals do not have experience in competent veterinary clinics or medical facilities of any kind in which hygiene is up to basic standards and this makes a getting a rescue employee very difficult as the cases we take in require a lot of understanding of animal welfare for traumatized and ill animals in rehabilitation.  Volunteers have not proven to be of any benefit to us locally as weekly pop in visitors, and they often cannot commit enough time to being useful without having to babysit them, either local or foreign.

As far as internationals are concerned, we have marginally better luck with employing them, but to get people to be good at the work in our situation requires a long term commitment from someone who can drive a motorbike, learn some of the language, has basic veterinary emergency nursing experience, and will learn about how to address the many challenges that we face locally which one can only understand from significant time on the ground.  But then we have to be able to pay these people enough to stick around! We can barely keep the lights on and then we get a lot of complaints from people that we have paid staff, so our salaries top out at $500 which will never be enough to get and keep competent international staff working full time in the nightmare we experience daily here. Not a chance. People burn out and leave to go home and make real money, so the revolving door of competent staff makes progress all but impossible.

  • Lack of veterinary resources in the community with which to get proper guidance on care and facility maintenance

On top of hoarding due to being overwhelmed by the needs of animals in the community, we also have to contend with the lack of veterinarians to help us with the proper diagnosis and treatment of our rescues.  This is especially true in central Vietnam in which the local vets have a useless education topped off with lack of professional oversight and training out of uni, poor regulation of skills from the local government, and limited access to quality diagnostic and surgical equipment. I have written plenty on the subject with around 20 examples out of hundreds over my years in Vietnam, so please check out that article for more details.  While the managers and volunteers working in rescue often lack the basic veterinary nursing skills and ability to even acknowledge problems in rescues, they also then cannot even get to a vet who can do much better. Vet are the BACKBONE of rescue and without them, pack your bags and close up.  The stress on the animals and staff without veterinary care is profound and the suffering has no end if there are not internationally trained medical professionals with significant experience in a modern clinical setting consulting with a rescue.

The lack of competent veterinary care is not always true for many other parts of the world for domestic animals like cats and dogs, but for farm animals, the problem is global. The US and UK still lack vets willing to work on keeping typically farmed animals alive beyond their point of profit, and even when they do, there is so little research and investment into fixing these species that even with good intentions, there is nothing anyone can do without the right information that is so easily accessible for companion species.   

  • Lack of consistent funding source either from donations, personal/business income, savings, or investments.

This is something that breaks us all.  We live in a cycle of crises and financial nightmares that keep us struggling for funds.  We are not self-funded through outside jobs as this is a full time occupation here, if not one that requires endless overtime.  I would kill for another income outside of this because for me personally, this is a black hole of debt and living on the edge.  There is less honor in starving for your passion than most people will tell you.  I guarantee most people living their passion still want to eat and all of us want to know that we can take care of ourselves with access to health care.  The organization lives on the whims of donors and always has.  Any attempt to get out of this cycle has failed for lack of interest or lack of investment in building a sustainable source of income through a social enterprise.  Donors want to patch the holes in the leaking boat, but have no interest in putting that boat up in dry dock to fix the damn thing once and for all so we can go out to sea without drowning. That’s the nature of this work and one that is shared by so many organizations.

If staff and management are able to work outside jobs and have an alternate source of income such as a spouse or passive income from property investment, this alleviates some of the financial pressure, but it is not always possible for every organization.  While we work our butts off in really unpleasant circumstances, we are always expected to do so with massive investment of our own which is a mentality that plagues the charity sector.  The charity sector does not usually provide a service which has an easily measurable economic impact.  More often than not, we are picking up the pieces of that which governments and the community at large are not willing to address and footing the bill on our own. 

If anyone ever considers opening a shelter, as a jump down their throat screaming “NO!  DON’T EVEN TRY!”, the first thing I will say is make sure you have $$$$$$$$$ sitting around to play with or ensure that you have access to tons of people who will consistently feed that to you. Coming into this with no cash is horrendous.  Don’t even bother if you have no other income.