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Animal Sanctuaries

Scott Kirkwood, ASPCA’s Animal Watch Winter 2000

Havens on Earth?

In the world of animal protection, what role does the sanctuary play?

Terry Cummings rises at 4:00 every morning, lets the goats and sheep out at about 5 a.m., checks on the horses and chickens and begins cleaning the barns and setting out food for the animals. Though her life sometimes mimics that of a farmer, Cummings is actually one of the directors of Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary (PSAS) in Poolesville, MD, home to about 120 farm animals who have been rescued from abusive situations, fallen off trucks destined for the slaughterhouse or found themselves otherwise displaced and transferred from humane societies in the region. Along with her partner, Dave Hoerauf, Cummings works until nearly midnight caring for animals, performing fundraising duties and going about the business of running a sanctuary. Four hours later, she starts all over again.

Animal Sanctuaries


Countless animal lovers insist that the only thing keeping them from establishing an animal sanctuary is a winning lottery ticket. But how many of us really understand the commitment involved in establishing and running an animal sanctuary? And what is the role of the animal sanctuary beyond merely housing and feeding a few dozen animals? Given the enormous number of farm animals, wild creatures and domestic animals suffering and dying in the name of agriculture, entertainment and research, is there really any point in helping the handful that tumble out of the system?

Ask the individuals running a few of the most respected animal sanctuaries today, and you’ll get a resounding “Yes,” though it may take a few phone calls, voice mail messages and e-mails to get a response, given the amount of time and energy they devote to their work.

Friend or food?

Four years ago, Cummings and Hoerauf established Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary by volunteering as many hours as possible while funding the operation with income from their full-time jobs. In February 2000, the two began devoting all of their time to the dozens of animals on their property, having come quite a distance from Cummings’ previous interactions with farm animals: She studied animal science at the University of Maryland; earned an associate degree in veterinary technology from Northern Virginia Community College, and had worked at the National Zoo, an animal research lab and other organizations before committing herself to helping animals, rather than maintaining them in harmful or exploitative situations.

Cummings’ awakening to the cruelty that farm animals face came not long after she and Hoerauf moved onto property bordering a farm that was home to dozens of beef cattle. “When we first moved there, we’d thought, ‘Well isn’t this wonderful, living in a place where there are cows roaming all over?'” says Cummings. She and Hoerauf made friends with the cows, naming them and even feeding them apples.

“One day I was in the house, and I heard mooing and bellowing,” remembers Cummings. “I looked out the window and saw the farmers and their sons beating and shocking these animals and putting them on a giant trailer. It was an epiphany for me. I honestly hadn’t considered it – even in college we didn’t talk about slaughtering the animals, just about raising them. But this was personal. They were killing the animals that I cared about – and I was eating the same animals.”

This realization led Cummings and Hoerauf to eliminate all animal products from their diet, and a few years later they decided to devote their lives to helping farm animals gain the respect and compassionate treatment they deserve. They had already been planning to locate some land and establish a sanctuary when their landlord agreed to remove the cattle farmer and give the couple a long-term lease on the property. Right now, one of the biggest challenges they face is providing the proper medical care for animals that are most often raised to be killed.

“There aren’t many ‘food animal’ veterinarians in our area, and many of the ones who are out there aren’t compassionate people,” says Cummings. “Veterinarians will come and help us when we call, but they don’t always know what to do with farm animals because farmers usually aren’t willing to pay anything [to save an animal destined for the slaughterhouse].”

When one of the sanctuary’s pigs recently suffered from seizures, a local veterinarian insisted that nothing could be done – though a dog in a similar situation would be given an anticonvulsant, such as phenobarbital or pentobarbital. The veterinarian knew of no recommended dosage for pigs, because no one ever treats pigs. To fill in those gaps, Cummings applies her knowledge of animal care, stays in touch with other sanctuaries and has recently established a relationship with the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine – but much of the work is simply learned on the job.

Another major obstacle is fundraising. Cummings and Hoerauf hold two major events each year, make appearances at conferences and encourage interested people to sponsor an animal with a monthly payment. And that means hours of corresponding with donors, sending out photos and updates and filing all the related tax documentation. But no matter how much work they do, it never seems to be enough.

“There are nine billion farm animals killed for food each year in this country alone, and we can’t put the smallest of dents in that with the number of animals we rescue,” says Cummings. “So our main goal is to save animals by educating people – talking to them about how the animals are treated and where their food comes from. If people come here and meet the animals and see how wonderful they are, they may decide to eat less meat – and that way we can save many more animals.”

