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How to Start an Animal Rescue With Step-by-Step Guide

Mychelle Blake
Woman volunteer at animal shelter petting cat

Starting an animal rescue is a dream for many people who love pets and want to make a difference. The realities of running an animal rescue can be much more overwhelming and difficult than the initial dream, so it's important to take your time, do your research and plan out the steps involved in starting a rescue.

1. Decide What Type of Animal Rescue It Will Be

Some animal rescues take in several types of pets, while others go with one specific breed or species. It's better to keep your focus narrow in the beginning and work with animals that you truly have knowledge on. A mistake that eager rescuers often make is jumping in and starting a rescue when they really don't have much of an understanding and history with their chosen breed or species. Make sure you understand their enrichment and exercise needs, behavior, diet and more before going further. In addition to education on your chosen animal, find other rescues around the country that work with this species or breed(s) and ask to speak to them about their experiences. They can give you invaluable advice on things they wish they had known before they started and how you can make your own rescue get started on the right foot.

2. Where Will You House the Animals?

Your next step is figuring out where you will keep the animals that need homes.

Pit bull in cage at animal shelter
  • If you're rescuing smaller pets, like chinchillas or reptiles, you may be able to keep them in your own home space.
  • Larger pets like dogs, cats and horses will usually require either a shelter facility or foster homes.
  • In some cases you may be able to work with a local veterinarian or boarding facility to rent space for animals in your rescue.

Always have your housing plan ready before you take in any animals and stick to only accepting animals that you honestly have room for. Newer rescues can get overwhelmed quickly with animals they cannot feasibly care for because they take too many and have difficulty saying no.

3. Investigate Local Regulations

What are the local city, county and state regulations that you will need to adhere to?

  • In some locations they can be fairly lax, whereas others will require special permits to operate a rescue.
  • Many local municipalities also have limit laws which only allow a certain number of animals in a home which may preclude people from taking in a lot of fosters for you. Check to see what the regulations are and if there are special loopholes for people who are trying to find pets homes.
  • You should also look into regulations regarding breeds and species, as you may be working with dogs that are affected by Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) or reptiles and exotics that are not legal in your area.
  • There are also zoning regulations you may need to be aware of that can affect your rescue.

4. How Will You Fund Your Rescue?

Rescuing and caring for animals costs a lot of money. Sometimes new rescues don't consider all the potential costs involved such as:

Volunteer at animal shelter holding a rescued cat
  • You will need to provide for the animals' food, toys, bedding, cages, training equipment and more.
  • Veterinary bills can be a huge cost for rescues that can quickly drain your bank account. You can establish a relationship with a veterinarian to negotiate a discount, but you should still expect to need a lot of money for routine and emergency care.
  • Marketing costs will include a domain and hosting for a website, printing for flyers to advertise your animals, and some rescues have t-shirts printed for their volunteers.
  • Legal costs include filing your 501c3 paperwork, the costs of an attorney and other federal, state and local filings.
  • Transportation costs will include gas, vehicle maintenance and insurance.
  • You will need liability insurance for your rescue as well as possibly special event insurance for adoption days.

Fundraising and Grants

Most rescues solicit donations to cover their costs but realize this is a lot of work. You should have a plan in place on how you will do this and a "plan B" for how to fund the animals' care if expected fundraising falls through. There are organizations that provide grants, but you'll need someone who can prepare the grant applications for you if you don't know how, and success isn't guaranteed as there's a lot of competition for these funds. Some places that you can look at for grant funds include:

Hamster in a cage

Financial Procedures

In addition to determining how you will get money to pay your rescue's expenses, you should also decide how you will run your rescue's finances. This means setting up accounting procedures and ideally using software such as Quickbooks, which can help make this easier for you. If you are completely in the dark about how to handle financials, you would be wise to consult with an accountant and professional bookkeeper to assist you, either for a fee or possibly you might find one willing to volunteer their services.

5. Who Will Work With You?

It's almost impossible to run a rescue, even a small one, by yourself. This means you'll need to recruit volunteers to help with fostering animals, providing transport, interviewing potential adopters, attending adoption fairs, updating your website and social media and much more. In addition to these volunteers, it's critical to your success to have a network of people in your community to work with.

Woman veterinarian with parrot on her shoulder
  • At a minimum, having a strong relationship with a veterinary clinic and with your local animal control and public shelter staff is a must.
  • If you're working with dogs or cats, you should also develop relationships with qualified trainers and behavior consultants who can help you work with issues that develop while the animals are in your care, as well as when they go into an adoptive home.
  • Networking with local pet professionals can help steer adopters and donors to your group. Potential professionals to work with include groomers, pet store staff, pet sitters, and dog walkers. If you work with exotics, you should investigate networking with a local herpetological society or zoo. Local businesses are also a great target for networking, as they can provide you with donations, places to hold adoption days and company-sponsored volunteers.
  • Think as well about volunteers with special skills that you'll need. Make a list of every skill that you need and then think of who you know that can fill that role or who you need to find in the community to fill it. Some examples of roles and people you'll want to find are:
    • Fundraisers
    • Event planners
    • Lawyers
    • Accountants
    • Business owners
    • Potential board members
    • Website designers
    • Social media experts
    • Local media figures

6. File Your 501c3 Paperwork

It's not necessary to be a 501c3 non-profit to accept donations, but being one makes it much easier. Donors are often more willing to donate for the tax write-off benefits, and being a 501c3 makes you eligible for additional services and benefits. For example, a 501c3 can get Google GSuite services for free and access to software discounts through TechSoup. You can file your 501c3 yourself, hire a lawyer to do it for you or use online services like LegalZoom. You'll also need to file your Articles of Incorporation with your state.

