Despite their growing popularity, there is a lot of misinformation about rodents and other small animals, and reputable resources for their care and education can be scarce. As a result of their misguided reputation as "starter pets," small animals are often given up when time, money, and space requirements prove to be more than anticipated. Starting a small animal rescue is a lot of work, but the need certainly exists. Many cities, states, and even countries don't have a rescue specific to small animal species.
Kim Meyer with Austin Guinea Pig Rescue sums up the dichotomy: "You tell a lot of people no, and that you can't take every animal because research wasn't done before getting a pet. You have to cancel plans because of sick or injured animals. You lose your social life. Building up a good network of volunteers is a challenge. Until you have a good way to raise funds, all expenses will be out of your own pocket, especially at first. On the plus side, seeing an animal that came in sick, or very scared, adopted to good home makes you realize that all the effort was worth it."
We asked small animal rescues across the country to share their words of wisdom.
Why start a small animal rescue
Starting an organization of any kind, even a not-for-profit animal rescue, requires research and planning. You must operate like a business to survive long term. There is strengths in numbers; forming a board of directors can bring together the best of individuals' strengths and talents to form a well-oiled machine. These teams were brought together because people saw a need and shared a similar passion to drive their purpose.
"Guinea pigs are like potato chips, and I found myself acquiring more and more. A friend asked me to foster some, and after a year I decided to open my own rescue. That way I could get my "fix" and help out the community. There were only a couple rescues in the area at the time, but plenty of pet stores selling guinea pigs. Whenever someone is selling guinea pigs, there will be guinea pigs eventually in need of rescuing." - Lisa Gaughran, Foggy Creek Cavy Rescue
"I have so much compassion for the defenseless and feel it is my life's work to catch them when they fall." - Saskia Chiesa, Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue
"Rabbits are the third most surrendered pet in the U.S. after dogs and cats. Southwest Michigan didn't have a rabbit rescue, so I decided to form one in order to help with the large number of unwanted rabbits in my area. I wanted to provide a permanent home for these unwanted and neglected rabbits, adopt spayed/neutered rabbits to approved applicants, and educate the public on what owning rabbits is truly like." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"I saw a need to focus attention on getting education about guinea pigs out to the public, as they are such common pets and there is so much misinformation out there. It made sense to focus on a specific species and train volunteers on their care so that education could be shared with adopters." - Michiko Vartanian, Orange County Cavy Haven
Similar to the barriers pet parents face themselves, a common theme shared by all rescues (albeit on a much larger scale) was an overall lack of resources. There never seems to be enough time, money, space, and staff. As Lisa Gaughran puts it on behalf of Foggy Creek Cavy Rescue, "No one gets rich off rescue. It's definitely a labor of love ... Keeping these guys knee deep in hay isn't cheap!"
"Money and space are the biggest challenges. We are a no-kill operation, so the demand for us to accept surrenders and rescues is much larger than we can accommodate, unfortunately." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"The biggest hurdle in the beginning was gathering support, such as finding like-minded people to give up their weekends to clean rabbit cages. And grants? Good luck. The one or two grants geared toward rabbits had every rescue in the nation competing for it. Nowadays, our biggest challenge is manpower - getting enough foster homes and volunteers." - Wendy Lincoln, Magic Happens Rescue
"You hope with each adoption they've found forever homes, so returns are frustrating. Any good rescue takes back animals they've adopted out. I try to make sure the people are well-educated regarding guinea pigs, but invariably I get families wanting to return them because they take too much care, the kids lose interest, or they discover they are allergic." - Lisa Gaughran, Foggy Creek Cavy Rescue
"Dealing with people will always be the biggest challenge. The general population doesn't think about medical bills, the care we take to match up pigs with each other and with potential adopters, staying up all night feeding a sick pig, and crying over the loss of those we worked so hard to save. It's hard to explain why we can't take their guinea pig or why they were turned down to adopt." - Lisa Sharp, Atlanta Metro Guinea Pig Rescue
"An ongoing challenge is chain pet stores handing out animals without proper care education. Consumers can buy animals without being screened. They end up with different sex guinea pigs, and we are constantly getting calls about unplanned babies and pigs that are sick with preventable illnesses that could have been avoided with proper care information. People aren't aware that there are rescues for guinea pigs, and that reputable rescue are the best source of care information, not chain pet stores. It's a losing battle to encourage people to adopt and not support breeding and the spread of misinformation by purchasing animals from pet stores." - Michiko Vartanian, Orange County Cavy Haven
What makes it all worth it
Despite the challenges rescue brings, there is nothing more rewarding than watching an abandoned, unwanted, or unhealthy animal start to thrive and find their zest for life. Something about guinea pigs popcorning makes us wake up every day and do it all over again.
