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Maximising Welfare in Sanctuaries and Rescue Centres

Guest Blog by Elliot Carr

Maximising Welfare in Sanctuaries and Rescue Centres

Elliot Carr has worked hands-on in animal sanctuaries across Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and Thailand, providing technical guidance in animal management and welfare. His current role is with Asia for Animals, as Sanctuaries and Rescue Centres Lead Coordinator, which is a member-led working group collaborating on issues affecting sanctuaries and rescue centres across Asia. Wild Welfare often works alongside the coalition, providing support and freely accessible resources for its members to use in order to direct and inspire animal welfare improvements.

It’s late in the evening and you receive a call for a wildlife rescue, only to find out it’s 165 pangolins. Or it could be hundreds of birds turning up at the front gate, delivered by enforcement agencies with little notice, many dying, or already deceased. Sometimes it’s a man on a scooter dropping off a macaque caged into the drum of a washing machine. You never know what’s going to be next.

165 pangolins arriving at sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Lao Conservation Trust for Wildlife.

After these animals have arrived at your rescue centre, you can feel confident that their welfare will be improved. Or will it? Yes, these animals are now under the care of professional staff, have access to veterinary care, better nutrition, and improved facilities, but to feed 165 pangolins you need many kilograms of termites eggs a day. Where do you get that? And rescuing the birds, who can get stressed exceptionally easily and might not have been held in captivity before, needs expert care. Who might that be? And that macaque has been held in dark isolation for many years and has significant mental health issues. how do you integrate a normally social but traumatised animal into a group of macaques? On top of that, your facilities are full already.  If you turn any of these animals away, where do they go? You’re perhaps the only rescue centre for hundreds of miles, or the only one in the country.

Maybe you can release or translocate some animals but how do you ensure those animals are fit for release? Are there behavioural assessments available for this species? Where does that particular subspecies come from? Is there even a ‘safe’ release site?  Is there an appropriate sanctuary or zoo that can house the animals if it’s un-releasable, or does your organisation provide sanctuary to this individual? Can you provide life-long care and meet the animal’s welfare needs? The government is also facing a paperwork backlog and you cannot get the permits to move any animals. Meanwhile, the other 500 animals at the sanctuary still need caring for with only a few animal care staff available and a single manager who looks after every aspect of animal care and management, as well as paying the bills and fundraising for the facility.

Macaque in washing machine drum. Photo courtesy of Lao Conservation Trust for Wildlife.

You can quickly see how a question of ensuring animal welfare in sanctuaries and rescue centres (SARCs for short) is so much more than just caring for the animals immediately arriving or already living in your care. The thought processes highlighted here are just a few examples of the questions many SARC staff ask themselves. The challenges to ensuring good animal welfare standards often seem insurmountable.

SARCs are on the frontlines of animal welfare and conservation, helping both alleviate the immense suffering of individual animals whilst also caring for some of the most endangered species on the very edge of existence – indeed some rescue centres I know house individuals that represent the very last of their kind. It was once put to me that the animals which arrive at rescue centres are like refugees of the natural world; forced out of their homes as a result of an ever-increasing demand.

The mission of rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing animals, or providing lifelong sanctuary if release isn’t possible, is resource intensive and is often done on shoestring budgets by passionate and dedicated teams. These limited resources, coupled with facilities situated in remote locations, run by very small teams of limited staff are all massive challenges which SARCs face. Because of this, even the simplest, most essential welfare assessment tasks such as behavioural observations for each animal can be immensely difficult. Sometimes compromises have to be made when it comes to animal welfare due to the situations some SARCs encounter.

Birds being transported to a rescue centre. Photo courtesy of Cikananga Wildlife Rescue Centre.

As some governments across Asia are applying more pressure and enforcing laws relating to the illegal trade or ownership of wildlife, especially post Covid-19, both government and non-government sanctuaries and rescue centres are facing a growing number of animals needing help. Even more welfare compromises may need to be made when dealing with each fresh confiscation which could mean potentially hundreds of new animals arriving.

Whilst all these factors may seem to paint a somewhat pessimistic image for animals and people alike on the frontlines, it does highlight how innovative and resourceful the staff who work at such facilities are, enabling them to continually ratchet up welfare standards for the animals under their care. So what are some of the tools and skills needed for staff to be able to do this?

Professional Development Opportunities

Many people who work in SARCs may be from the local area who may have never worked with wildlife before, and who have never had any formalised training in animal care or welfare. Despite this, they often have an uncanny ability to read an animal’s behaviour and know their animals incredibly well. However, opportunities to develop on this and specific animal welfare knowledge and critical thinking skills are vitally important.

