Longhopes Donkey Shelter founder Kathy Dean raises questions that many refuse to face
BENNETT, Colorado––From her Longhopes Donkey Shelter, located in the foothills just east of Aurora and Denver, Kathy Dean has seen fellow sanctuarians come and go for long enough to be looking ahead, something most never seem to do.
An ANIMALS 24-7 reader from our first beginnings, Dean has read in depth and detail about many worst-case sanctuary failure scenarios, has tried unsuccessfully to help other sanctuarians avert disaster when they plan successions poorly or not at all, and is determined not to repeat the same mistakes.
Sanctuaries have 20-year average lifespan
“Once I wrote and asked you what the average lifespan of a mom-and-pop animal rescue is,” Dean recently recalled. “You replied 20 years. I am now on year 23, but I think your 20-year estimate is still reasonable.
“Because I am now 66 and planning my succession, which is a challenge unless the organization is as big as the American SPCA,” Dean mentioned, “this has me thinking more and more about all the aging animal rescuers, and breeders too.
“I was particularly struck by the most recent bird rescue disaster,” Dean said, referring to the collapse of the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary in Stanwood, Washington.
“Fifty birds and dogs were all dead, starved in cages, because [founder Lori Keene Rutledge, 66] lived alone, and no staff or volunteers or public ever entered her place,” or were even allowed to enter by the reclusive Rutledge, who died from cancer.
“No eyes on the problem intensifies the problem”
“No eyes on the problem intensifies the problem,” Dean observed. “My suspicion is that we will see these cases more often.”
Indeed, mass neglect cases associated with the failure of animal shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries have occurred increasingly often for more than 25 years, parallel to the aging of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation.
The median age of “Baby Boomers,” meaning people born between 1946 and 1964 reached 60 in 2005.
Animal shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries were by then already failing at the rate of about one every two weeks, leaving thousands of “rescued” animals in need of re-rescue.
This was more than five times the failure rate of the two decades from 1980 through 1999, according to the ANIMALS 24-7 log of mass neglect cases, begun in 1982.
Sanctuary work differs from dog rescue
The median age of “Baby Boomers” is now more than 65. Animal shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries are now failing at the rate of more than one each and every week, ten times the rate of the 1980-1999 time frame.
Failures of sanctuaries for hoofed animals, birds, exotic species, and/or dangerous wildlife, however, follow a somewhat different pattern from failures of dog and cat rescue projects, which usually focus on rehoming, rather than providing care for life to animals who cannot be rehomed.
Dog and cat rescue projects are often begun by young people, with little or no investment in land or infrastructure, and limited commitment. Dog and cat rescues typically fail within three years or less, usually before obtaining IRS 501(c)(3) status and buying property.
Dog and cat hoarders masquerading as rescuers are more often than not chronically unstable repeat offenders, frequently operating under ever-changing names from ever-changing locations.
Even ramshackle roadside zoos require investment
Seldom has a failed dog and/or cat rescue project operated successfully for many years from facilities built for the purpose, establishing a positive reputation before collapse.
By contrast, sanctuarians housing hoofed animals, birds, exotic species, and/or dangerous wildlife rarely start before mid-life, since practically by definition these animals require special facilities.
Only people with substantial savings, income, or credit tend to have the capability to buy or build facilities suitable for keeping animals other than dogs and cats.
Even the most ramshackle roadside petting zoo calling itself a sanctuary needs money and/or land to get started, usually land that cannot be rented.
The extent of investment necessary to start a sanctuary in itself tends to ensure that the founders will sustain the project for ten years or more.
Most sanctuaries last at least 10 years, but fail before 20
Few sanctuaries accredited by any sanctuary association, including those that provide cover for roadside petting zoos pretending to be sanctuaries, fail in less than a decade.
Conversely, though, most reach a transition point around 20 years after founding, when the founders are no longer able to do the amount of work necessary to maintain their animals and facilities, lack the revenue to hire adequate help, also have an aging and diminishing donor and volunteer base, and have no younger staff or volunteers who are either willing or able to keep the operation going.
This time tends to come, moreover, much sooner than most people looking after hoofed animals, birds, exotic species, and/or dangerous wildlife expect it will.
Lessons from 25 failures
Researching this article, ANIMALS 24-7 reviewed 25 failures of well-established and well-known sanctuaries since 2003, meaning by “failure” that allegedly starving and/or otherwise neglected animals were removed from dilapidated premises, or were placed under the care of new people by court order.
Few if any of the failed sanctuaries in the ANIMALS 24-7 sample kept only one sort of animal, but ten focused on large and exotic cats, six focused on nonhuman primates, five focused on equines, two focused on wolves or wolf hybrids, and two focused on birds.
ANIMALS 24-7 found that the average and median ages of the 27 founders or co-founders at the time their sanctuaries failed was only 61, four years short of eligibility to retire and collect full Social Security benefits.