"Watching a guinea pig come to life when it finally has a buddy is the best. Also, I love hearing from the older kids that now have a purpose; some were just meant to be caregivers!" - Lisa Sharp, Atlanta Metro Guinea Pig Rescue
"I love hearing success stories from adoptive parents about their new buns. Nothing makes us happier than seeing buns content and settled with their new rabbit partners (even if we cry a bit when they leave us)." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"I take care of most of the guinea pigs that the shelters plan to euthanize. It's very rewarding to bring one of those cases back from the brink of death and see them happy and healthy." - Becky Wilson, Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue
Not surprisingly, many rescues believe the power of social media has helped with community outreach, education, and even fundraising. That being said, grassroots methods aren't going out of style any time soon.
"We generate support by helping people in the local guinea pig community, such as with health checks, whether or not they've adopted from us. We support all guinea pigs. Registering as a non-profit was a must to be taken seriously. Also, people's donations are tax deductible." - Saskia Chiesa
"We cultivate support through social media and volunteer opportunities. Community out reach is also important, in the form of working with pet stores that don't sell animals, setting up information booths at events, and visiting schools and local residential homes with therapy guinea pigs." - Kim Meyer, Austin Guinea Pig Rescue
"We're partnering with other businesses by hosting adoption events and holding fundraisers. We're present on social media to raise awareness about our organization as well as rabbits in general." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"We became a 501(c)3 recognized non-profit because many businesses wanted to donate but couldn't without documentation. This also made us eligible to partner with pet stores to hold adoption events, which increased visibility, reputation in the community, and funding." - Wendy Lincoln, Magic Happens Rescue
Working together toward the greater good
Small animal rescues are all involved for the same reason - helping animals. Unlike traditional businesses, there's no element of competition. The rescues we spoke with had nothing but positive things to say about their relationships in the industry.
"We have a relationship with our local animal control and frequently pull rabbits from shelters were they aren't doing well in that environment." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"We have a very close relationship with quite a few other rescues. We offer transportation support to each other. We work together to try and absorb as many guinea pigs as we can when there are large numbers involved." - Becky Wilson, Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue
"We have a great relationship with all the shelters and employees wil be in touch when guinea pigs arrive in their shelters. LA is a huge place and LAGPR is currently the only active guinea pig rescue. We cover shelters up to or sometimes even exceeding 100 miles away in each direction from our location." - Saskia Chiesa, Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue
"We network with other non-rabbit-specific rescues that take in rabbits quite often. If an adopter is looking for a specific breed and we don't have one currently or on our waiting list, we will contact the other rescues to see if they have one available. If another non-rabbit rescue has a bun with personality difficulties, we offer advice or transfer the bun to our rescue for further evaluation and more rabbit-savvy socialization. We also share resources such as going in together to buy food in bulk, and sharing our favorite products from carriers to habitats. We look to them for help with other small pets that we don't specialize in, so that the adoptable pets have the best chance at living well and finding the right family." - Wendy Lincoln, Magic Happens Rescue
Making time for self care
Those that have devoted years, decades even, to rescuing small pets know that it isn't for the faint of heart. Self-care is invaluable. You can't pour from an empty cup. The key to pushing forward toward the long term goal is to know when to take a step back.
"It's easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged, especially in the beginning. Never be afraid to ask for help. There are so many people out there that want to help and are just waiting for you to ask." - Shaina Cranson, Kalamazoo Rabbit Rescue
"Burn out is common because we are exposed to so many sad things. The cycle seems like it never ends. The moment one guinea pig finds shelter, there is another in need to take his place. It's important to step away when necessary and not feel guilty. We can't help anyone else if we don't take care of ourselves first." - Michiko Vartanian, Orange County Cavy Haven
"Many rescuers go through burnout at some point. That's when I slow down. I say no to the countless surrender requests. I schedule less adoption events. Usually this is enough for me to recharge." - Lisa Gaughram, Foggy Creek Cavy Rescue
"Remember your purpose is for the animals. If taking in an animal will compromise your purpose, or an adoption doesn't feel right ... don't do it. Trust your gut, always. Know your limits, and stick to them. You won't do anyone any good taking on more than you can emotionally handle." - Lisa Sharp, Atlanta Metro Guinea Pig Rescue
If you do decide to open a small animal rescue, you aren't alone. People worldwide have dedicated their lives to helping unwanted small pets, transforming education on their care, and changing the way people think about adoption and pet ownership. Perhaps Becky Wilson, Director of Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue, says it best. "Rescue will break your heart one day and heal it the next. We aren't here to make humans happy. We are the advocate for small animals. We are the only voice they have."