If I can do this, so can you!
Just about everyone who visits the sanctuary asks me how I got started. They want to know what it takes to start a little animal refuge like mine and how much work it involves. Sometimes folks are just curious, but sometimes they want to know because they want to do something similar. My response? If I can do this, so can you!
I had entertained the thought of starting an animal sanctuary for many years, but it wasn't until about 10 years ago when I knew the time was right. I wasn't wealthy by any means, but I had a good, steady job working from home, and I had learned a lot from talking to folks who either ran or worked at other sanctuaries. I had also done a great deal of online research. It was time.
Before I go into detail about the logistics and decisions that led to where I am now with over 20 rescued animals, let me tell you about a very important ah-ha moment that literally changed the trajectory of my mission.
I used to have dreams of a large animal sanctuary with several acres of beautiful, healthy animals. I could envision a charming red barn sitting perfectly in the middle of a picturesque pasture, animals milling around, with lots of volunteers hard at work changing water and feeding the animals. People would come from all around to visit this magnificent place of love and beauty. And I wouldn't have to worry about money because it would just come flooding in through donations. Local businesses would support me, and people would volunteer to lead fundraising campaigns on our behalf.
I started by looking for the right property. Five acres was my absolute minimum, but I was hoping for more. After all, the last thing I wanted to do was run out of space and have to move all the animals. I wanted to be 100% prepared for my inevitable growth.
I knew it would take a lot of hard work to make my dream come true, but I was so ready. Thinking about my future animal sanctuary brought me great joy. My brain was constantly romanticizing about what a slice of heaven it would be. Dream of a lifetime!
But along with this joy also came great stress and anxiety. What if the money wasn't there? What if I didn't get all those donations pouring in? What if I lost my job and couldn't pay the bills? What if I couldn't find the right volunteers to come out to help me with the day-to-day operations while I was either working or attending a fundraising event? What would I do when there was an emergency? What if I had an accident and couldn’t physically handle farm duties anymore?
Would I really be able to handle all this? These are the things that kept me up at night. Something didn't feel quite right about my dream, and I needed to resolve it. Fast.
One day, I was looking at Zillow at available properties, and one in particular popped into my list. It was only five miles outside of Chapel Hill and didn’t have any restrictions for farm animals. After looking more closely, I saw that it was only three acres, so of course I immediately wrote it off as too small. It didn’t fit my criteria.
But I kept thinking about that little property. Wouldn't it be nice to live so close to town? Didn't I want a social life? Didn't I want to be close to grocery stores, coffee shops, and events? Did I really need to lose all that to have an animal sanctuary?
About that same time, someone told me about the microsanctuary movement and suggested I do a little research on it. I found out that it’s all about empowering people with limited space and resources to rescue farm animals. It’s not about the size of your property or how many donations you get. Even if you rescue one or two farm animals and give them a forever life of love and respect, your project is considered a microsanctuary.
According to their website, the microsanctuary movement is centered on the premise that "our space and our resources, no matter how limited, often are still sufficient for us to provide sanctuary to individual animals RIGHT NOW in order to prevent them from ever again being used as commodities. Additionally, microsanctuaries aren’t to be seen as stepping stones to larger sanctuaries but ends unto themselves."
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was the perfect candidate to start a microsanctuary. It didn’t have to be about the size of my property, the money I invested, and how many volunteers I had. Actually, It was just about doing my part to make a difference for farm animals using the resources I already had. It was just that simple.
I nervously scheduled a time to visit that little property outside of Chapel Hill. When I got there, I fell in love at first sight. The house was the perfect size, and the surrounding woods were so peaceful. I could just see pigs grazing out there among those trees, rooting around, tails wagging, making their little oinking and snorting noises in delight. The property was well within my financial means. I could still fulfill my dream without putting myself in a risky financial situation. I could do this. This was my ah-ha moment.
Now, almost seven years later, with over 20 rescued animals living out their beautiful lives in that patch of woods, I still say to you, “If I can do this, so can you.” Jenna and Friends is truly a microsanctuary. It feels right, I can manage it with my own finances (although the donations help tremendously), and I'm not overwhelmed with the day-to-day work. It's been the best thing I've ever done in my whole life.
If you’re thinking about starting your own microsanctuary, come see me! But in the meantime, I’ve put together some very high-level information about what you should consider as you plan your dream.
Budget your money
People always ask me how much money I spend to keep things running smoothly. My answer is that it depends on the week. Some of my guaranteed expenses are food, straw, heat lamps, water tubs, infrastructure repairs, light bulbs, and vet bills. Vet bills are not too bad unless you have an emergency. I've taken three pigs to the NC State Vet School, and let me tell you, they ain't cheap. But they're the best. And with those crazy expensive bills, I was able to recover over time. I’ll cover fundraising a little later, but let me just say that an animal emergency just begs for a donation campaign. People truly want to help, and I’ve received lots of help to pay off those bills, even from complete strangers.
