Lifesaving Paw-tnerships: How to Build and Sustain Healthy Relationships Between Rescues and Shelters

This is fundamental: Shelters and rescue organizations must work cooperatively in order to save animals in need. 

Having worked in large open admissions shelters, and now as a rescue director, I have witnessed thriving partnerships—as well as those that have soured. 

With these years of experience, an initiative I now champion is relationship-building between shelters and rescues. Here are some of the ways for shelters and rescues to best grow positive, long-lasting relationships. 

For Shelters:

Build Personal Relationships

One of the easiest ways I’ve found to build a partnership is by making it personal. When a new rescue partner is being onboarded by your shelter, take the time to have a conversation with your new contact, and get to know their rescue process and what they require. 

Ask leading questions about which animals they move quickly, and which they have the capacity for. 

Talk about the best way for the contact to reach you, and how they will see your animals most in need—whether that’s via a Facebook page, an email blast, a personal message or text, or some other method. 

Having, and building upon, these personal relationships can help you move animals—even those who are more challenging to place. 

When I was in a large open intake shelter, and we were sending out daily rescue pleas, I knew I could call or text some of these rescues on the side about those special but “quirky” animals who were getting no interest. These partners knew that meant I REALLY needed their help and would set in motion them making pleas for fosters. 

This often works, but it’s just as important to not take it personally when your partners have to say no, and appreciate that they know their capacity. 

Honesty, Always

In my opinion, the most important way a shelter can keep or lose a partner is by the information that is shared—everything from the intake notes, medical and behavioral observations, and more. When in doubt, share it all.  

It is so hard when you have a full shelter and animals are occupying all your intake kennels. You want to do whatever is necessary to move them. It’s always the ones who are about to be transported who start sniffling, or you see a suspiciously circular spot of hair loss. 

It can be tempting to overlook these observations and push animals along. Don’t do it. If you see something, let your rescue partner know. 

They may have to pass on the animal, or they may still be able to take them, but they will appreciate and respect that you value this relationship enough to be honest and transparent.

For Rescues:

Use Proper Language & Don’t Exaggerate or Assume

Just because a dog presents with scarring does not mean they were used in dog fighting. Just because a cat is fearful does not mean they were abused. 

By perpetuating animal welfare myths, we are not helping educate the public about the true issues we face.

Just as importantly, if you’re pulling a medical case you will be fundraising for, don’t use clickbait email subjects about “saving this animal from a kill shelter, moments away from death.”

Open admissions shelters are not the enemy, and there are fundraising tactics that don’t paint them in a negative light. Your shelter partners see your posts, and then may have to field negative comments and reviews as a result. 

Our animal welfare community is stronger when we work together, and when we are seen as working together.

Help Shelters Divert Intake

We are all waking up with inboxes full of requests for owner surrenders. As a rescue, you may not have the capacity to say yes every time, and that’s OK. 

But rather than sending back a form email directing the owner to their local shelter, are there any other options you can give?  

If your staff or volunteers have the capacity, can you call the owner and have a conversation about why they are looking to surrender? Are there medical or training resources you can refer them to? Are you able to provide food, or recommend a local food pantry? 

Have you directed folks to pets.findhelp.com, a one-stop site for finding and accessing pet support resources? Be sure also that you and your community partners are adding and claiming pet support resources on pets.findhelp.com to fully harness the power of this website!

Even if you know you are unable to take the animal, sometimes talking through resources is enough to keep the animal in their home, and out of the shelter system. 

Give the Benefit of the Doubt

Give your partner organizations the benefit of the doubt. Presume good faith. 

Shelters can only share the information they gather. If a pet behaves differently in a home than they did in the shelter, this is to be expected (and is usually for the better). Sometimes a pet develops an upper respiratory illness after transport, or this may have been missed on intake.

If you are regularly finding that the pets you’re receiving aren’t what you were expecting based on the information a shelter provides, have a conversation with the partner organization—and give your contact a chance to fix things. Perhaps you will need to adjust some of your own expectations, as well.

Another way we can give shelters the benefit of the doubt is online. Social media has become overwhelmingly contentious. Even a simple post about an adoptable pet can tailspin into full-fledged fights in the comments section. 

With so much vitriol and hearsay being shared at a rapid pace, take a deep breath and collect information before you share negative or inflammatory posts about shelters, especially partner organizations. 

This is not to say that you can’t advocate for the animals in your community, or take stands against harmful policies or practices. You can. You should.

But when it comes to highly emotional social media posts levying accusations against shelters, always have a conversation about what is actually happening before you go on the offensive. For example, don’t blindly share a post about a shelter euthanizing their population, or refusing to reunite an animal with their family. 

Most shelters will welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. You can decide how best to proceed once you have more information.

For All:

We’re All on the Same Team

It’s vital to remember that animal welfare staff and volunteers are some of the most empathetic, passionate, and dedicated individuals there are. 

Even when communication gets heated or there is a difference in opinions, try to stay grounded in the belief that we are all working towards a similar goal, and have the best of intentions. 

Reminding myself of this continually has helped me deescalate myself and others, because I truly believe we are all on the same team. 

Baked Goods

We all love them, they’re always appreciated, so bake some cookies and share when you see each other. If you need the BEST chocolate chip recipe, email me at tlefebvre@petconnectrescue.org.

Taylor Lefebvre is the current program director for PetConnect Rescue, Inc, and serves on the Board of My Pitbull is Family. Taylor previously served as Director of Operations at the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA, and Program Manager at the Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter (BARCS).

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