That’s one reason why the sanctuary invites dozens of children from Washington, DC-area elementary schools to visit every summer. Though it’s doubtful that many will become vegetarians before making it to the sixth grade, according to Cummings, children who feed pigs, hold chickens and pet turkeys gain a perspective beyond that provided by the cellophane packaging they encounter in the meat aisle at the local grocery store.

Isn’t that wild?

When you run a sanctuary for wild animals, however, it’s not possible to give regular tours of your property, a fact that makes it even more difficult to raise funds for your organization and educate the public. At Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a sanctuary in Boerne, TX, Lynn Cuny and company take in a range of animals that would make Noah proud: Native species such as squirrels, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats and coyotes, birds and reptiles are treated and returned to the wild whenever possible. The role of true sanctuary comes with the care of nonnative species that can’t be reintroduced to the wild – mountain lions who have been declawed, primates who are imprinted on humans and iguanas and other nonindigenous reptiles – mostly victims of the exotic pet trade.

“Our goal has always been to provide the kind of care for these animals that would closely mimic life in the wild – we build large outdoor areas with natural terrain and bushes, and we never put animals on cement slabs,” says Cuny. “But unfortunately, a cage is a cage no matter how big it is, and you always have to be aware of that.”

Some of those cages have grown in size, now that the sanctuary has completed its move to a new 187-acre property, but that doesn’t mean Cuny will be taking in dozens more animals anytime soon.

“We can give more space to the animals we’ve already made a commitment to, and as they die, we can replace those animals with others. But if you’ve got 15 animals crammed into two acres of land, what’s the point? Quality of life is very important here because if we’re going to stand on a soapbox and say that these animals don’t belong in captivity, then we’d better be damn sure we’re doing our jobs well.”

In fact, every time a sanctuary takes in another animal, its directors must balance the fact that they’re saving a life with the possibility that they may simply be enabling others to contribute to the horrible trend the sanctuary is trying to stop.

“If all you’re doing is taking in animals, then you’re sending the wrong message to people,” says Cuny. “If someone can come to your sanctuary and leave thinking, “Well that was easy – we owned that tiger for six months, and he went to a good place,” then you should rethink the message you’re sending out. Yes, you’re saving individual animals, and that’s important, but there’s a much bigger picture – we have a responsibility to evaluate our impact on that picture by looking at our actions and the example we’re setting.”

Unfortunately there are plenty of individuals calling their operations sanctuaries, while making no effort to care for the animals. It’s not uncommon for roadside zoos to display wild cats in cages and ask for “donations.” Some exotic animal dealers have even asked the public to support their work to keep “endangered species” alive, while breeding and selling animals who have no impact on conservation efforts whatsoever.

When the research is over…

In a lush, green, almond-shaped valley in the middle of Kentucky, April Truitt and the staff and volunteers at the Primate Rescue Center (PRC) care for more than 100 primates who have spent years as biomedical research subjects for pharmaceutical firms and universities. Some arrive straight from research institutions, but others are delivered to animal dealers and sold as pets, then delivered to a sanctuary by overwhelmed owners. Although it’s illegal to import primates into the country for sale as pets, federal agencies responsible for enforcing such legislation are unable – or more properly, unwilling – to step in and prevent trafficking in animals. So either way, in the end, sanctuaries are the ones left to clean up the mess.

“It’s very difficult to care for these animals,” says Truitt. “Research facilities may offer to pay a small amount or ship the animal to you for free, but these animals live for 50 or 60 years – most will outlive me – and to house an animal for that amount of time costs a lot of money.”

According to Truitt, biomedical firms are fueling the pet trade – men and women of science who try to appease their conscience by going to dealers and keeping these animals alive by any means possible after their research is completed.

“I simply refuse to take in all of these animals so that the researchers can become the heroes [who preserved a life],” she adds. “The minute you open your doors and say, “Yes, I’ll take all of your animals,’ your sanctuary will be completely filled.”

Truitt has appealed to law enforcement officials to take action, but until they are willing to step in, she’s monitoring the pet trade as closely as she can, warning researchers about unsavory dealers who are all too willing to take these animals off their hands and trying to let the public know more about the plight of these animals who can never go home.