Plan your time
Sometimes it's hard to quantify exactly how much time I spend doing sanctuary stuff each week. Some days are just basic feeding and watering twice a day (and walking out to check on everyone between work meetings). Some days I have more time-consuming projects like spreading straw, scooping poop, clearing the ramps, replacing light bulbs, and such. About once every 10-12 weeks, I do a total barn cleaning by first removing all the dusty straw and dragging it into the woods, sweeping out all the dust, and putting down new straw. I don’t mind this work at all. I put on loud music and make a day of it. Putting down the new straw is the fun part because the pigs get so excited. They love spreading it around with their noses.
Plan your infrastructure
Obviously your set-up depends on the type and number of animals you rescue, but regardless, you will need a sturdy, safe structure to serve as a barn. Animals require a barn to protect them from the weather. They need to be out of the wind and rain/snow. Flimsy structures just won't work. Go ahead and invest in a super sturdy barn. You won't regret it, and the animals will be safe and comfortable. Peace of mind is priceless.
You’re also going to need fencing, and unfortunately it’s not cheap. Even hog panels with tee posts are super expensive. But just like the barn, fencing is not where you want to cut costs. Trust me. Go ahead and get a professional to install your fence. And if you have a large property, remember you don't have to fence it all in yet. As you continue to run your sanctuary and get more accustomed to your finances, you can always expand later. And something like adding more fencing for more rescues or roaming areas is another perfect excuse for a fundraising campaign. People generally want to help, and they'll give when they can.
Get non-profit status
If you plan to dump your own money into your sanctuary, you'll definitely want to get 501(c)(3) status. It classifies you as a non-profit organization that you can use for lots of benefits. For example, by contributing to your own sanctuary, you can write off those charitable donations on your taxes, saving you a ton of money. As a non-profit, you are also eligible to apply for grants and get your sanctuary listed in corporate giving programs. People are also more likely to donate to a non-profit sanctuary rather than to an individual person. It just makes sense from a financial perspective.
Don't depend on donations
And speaking of donations, let me make something very clear. If I were to give you any financial advice at all in this blog post, I would tell you this - don't ever depend on donations to survive. That's a dangerous place to be. If we've learned anything with this pandemic, it's that you never know what the future holds. If you put yourself in a situation where you'll lose everything without donations, that’s a big red flag to scale back your plan. Scale way back. Like the microsanctuary movement premise I quoted earlier, it's not about the number of animals. It’s about the quality of life. And that includes YOUR life.
Set up a small business account
Still on the subject of finances, it helps to have a dedicated small business account to manage your sanctuary money and keep it separate from your personal accounts. You can tie this business account to your website donation form and social media fundraisers so everything sanctuary-related is all together in one place. Having a separate bank account just makes things so much easier to manage and track your expenses and donations. Oh, and while you’re at it, you might as well set up a separate email account as well.
Create a mission statement
Once you set yourself up as an official non-profit entity, you'll need a mission statement that describes your goals. Your audience is anyone who is interested in your organization, including financial supporters, volunteers, or organizations that provide grants and fundraising outlets. Put your mission statement on your social media pages and website so everyone can see it.
As an example, here is my mission statement:
Our mission is based on three founding principles: (1) provide a loving and safe forever home for pigs in need, (2) serve as an example for others who want to start a small animal rescue in their community with little-to-no funding, and (3) educate others through events and social media about the plight of pigs who suffer the consequences of the breeding and food industries.
It may change, but for now, I’m satisfied. It's always a good idea to revisit it every few months to (1) make sure you are complying with your mission and (2) evaluate if your words need to be altered. My statement has basically stayed the same over the years, but I've definitely tweaked it here and there.
Dedicate a quarantine space
One important thing to remember when you're planning your barn and fencing, you'll need a dedicated quarantine space for new rescues. Most established herds of animals don't just welcome newcomers immediately. You'll need to introduce them slowly. And you'll also want to make sure you get your newcomers vetted and neutered before introducing them to the other animals. You can also use it when you have to separate a sick animal. Having a quarantine space is a 100% non-negotiable requirement for an animal sanctuary.
Be active on social media
If you have supporters (I hope you will!), be as active as you can on your social media channels. Your followers want to keep up with what you’re doing. People love the “feel good” posts that show the animals living out their lives free from fear or worry. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are perfect for advertising your fundraising campaigns and updating your fundraising supporters. Facebook is particularly outstanding for managing donations!
So that’s it for now. We’ve just scratched the surface, but that will get you started!
I want to leave you with this thought. It relates back to my ah-ha moment, which I will preach over and over again if you'll listen.
It's not about how many animals you rescue or how big your property is. Trust me, there's no correlation between the size of your operation and the impact you're making on the lives of each and every one of those beautiful creatures.
What really matters is the day-to-day of it all. Standing next to the fence watching the animals, admiring them lying in a perfect sliver of sun, wagging their tails, loving life. Your heart will swell with love and satisfaction when you think about their horror stories and how they’ll never ever, ever, ever have to be scared and lonely again.
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Anna O'Neal, founder and caretaker at Jenna and Friends Animal Sanctuary