7. Work With Your Board

Filing as a 501c3 will also require you to have a board of directors so you'll need to recruit some other individuals and learn formal board procedures such as keeping minutes and preparing organizational policies and procedures. Once you have a board put together, decide on each person's role and then create the following together:

Stray dog enjoying being held by rescue volunteer
  1. A mission statement about why your organization exists
  2. Your board's bylaws which establish how you will operate as a board
  3. A budget with clear targeted fundraising goals
  4. Adoption policies and procedures in writing, so everyone is on the same page
  5. An adoption application form
  6. An adoption fee schedule for the animals
  7. A foster application if you will be using foster homes
  8. A surrender form if you will be taking in animals from owners
  9. Donation policies and procedures
  10. An agreed-upon set of goals by everyone as far as the number of animals you will take in, the number you wish to adopt out and milestones where you will review your numbers to make sure they are realistic
  11. A volunteer application form and volunteer handbook with policies
  12. Creating procedures and policies for your website and social media can also be a very good idea, especially if you will be having more than one person work on it

8. Begin Fundraising and Gathering Supplies

Another good reason for having a 501c3 is that it can encourage people to donate "in-kind" supplies to you, which can be anything from animal food, crates, leashes, aquariums, and anything that you can use that is not a monetary donation. You should start with making a list of all the "must have" supplies and work on either getting these donated, at a discount, or purchase them if necessary. This means you and your board will need to begin your fundraising efforts as well.

9. Take In Animals

Once you have all of your paperwork, processes, people and animal housing in place, you can start looking for animals to take in. Certainly many rescues take animals much earlier, but you'll be glad you waited until you had all the other important steps in forming your organization done first! In order to find animals, there are several ways that rescues do this and it depends on what your animal focus is:

Volunteer feeding orphaned foal
  • Many animal rescues find their charges simply by going to the local animal control office and selecting dogs and cats to save.
  • Others network with other rescues and shelters in the area to let them know what animals they will take in so they can be notified when a breed or species needs a home.
  • Network with veterinarians and pet care providers as well as they often find out about owners who need to give up a pet and are looking for a place to send them.
  • If you are focusing on a specific breed, network with breeders. They often can hear about animals of their preferred breeds that are at risk of losing their home and will steer these toward you for rescue.

One thing you should be prepared for is that as your rescue gets known, expect to be overwhelmed with calls and emails from owners desperate to find a place to send a pet. You will need to develop a strong stomach and thick skin to say no when these requests are not appropriate and when you do not have enough room or funds to take pets in that you cannot handle.

10. Advertise for Adopters

At the same time that you are taking in animals, you will want to begin advertising that your group exists and are looking for adopters.

  • If you're a breed specific rescue, contact the AKC club for that breed, as many enthusiasts are happy to adopt homeless pets in their breed of choice. (You may even end up with a waiting list.)
  • If your rescue is more general, add the animals to your website link it to a listing on petfinder.org and Adopt-a-Pet.com. You can also create accounts on these sites to list your animals.
  • Advertise locally using social media such as CraigsList and Facebook. While you cannot advertise animals for sale on these platforms, you can list information about your rescue and that you have animals that need home with a link to your website or Facebook page.
  • Connect with your local media, such as newspapers and TV news shows. Many of these have free listings for "pets of the week" needing homes and live or taped segments where you can showcase your rescue animals.
  • Network with local pet shops and other pet-friendly stores that might allow you to hold an adoption day with some of your pets. Many of these will also allow you to place flyers in their stores with information on your rescue.
  • Find stores locally that have community bulletin boards, such as grocery stores and coffee shops, and hang flyers there. Veterinary clinics also often let rescue groups hang flyers or place brochures or business cards in their offices. PetSmart and Petco allow this as well, and many small independent pet shops will also do this.
  • Be creative! Some rescue groups have "Adopt Me" vests made and walk dogs around parks with them on. Others hold donation drives at ice cream shops and sporting good stores with information on their pets. Don't limit yourself just to "pet" places as any local shop can be a source of potential adopters, whether it's a car dealership or a farmer's market.

Running an Animal Rescue Is Tough But Rewarding

Starting your own animal rescue can be a huge undertaking. Newcomers are often overwhelmed and discouraged because they start taking animals in before thinking about the fundamentals of running a nonprofit. They also can falter by taking in too many animals too fast. The key to running a successful animal rescue is to take your time, do all of your research and due diligence, talk to other rescuers to get their input and get all of your paperwork, processes and people in order first. Make sure you have clear goals and always stop to reevaluate to see what's working and what needs improvement. By taking these steps and going slow, you can have a rescue that saves many lives and creates happy families for years to come.

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How to Start an Animal Rescue With Step-by-Step Guide