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the differences between a shelter, rescue, and sanctuary

It’s a bird, it’s a plane.  Nope it’s a sanctuary!!!


One of the GFS Board members stopped in the other day.  Can’t remember why she stopped but she asked me if I ever considered writing about the differences between shelters, rescues and sanctuaries.  She had a conversation with a friend and the friend had no idea what a sanctuary was all about.  Likewise, she had no idea what the differences were between sanctuaries, rescues, and shelters.  So here I am, sitting at the computer trying to put this whole thing into words that make sense.


I think the first thing to say is that there are no hard fast lines between these three facilities.  A shelter can be a rescue, or have a sanctuary program.  A rescue can be a sanctuary or provide shelter services for a community, and a sanctuary can be a rescue or shelter.  So, as I talk about what they are and are not, keep in mind that the lines and boundaries that identify each one is blurred.  Some facilities are fortunate enough to be all three.


We tend to think of a shelter as an SPCA or Humane Society.  They are usually big public type buildings that provide short term safe haven for found animals and usually function with mostly paid staff.  They accept, when space available, unwanted pets from the communities they serve and they have well developed adoption services.  Adoption fees contribute to the funding of these facilities.  Shelters often have contracts with local communities to provide space for strays all the time and get some funding from the community to provide this space.  Donations and grants also help fund shelters.  They may have an Animal Control Officer or Cruelty Investigator working at, or with, the facility.  Shelters, depending on the needs of the community, take in all sorts of animals, with some taking in large animals short term in rural areas.  The way shelters make required space available is often, sadly, euthanizing the animals that are there the longest or the least adoptable.  They have no choice.  No kill shelters do not put most of the animals in their care to sleep but then are forced to turn away animals in need when they are full.  Shelters often have unfair negative reputations simply because they have to make space available to the community’s needs and because of the overpopulation situation, euthanasia is often the only option.  They may or may not have extensive educational programs and assistance programs for the community.  The goal for all animals is a short term stay and adoption or returning a lost pet to their owner.


In the strictest sense, shelters are rescues.  After all they rescue an animal that is lost and provide short term housing for that animal.  But when we think of a rescue, we usually think of an organization or group of individuals that offer housing and adoption services for unwanted animals for longer periods of time.  There is no requirement to provide specific services to the community so they can choose the animals they accept.  Shelters with community contracts must take in all animals when there is room while a rescue can pick and choose what they take in and don’t take in.  Most operate out of a home and have a network of foster homes to take in the animals that come to them.  Rescues take in animals in need from all different sources in the community and their goal is to find homes for those that are adoptable.  Many accept problem animals and rehabilitate before adoption.  Unlike shelters, there are no time limits to how long they keep an animal so animals with an illness or behavior problem can stay until they are adoptable.  Rescues often focus on one or two different species although some will take in anything that can benefit from what the rescue has to offer.  Many rescues are breed specific and admirers of that breed or dedicated breeders provide volunteer staffing.  Just like the shelter, rescues often offer programs that help the animals and owners in a community although they seldom contract with local governments to provide space for strays.  Their primary focus is rescuing and rehoming animals in need.  Like community shelters, some are “kill” and some are “no kill” depending on policies and the needs of the communities they serve.  Many rescues do offer some permanent space for animals that do not get adopted although the more they keep, the fewer needy animals they can help as people call or stop in and request assistance.  Rescuers will often try to find permanent placement for unadoptable animals in a sanctuary, so now let’s talk about a sanctuary.

The word sanctuary means many things to many people but all those “things”, in some way or another, mean a place of tranquility, safety and refuge.  It is the place we go to find peace and also applies to a place devoted to a permanent home for unwanted animals.  Most sanctuaries could also be, in part, a rescue since they do try to find homes for any animal brought to them that is adoptable.  By finding homes for these adoptable animals, they make more space available for their real purpose…. providing that peaceful lifelong home to unadoptable or unwanted animals.  It is important to remember that the goal of a sanctuary is to be that peaceful safe home when no other options exist.  Many sanctuaries work with local rescues and shelters to take in animals that cannot find homes and just need a safe haven.  The big difference for sanctuaries is that every animal they take in has a home for life if not placed.  Strict shelters don’t have that luxury and rescues have limited space if they are going to continue their goal of rescuing and placing the animals that come through their doors.  Sanctuaries often take in dogs and cats that are left homeless after an owner passes away or can no longer care for their pets but the pet is no longer adoptable to the general public.  These pets are often older pets that suffer emotionally if thrust into a shelter situation or will take up valuable space in a rescue because of the things that make them unadoptable.  Feral or unsocial cats who just want to live their life with little to no human contact often find their way to sanctuaries, along with pets with illnesses that are not short time life threatening but too difficult or expensive for the current owner.  Shelters tend to be very short-term safety nets.  Rescues are able to provide a longer period of time for placement and sanctuaries are focused on permanent homes for the “least” desirable animals needing homes.  While shelters and rescues can usually count on adoption fees, sanctuaries, by definition, cannot depend on this sort of income.  Grants, private funding, and dedicated donors are the main areas of income.

If you have made it through this long post, you may have questions or comments.  Please feel free to start a discussion, add an opinion or ask a question about the topic.  All we ask is to keep any discussion respectful.  This post is an opinion and we welcome other views.  We also hope to have another post soon about the “kill” “no kill” debate.

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