Setting Up Your Own Sanctuary

Setting Sanctuary

Richard and Laura Hoyle of Culpeper, Virginia - founders of Mini-Pigs, Inc. - are nothing less than guardian angels to the 175 potbellied pigs and three large farm pigs who call this 17-acre sanctuary home. Each pig arrives with his or her own story, ranging from, at best, a former owner who ran afoul of zoning laws, to the worst kinds of cruelty imaginable. The Hoyles' history with pigs goes back to 1987, when Laura got her wish - a pet piglet. Two years later, they took in a second pig who had been found running down a Virginia highway. After that, word got out around the state that the Hoyles were the ones to call if a pig needed a home. Mini-Pigs ( formally incorporated in 1998. The Hoyles do not take this endeavor lightly. After all, with so many sanctuaries struggling to survive, it can be a risky undertaking, and it is the well-being of the animals that is at stake. As the Hoyles will say in no uncertain terms, you need more than good intentions. Here's some advice for anyone thinking about starting a sanctuary.

Examine your motives. "Be brutally honest with yourself. Why do you want to operate a sanctuary? If your only answer is because you love the animal, stop and rethink what you are doing - because love is not enough," says Richard Hoyle. "The level of commitment, heartaches, dedication, time, energy, money and just plain sweat it takes will soon exceed the love factor."

Educate yourself. Volunteering at a sanctuary is probably the best way to learn. Visit other facilities, speak to the directors and staff and ask questions.

Define your goals. Draft a written mission statement defining the purpose and goals of the sanctuary. How will the sanctuary grow? Take a long-term view.

Make it official. To incorporate, you will need a mission statement, as well as bylaws and articles of incorporation. These documents will be required by the IRS if you hope to qualify for tax-exempt status. A lawyer who specializes in nonprofits may be helpful and is almost always necessary unless you are willing and able to process the paperwork yourself. Become accredited. This will help establish credibility and will give you access to a broad community of sanctuaries. Mini-Pigs is an accredited member of the Association of Sanctuaries (

Choose your location carefully. Check with your town to make sure the location you have in mind is zoned for the use you intend. Potbellied pigs, for example, are considered "exotic pets" by the USDA, but most states list them on the books as "livestock." Therefore, laws regarding the latter apply.

Learn to fund-raise. Niche shelters, such as Mini-Pigs, may find it harder to raise money than more conventional companion-animal sanctuaries. Compounding the challenge, the Hoyles are in the middle of farm country, where pigs are generally considered a commodity. The sanctuary, therefore, is regarded as a bit of an oddity. Consequently, the majority of the funding for Mini-Pigs comes from the Hoyles themselves, who hold full-time jobs outside the sanctuary.

Be realistic. Resolve to grow only as your funding, space and time allow. This will likely mean making tough decisions about accepting animals. The Hoyles know this all too well. "Saying 'no' to a desperate pig is, without a doubt, the hardest thing we have to do. We agonize over every decision," says Richard.

Ask for help. Depending on the size and nature of your sanctuary, you will need professional support. It's paramount that you find a sympathetic local vet who will work with you. Likewise, enlist the help of individuals with expertise in public relations, fund-raising and website design. Beyond these special skills, seek out volunteers who will give their time and energy to the animals.

Be prepared for hardship. Running a sanctuary is an undertaking that requires commitment and a lot of grunt work (no pun intended). All too often, you are faced with situations you could not have imagined, and you may get discouraged. You will be confronted with the dark side of human nature. The Hoyles have been there, but they would not trade their lives for anyone else's. The work is hard but, to them, never a burden.

Keep your eye on the prize. "Don't lose sight of the inspiration for your sanctuary," say the Hoyles. "Our mission is to make this sanctuary better and lend a hand to others who are struggling. Our goal is to rescue and provide lifetime care to these unique, wonderful and much misunderstood little animals."

Ellen McCurtin is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

© 2003 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch - Spring 2003

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