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Shelter and sanctuary: What’s the difference?

Do you know the difference between a shelter and a sanctuary? We who work in the field of animal rescue sometimes take terminology for granted and forget that not everyone might understand the difference.
While there are organizations that accredit shelters and sanctuaries, the fact is that many shelters and sanctuaries use these terms rather flexibly. Nevertheless, in a nutshell, here it is:
An animal shelter is a temporary place where animals are cared for after being surrendered, rescued while at large or apprehended from a situation of neglect or abuse. Ideally, the animal will spend as little time as possible at the shelter, being reunited with their people, or fostered, or adopted into a suitable forever home. Animals in a shelter may require socialization, medical attention or other special care to prepare them for the next phase of their lives, but the goal is to get them out of the shelter and into a home as soon as possible. The City of Richmond Animal Shelter is just such a place. There are situations where a dog, cat or other animal remains with us for many weeks or months as we seek to find the ideal home, but our goal is that their stay with us is as brief – but as pleasant and filled with affection and care – as possible.
An animal sanctuary is quite different. While the term is often used flexibly, a true animal sanctuary is a place where animals that are unlikely to find a forever home live out their lives surrounded by comfort and all the care they require and desire. As a rule, sanctuaries do not adopt out animals. However, that rule can sometimes be broken. For example, the RAPS Cat Sanctuary is home to hundreds of felines who have been assessed as unlikely to find a forever home. This may be because of behavioural issues – a cat that cannot control its bodily functions or that simply can’t seem to be trained to use a litter box has very little chance of being adopted, for example. More commonly, our residents have health issues, such as diabetes, FIV, leukemia or other factors. These animals are capable of living long, happy lives. But the plain reality is that, with the number of cats and kittens seeking forever homes, those with any sort of extenuating challenge face an uphill battle in being chosen by a family to come home with them. But rules, as they say, are made to be broken. Every now and then, a resident at the cat sanctuary does go home with someone. This is most usually a staff member or volunteer who bonds with an individual and understands the unique demands that adopting the cat entails – whether insulin injections or other medical needs or behavioural issues or simple quirks. Every year, a couple of cats are adopted from the RAPS Cat Sanctuary … but the primary purpose is to home and care for hundreds of cats who won’t find individual homes.
Sanctuaries are absolutely fundamental to no-kill animal care. RAPS is a no-kill animal agency. Under our care, no animal is ever euthanized due to lack of space, treatable illness, physical defect, age, behavioural or socialization issues. But what do we do with hundreds of animals who are unlikely to find a forever home? We create a “Kitty Club Med” with a tiny staff and an army of dedicated volunteers who provide hundreds of amazing, special cats with all the individualized care and attention they desire.
Now, RAPS is planning to open a dog sanctuary. This is an example of where the terminology gets blurry. By nature, cats can live very happily surrounded by hundreds of other cats and cared for by a staff of humans. Dogs are, by nature, far more dependent on human interaction and bonding with an individual or family. By and large, they are unlikely to find happiness in an institutional setting – no matter how pleasant. Our dog sanctuary will be a sort of hybrid. It will be a delightful, enriching, beautiful place where dogs who are with us for extended period will receive all the care, socialization and rehabilitation they require. But the ultimate goal will be for them to eventually progress to a point where they can be adopted into a home or, at least, be fostered long-term. The RAPS Dog Sanctuary will be equipped to provide everything a dog could want while being prepared for adoption, no matter how long it takes. We will have professional trainers, experts in rehabilitation and, of course, the veterinary expertise of our doctors and support staff at the RAPS Animal Hospital to deliver all the services dogs need. The dog sanctuary will welcome residents from jurisdictions where they might face euthanasia because of challenging health or behavioural issues. Just like our cat sanctuary, this will be place of joy and comfort. Unlike our cat sanctuary, the end-goal will be to find the residents forever homes – even if that takes months or years.
Confused? We hope not. We have set out to explain the difference in terminology around shelters and sanctuaries. But because every animal is an individual, we recognize that one size does not fit all. To care for animals as they require, we need to demonstrate flexibility. This can extend even to the definition of terms like “shelter” and “sanctuary.”
One thing that is inflexible: Our commitment to do the right thing for every animal in our care, no matter their special needs or issues.