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Rescue Group Best Practices: implementing a culture of respect

Animal rescue is among the most difficult work out there. Every day we witness some of the very worst of human behavior and it breaks our hearts. But we also work with some of the most caring and passionate individuals who are dedicated to saving as many lives as possible. While we spend so many resources caring for the animals, we often forget to care for ourselves as well as the thousands of other people in the animal welfare community.

The homeless animal issue is a problem bigger than any one organization can solve. Only through a comprehensive and collaborative approach will we be able to decrease intake at shelters and rescue groups (through such initiatives as bolstering spay/neuter and vaccination clinics, implementing TNR, increasing pet retention and shutting down puppy mills) and increase the live release rate (by increasing adoptions, expanding foster networks and increasing transfer rates between shelters and rescue groups), thereby ensuring humane care for each and every homeless pet. No single organization can do it alone and we have a responsibility to foster a culture of respect within our own organizations and extend it to others.


In the animal rescue community, we all know there is no one way to rescue animals. There are over 10,000 rescue groups in the U.S. and Canada and each organization has a different and valid way of running its program. The animal welfare world is known for being divisive and we are never going to solve the problem of animal homelessness if we do not stop fighting each other and start working together. We need to recognize that not all communities can transform overnight and that it truly takes a village to save homeless animals.

Humane discourse is not about stifling criticism nor is it meant to excuse unacceptable practices. Instead, it is about finding appropriate ways to increase dialogue between different organizations and using suitable outlets for discussing differences. Set aside time in your next staff meeting to discuss issues of concern instead of posting your latest frustration on social media outlets or discussing it during an adoption event. Also think about the impact of the language you choose. For example, are you rescuing an animal from a shelter or with a shelter? How can changing that one word impact your relationships? We all lead by example and when others see us always speaking positively and bringing up issues in an appropriate manner, they will follow suit. Language has an impact and when we tear down shelters, we risk tearing down shelter animals as no one will want to adopt from an entity that is considered “bad.” This only serves to create a greater reliance on limited rescue resources and do a disservice to animals in need.


Between the seemingly endless flow of homeless animals and the abuse and cruelty we see on a daily basis, it is easy to become overwhelmed with compassion fatigue, also known as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. Some signs of compassion fatigue are negativity, lack of accountability, high turnover, long-lasting illnesses that never seem to resolve, infighting, resistance to change, feeling powerless, feeling apathetic about work and feeling trapped. Oftentimes this stems from the sadness and guilt that arises from not being able to save every animal coupled with pent-up frustration from dealing with careless people.

Make sure you take care of yourself and let others in your organization know if you need a break—they will understand because they may be going through the same thing. Look after your fellow rescuers. If you ignore the signs of compassion fatigue, the effects of negative stress will trickle into the overall morale of the organization and people will burn out. It will likely happen to everyone in the field at some point, so do not be afraid to lean on others and do not try to work through the burnout alone. Learn what your stressors are and create a plan to help yourself deal with them. Taking a short break or getting professional help when you feel the stressors start to get out of hand will allow you to rest and work at your full potential later. This will benefit your colleagues, the organization and the animals in the long run. You cannot help others until you first take care of yourself.


It can be challenging to keep your cool in this line of work. Between the long list of animals in need, overwhelming veterinarian bills, and the sad stories we deal with on a daily basis, always providing calm and courteous service to infuriating customers can seem impossible. This along with many rescuers claiming that they are not a “people person” can lead to unhappy potential adopters and fewer animals going to a home. While we all started in this business because we love animals, we need people to make the organization work—staff to run the rescue group, volunteers to help, donors to fund, fosters to provide temporary care and adopters to provide animals with loving homes. Good customer service should be the cornerstone of every interaction your organization has with people—whether they are the general public, potential adopters, volunteers, shelter personnel or animal control officers. Every person involved with your rescue group is an ambassador for your organization. Set a good example and ensure that everyone associated with your rescue treats customers and potential customers in a welcoming and nonjudgmental way.

Most people are good and treat their animals well. Remember that many will not have the knowledge that you have, so before thinking a question such as “Can you ship a dog to me?” is a red flag, consider that the person may be legitimately unfamiliar with rescue, or that this is his first pet. Keep in mind that if someone comes to your organization wanting to adopt, they are already trying to do the right thing and you do not want to scare them away by treating them with suspicion.

Good customer service is essential to the success of your organization as your reputation is priceless and easily destroyed with one bad encounter. Be accepting of feedback that may not be positive, and take it as a learning experience. Keep an eye on reviews on Yelp and other review sites such as Great Nonprofits, to see what the general sentiment is about your organization and your brand.

One of the most frequent complaints from potential adopters is that they did not receive a response to their inquiry or application. Combat this by setting organizational standards for responding to questions and adoption applications so that, for example, all inquiries receive a reply within 24 hours and all adoption applications— even if it is not approved or the animal is not available—receive a response. Do not miss out on opportunities for an adoption. Make sure your available pet postings are updated frequently to ensure that all listed animals are currently available. It can be frustrating for an adopter to fall in love with a pet online only to find out the pet is not available after all.

A few practical tips for good customer service: Be prompt with responses to inquiries and use a friendly and warm demeanor; provide accurate, current and easily accessible information on your organization and the animals in your care; actively listen and be friendly to the people who approach your rescue group; always remain calm and professional; and say thank you to the people who work with your organization. For more information, check out the Rescue Central resources on Customer Service.