So you want to be a rescuer? And by rescuer I mean the person who is the rescue frontline, organising foster spaces, adoptions, transport and animal release.
What skills do you think you’ll need? I’ll bet if you’re new to this, the first thing that will come to mind will be animal handling skills. You think it’s important to know about animal care, training, first aid, management and all that kind of thing. After all, you want to be a rescuer because you love animals, so that’s what’s important, right?
The most important animal a good rescuer needs to understand is fellow humans. If you’re one of those people who find themselves saying regularly, “I hate people”, or, “people are so irresponsible”, any version of “If people only desexed their pets/realised pets are for life/didn’t treat animals as disposable” or even wishing some horrible punishment upon other humans, you shouldn’t be in rescue. If you can’t show humans as much compassion as you show animals, you shouldn’t be in rescue. If you truly believe that the majority of humans are ignorant, irresponsible, unkind or cruel, you shouldn’t be in rescue. Possibly you should be in therapy, but that’s another story.
Of the many skills you’re going to need if you want to be a successful rescuer, the single most important one is people skills. If you don’t like people you’re not going to be a good rescuer, because successful rescue depends absolutely on humans to sustain your work. If you can’t build those good relationships and good networks your rescue won’t succeed.
Of course animal husbandry skills are important, but animal care isn’t rocket science and the internet is chock full of information about how to care for cats, dogs, rats, horses, livestock or any other kind of critter you want to rescue. But the stuff you really need to know about rescue? That’s hardly ever written down. So here is my list of essential skills for rescuers.
If you don’t like people and have trouble getting along with them, then your chances of being a successful rescuer are poor. You need the capacity to build strong relationships with pound and council staff, foster carers, other rescuers, transporters, supporters and, of course adopters. If you believe that most people are irresponsible, uncaring or ignorant, that’s going to come across to the people you have to work with and you’re going to find rescue a really tough gig.
Good people skills will help you recruit and keep foster carers, build trust with pound staff, keep faith with your supporters and donors. Good people skills will allow you to create networks of volunteers to help your work and keep those networks functional. Good people skills will build strong relationships with adopters and potential adopters, so that they become your supporters and your advocates. Good people skills will help you grow your rescue and build your reputation. Dealing kindly, ethically and sensibly with everyone your rescue connects with will not only attract more help, more support and more interest, it will help cushion you from the inevitable disappointment and heartache of rescue. Having made friends and build relationships you can use them when you need some assistance, someone to talk to, or a shoulder to cry on.
That doesn’t mean that every so often you won’t get angry, irritable, frustrated or just plain tired of people, but that shouldn’t be your default position. Not everyone is an extrovert, happy to make small talk with strangers, but a good rescuer needs to be able to deal clearly, honestly and kindly with all the people a rescuer has to work with. If you find that too hard, then you might be better suited to some other kind of role. Rescue is all about people.
And that brings me to communication. It’s a part of people skills, but it’s part of everything else you do as well, from writing animal profiles, to building your social media presence. You need to be able to represent your rescue whether you’re talking, writing or taking pictures. Clear, honest and effective communication will build your reputation.
It might not be fair, but an adoption profile full of spelling and grammatical errors doesn’t build confidence in potential adopters. From an adopter’s point of view, they trust you to help them find a pet who will be a safe and enjoyable member of their family. You may well be helpful, trustworthy and ethical, but that needs to be communicated through adherence to the common standards of professional communication, as well as in all other ways.
If your social media profile relies heavily on highly emotive language and a constant narrative about the evils of humans, you’re probably not presenting your best self to your supporters. Every time you interact with a potential adopter, pound staff, other rescuers or supporters you are building your rescue’s profile. Your rescue might not be a profession, but your presentation should be as professional as you can make it. That includes your web/social media presence, your documentation, your emails, your promotional material and your phone manner.
Few rescues sit down and think about how they are presenting themselves to the world, but as more and more rescue groups emerge, there is competition for homes, and how you communicate to people is going to make a difference to how many animals you are able to place.
What does the way you communicate with the world tell the world about your rescue?
Marketing goes hand in hand with communication skills. Rescuers tend to become rescuers because they are passionate about animals, but good marketing is how you’re going to find those animals homes.
This means that your adoption profiles are lively and interesting, that you take engaging photos of your animals and that you develop a consistent style for all your documentation.
If marketing isn’t your skill, this is a good place to find volunteer photographers, graphic designers, writers and others. You want your rescue to stand out from the crowd and good marketing is how that will happen. Marketing will develop your profile so that you attract foster carers, volunteers and financial supporters, so it’s worth putting time and energy into a basic marketing strategy.
What are your rescue’s values? How will you translate them into your marketing? What are the key messages you want your rescue to deliver? If you look at your rescue’s material, digital and otherwise, what is the story being told about your group?
Good marketing means that you need to keep up with current research about marketing tools, shelter research and what other groups are doing.
Paperwork, always paperwork. Good rescuers are good with paperwork, full stop. That means keeping all your animal records up-to-date, ensuring your Pet Rescue profile is always current, making sure that any reports you have to do (such as for groups holding a 16D) are submitted on time.
All the animals in your care will have a paper trail and it is vital that you keep this paper trail up-to-date. This includes ensuring that microchip change of owner forms are completed and submitted as soon as an adoption is completed. It means making sure that medical records are kept and filed and that your financial and other records are complete and accessible. If you take surrenders this means ensuring that every surrender you take has a signed surrender form and change of microchip forms accompanying it.
Your administration tasks also include organising animal release from pounds, transport, foster care places, answering animal enquiries, organising meetings, home checks, veterinary appointments, fund raising or adoption events. Even a small rescue group should expect to spend several hours every week on administration, paperwork and organisation.
If you’re not a naturally organised person this is a good place to look for some volunteers who are get at it. Some people actually enjoy filing. Really.
Doing rescue costs money. If you’re not independently wealthy you’ve going to need to think about how you can balance the books. If you’re charging an adoption fee you need to ensure that you’re charging enough to cover, at the least, your vet bills. If you’re relying on fundraising you have to make sure that your donation income is adequate. If you are going to rely on fund-raising you’re going to need to ensure that you have the appropriate legal status and approvals.
If you are working with interstate pounds you will need to factor the cost of transport into your business model. And no, you can’t rely on pledges for various animals, what will happen if some of those pledges don’t eventuate?
Part of your business model has to be a recognition of how many and what kind of animals you can care for and rehome. If you are wedded to the sick, the elderly or the otherwise incapacitated in animal terms, you will need to ensure that you can afford to cover what are likely to be big vet bills.
If you take lots of puppies you will need to make decisions about how you are going to manage (and afford) the inevitable litter of parvo puppies. A vet bill for a litter of puppies can easily set you back several thousand dollars – do you know you you’re going to pay for them?
If your rescue is going to be sustainable in the long term, you will need to balance your heart with your head, your compassion with your resources and your desire to help with your capacity to do so.
Inevitably your rescue will cost you money, but at the very least you need to ensure that you can pay your personal bills and take care of yourself, before you take care of anything or anyone, else.
Next blog I’ll post a list of resources to help with each of these skills. In the meantime, if you’ve got any thoughts, suggestions or additions, feel free to head over to my Facebook page and comment.