Almost all had experienced significant health problems, counting alcoholism, other substance abuse, and disabling accidents. Most of the accidents were associated with animal care.
An unexpected finding was that practically all of the 27 founders or co-founders of failed sanctuaries had made efforts to conceal or even falsify their ages in the years preceding the sanctuary failures. ANIMALS 24-7 tried to establish actual ages, but the stated ages of several of the 27 remain suspect.
None of the 27 founders or co-founders were younger than 45, if any really were younger than 50. Eleven were in their fifties, eight were in their sixties, five were in their seventies, and only one, Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette, had reached 80, though she claimed to be still only 79 shortly before her death three years later.
Also significant in Colette’s case is that the allegations of neglect of facilities that eventually closed Wildlife Waystation originated when Colette was age 55, around 25 years before the California Department of Fish & Game finally mandated the closure,
Colette was not accused of neglect of animals.
Not even 10% of sanctuaries survive a transition to new management
As well as the age-related trends, ANIMALS 24-7 data shows that not even 10% of all sanctuaries survive a transition to a second generation of management––and this is true even when bequests and/or an aggressive direct mail campaign provide some economic stability.
Some sanctuary failures, indeed, occur when either a founder or designated successor engages in embezzling or self-serving co-mingling of assets. Several sanctuaries have failed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their accounts and millions of dollars in bequests expected, though many more have gone bankrupt.
Almost no sanctuaries have passed successfully to a third generation of management.
The same goes for privately owned zoos, whether calling themselves sanctuaries or not, and regardless of whether they have nonprofit status.
“Volunteerism too has changed”
Founders often do not want to give up control of projects to which they have dedicated their lives. But even when founders are willing to step aside in favor of younger successors, capable successors tend to be hard to find
“Volunteerism too has changed,” Dean noted. “We are seeing fewer and fewer people who can or will commit to volunteering more than one time, or for reasons other than their own mental therapy. This too isolates rescuers and leaves animals vulnerable to death by neglect.
. “Are the younger generations prepared to take over these rescues?” Dean asked.
“Are they willing to work long hours each day and on the weekend to keep up the rescue, with no monetary reward for themselves? It seems like in this current labor market that the answer to both questions is no.
“It is difficult but necessary,” Dean continued, “to embrace the ideas of younger staff and unfortunately, the animals need volunteers, staff, and the public to be whistleblowers as the Baby Booming rescuers lose their physical and mental agility to provide the animals with proper care.”
Merger, closure, consolidation, downsizing
Reality is that the Baby Boom generation was far larger than either of the the two now fully adult generations following. That means there are not as many younger people to fill any sort of job or take over any kind of business, nonprofit or otherwise, as there are older people retiring, dying, or becoming incapacitated due to conditions of age.
Merger, closure, consolidation, and downsizing are among the inevitable consequences, especially for nonprofit organizations relying on volunteer help––and often on volunteer management, as well.
“Just the national shortage of veterinarians and the many, many hour restrictions that veterinary clinics have imposed on customers because the vets don’t want to work nights, or weekends, is an indication of what lies ahead,” Dean warned.
“The labor shortage is not going away and non-profits without elaborate benefit packages will be hard hit to find anyone to do physical labor cleaning animal feces!
“Will there be enough new rescues to replace all the aging rescues?” Dean asked.
Will demand for sanctuary care diminish?
If the demand for sanctuary care of hoofed animals, birds, exotic species, and/or dangerous wildlife remained as high as it has been from the late twentieth century to the present, the answer would be no.
But, while the population of wild horses in Bureau of Land Management custody and in potential need of rescue has never been higher, at 50,000, the U.S. owned horse population has dropped since 2003 from more than nine million to less than seven million.
The U.S. exotic pet population, including birds, reptiles, and small mammals, has steadily climbed for decades, according to American Veterinary Medical Association surveys, but legal restrictions on acquiring big cats, wolves, bears, and other dangerous species may be reducing the numbers of these animals in private hands.
Only time will tell that.
“I did find someone wonderful”
Fewer but better sanctuaries, housing fewer animals, would be the best outcome of a diminishing population of sanctuarians.
“I did find someone wonderful to take over my rescue,” Dean said in a follow-up note, “but it took me 18 years to do it. I had to take a chance on a person with no real experience, and I had to be willing to be a mentor.
“My successor is also a very smart, ambitious person,” Dean added, “so she will have many, many opportunities available to her when she bores of this. That is the double-edged sword of hiring someone who is not stupid or lazy.
“All of this raises the question of whether government regulation is a necessity in the animal business,” Dean finished. “That is very difficult pill to swallow, given the horrendously poor job the government has done for 51 years, ‘managing’ the wild mustang and burro herds.
“But how else do we protect animals from being victims of ‘well-meaning’ but poorly operated rescues?”