Many learning programs for staff are aimed at middle and upper management, but it is the staff on the ground working with individual animals who have the most direct impact on an animal’s welfare. Therefore initiatives like Wild Welfare’s diverse language e-learning animal welfare programme can harness  existing skills and be a vital tool to improving welfare, along with creating recognition of the vital skills frontline staff have.

Welfare Audits

Welfare audits, such as those conducted by Wild Welfare, or self-assessment welfare audits conducted in-house can help identify and prioritise gaps and opportunities for welfare improvements. These may be small, cost effective, yet significant ways to create positive change for the animals such as installing a visual barrier, dynamic perching, a slight alteration to diet or food presentation methods, changing pest management procedures, identifying a new health screen protocol, or highlighting an area where a staff member needs to change their daily schedule. Things that don’t cost the earth but can mean so much for the lived experience of an animal in captive care.

Organisational and Financial Sustainability 

The old saying look after yourself, before you can look after others is exceptionally true when it comes to SARCs. Strategic development planning towards organisational and financial sustainability is hugely important as a first step towards ensuring the on-going ability to continue to help animals. Whilst at the core SARCs care for animals, managers of SARCs must understand sustainable and diverse income streams, be social media savvy, able to strategically plan and are constantly looking for ways to improve their organisations and staff skills. Whilst this may seem like a process that takes managers away from on-the-ground action with the animals who need attention, it is a core principle of looking after a SARC organisation and giving it a strong foundation, meaning they can support the animals in a much stronger way. Encouraging and demonstrating this process between SARCs needs to be encouraged.

Networking, Collaborations and Stakeholder Engagement

Many organisations work in exceptionally remote locations, and with a diverse amount of species and challenges. The ability to find support, share knowledge, and experiences is also important, not only to improve welfare or learn about shared challenges, but for comradery in often intense environments that strain the mental health of SARC staff.

Networking and advisory bodies such as The Asia for Animals Sanctuaries and Rescue Centers Coalition, Wild Animal Rescue Network, partnerships with accredited zoos, and IUCN specialist groups are all available for SARCs to contact so they can continually access new information and get support. Similarly, in-country networks of SARCs can provide support opportunities for similar organisations facing similar challenges and provide opportunities to create shared voices.

Often SARCs do not ‘own’ the animals in their care, rather hold them for governments. This also often means that decision making for animal welfare is not in the hands of those providing daily care. Bringing stakeholders such as government agencies along in demonstrating what welfare is, and why it is important is an essential aspect of improving welfare through decision makers. The big caveat here is that one solution doesn’t fit all. What works in one country, or is available in one, may not work in another culturally, or with local government agencies. Everything needs to be considered in a local context. However, the sharing of ideas can lead to adaptations to local circumstances.

Happy People, Happy Animals

Finally, with limited resources, making constant compromises and facing continual challenges, the struggles of working in a sanctuary or rescue centre can take a huge toll on those working in them. Motivation to continue under these circumstances can be extremely difficult. Making sure all staff, from maintenance, to animal keepers are all brought on the journey together, sharing in the success and struggles, as well as being supported is really important. Looking after your people through support and conversations, staff engagement and team building activities, development opportunities or sharing the excitement of a successful release can keep teams motivated, and in turn, dedicated and focussed on the animals in their care.

Recently, I witnessed a confiscation of 91 critically endangered turtles. In a facility with resource challenges, like all SARCs, ensuring optimal welfare for each newly rescued individual is nearly impossible – especially in a quarantine phase. However maximising welfare where possible can go a huge way to improving the experience of these individuals.  Each turtle received a simple plastic tub where it could freely move as health screenings took place. They received fresh water where their dry skin and shell could absorb moisture. They were placed in a room with adequate temperature and humidity and an appropriate diet was given. And really importantly for the turtles, a simple pile of grass or leaf litter where they could hide and recuperate from their ordeal. Eventually all these individuals will move to larger, more natural enclosures for further rehabilitation, that is if the resources and space is available. A far cry from the forest they were stolen from, but far better than all 91 being on top of each other in a single crate. It’s not perfect but the simplest changes can ensure steps in the right direction under strained resources to maximise welfare. A few days later another 130 endangered illegally traded turtles and tortoises arrived. The mission to care and to save goes on.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by guest bloggers are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Wild Welfare or any employee thereof. Wild Welfare is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest bloggers. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.