Oddly enough, just like Cummings, Truitt stumbled upon her role only after becoming a part of the equation herself. In 1987, her partner was interested in bringing a macaque into their family, and unwittingly answered an ad from a pet dealer who then brought Gizmo into their lives. Soon thereafter the two took in JoJo, an older monkey in need of care, and before long their experience and intimate knowledge of the field led them to take on the role of advocates for these animals.

When many of the animals arrive at PRC, they may believe that they are human, a concept that’s often quite difficult to “unlearn.” Primates who have lived their lives in cages may exhibit stereotypical behaviors, such as chronic rocking, stomping, toe sucking, even self mutilation. Sadly, there is no chance for these animals to be returned to the wild. The best that can be done is to provide them with a habitat that mimics their original home – a large enclosure where these very social animals can be encouraged to interact with other group members.

By providing a safe haven for these primates, and helping them learn how to interact with members of their species, Truitt finds the work very rewarding. But like every other sanctuary, the staff and volunteers at PRC know that the only real victory will come when they can finally turn off the spigot that brings animals to their doorstep and put their own sanctuary out of business.

Do sanctuaries really help?

Poplar Spring, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation and Primate Rescue Center are only three of the dozens of accredited sanctuaries in the United States that care for a wide range of animals, including exotic cats, native wildlife, farm animals, birds, primates, reptiles, elephants, marine mammals and even companion animals.

But whatever type of animal a sanctuary welcomes, the question quickly becomes: Are we keeping these animals alive for their own benefit or for ours?

It’s a question that must be answered by all sanctuaries. Conservation organizations, as well as many zoos, are already doing all they can to preserve numerous species and reintroduce them to their native habitats, so does it make sense to rescue one declawed mountain lion and relocate him to a sanctuary for the rest of his life? Is there any value in keeping a dozen chickens alive indefinitely when millions more will be slaughtered annually? In the end, perhaps there is no single answer.

“Sanctuaries represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” says Steve Zawistowski, senior vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “What we think of sanctuaries and how they operate probably crosses the spectrum of all the different ways people think about animals and all the different types of relationships we have with them.”

And maybe that’s the most important work that any sanctuary can do – force people to think about the way we view animals, regardless of the species.

Freelance writer Scott Kirkwood lives in Washington, DC.

I Want to Help, But How do I Choose?Whether you’re interested in donating time, supplies or money to a sanctuary, you may want to ask a few questions before doing so. Worthy sanctuaries will follow the guidelines included below, some of which have been adapted from The Association of Sanctuaries (, an organization that monitors sanctuaries and provides accreditation to those that adhere to these and other animal care and operational guidelines.

  • No breeding takes place at a true sanctuary. Although some organizations claim to breed lions and tigers to return these endangered species to their former numbers, breeding is best left to accredited zoos with scientifically based breeding plans, veterinary staff and extensive conservation programs. Most captive breeding only contributes to the number of animals in need of sanctuary
  • No overcrowding occurs at a true sanctuary. The directors of such organizations understand their limitations and know that their primary goal is to provide the highest quality care for animals rather than take on as many as possible.
  • Optimum care is provided. This includes excellent, varied diets, immediate medical attention, comfortable housing and the appropriate social environment for each species.
  • There are no open doors at reputable wildlife sanctuaries. Wildlife in sanctuaries have already been through an ordeal, and to exhibit them would likely bring on even more stress, while contributing to the belief that cages are an acceptable environment for wild animals. Some sanctuaries may offer tours once a year, but most will provide photos and post information on their websites to show donors how their support is helping.
  • A board of directors oversees activities. Many sanctuaries start off small, but as soon as a sanctuary begins taking in numerous animals in need of extensive care, it should establish itself as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, create a board of directors and determine the future of the organization in the event the primary caretakers can no longer provide for the animals.
  • What about companion animals? It’s one thing to establish a sanctuary for wild animals, such as chimpanzees and mountain lions, or domesticated animals, such as cows and pigs, but what about sanctuaries for cats and dogs? “Much of the answer is inherent in the name “companion animal,”” says Steve Zawistowski, senior vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “If dogs are to truly be our companions, is it really fair to just assign them “caretakers” or “guardians” who won’t be able to provide the same bond?” Because cats are considerably more independent creatures, Zawistowski hesitates to say that the same standard be applied to a group of feral cats, who may be able to survive in a safe, monitored area.

© ASPCA 2000
ASPCA Animal Watch – Winter 2000

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