Thinking of starting a rescue?

Insights from the top 

It’s 5 am and I sit, numb. I just learned the pup I’ve been working feverishly to make well has died from a complication. This epitomizes what it means to do rescue. This baby didn’t ask to be born or to get sick. In her corner till the very end: that to me is the definition of rescue.  

I started OFOSA (Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals) 15 years ago when I was much younger and had way more energy. I was going to save the world! Friends joined me in the mission. Webster’s defines “To rescue” as: To save someone or something from danger or harm. We set out to do that. At that time shelters in Oregon were in the dark ages: they killed without reserve, and “the shelter” was no shelter. Since then rescue has evolved. Today Oregon’s shelters are progressive and clean, so we focus on where we are needed the most — currently that is California.   

So you want to start a rescue 

You have been inundated with social media pleas, crowdfunding pages, and the like. How do you jump in and not drown? It’s a tricky question. There is of course much paperwork (for which there is a lot of help), but let’s look at the emotional and physical work, and the energy it takes to start, sustain, and love rescue.  

The best way to get started is to volunteer with an existing rescue that shares your philosophies. Rescues are all different; while swimming in the same river, opinions vary drastically on how to drive the boat. Establishing your own rescue philosophy early on is paramount to success. You must set boundaries. For example, behavior cases are not OFOSA’s strength, so we don’t take them. You can’t be good at everything, and spending time and energy on areas you’re not great at often does two things: 1) it bogs down a situation that could be handled better by those who are good at it, and 2) it keeps you from serving the greatest good by applying your strengths in areas where you can get things done quickly, efficiently, and with greater success.  

Take a hard, honest look at your strengths and weaknesses, then recruit folks to fill the areas in which you are weak. I was always medically-focused and horrible at finance. So to ensure emotional and practical balance for OFOSA, our first board consisted of a medical person, finance person, a pragmatic person, and a skeptic. The pragmatic and the skeptic help avoid decisions that can sink you.  

Here’s an example. OFOSA once rescued 20 puppies from a California shelter. One by one they fell ill – at one point there were 12 on IV fluids. The expense was almost $8000, and only five survived. While my heart said ‘well, we saved some,’ the pragmatic person pointed out that if we spent that much every time we took pups from this shelter we would be done.  

In the beginning you are motivated and plow ahead undaunted. Rescue becomes your passion and mission. One of the most important things at this stage is protecting the things that nurture YOU – hobbies, exercise, time with friends and family. These can easily fall away as you work tirelessly to help sick animals, fundraise, plan events, and handle transports. As with anything in life, your best work happens when you’re taking good care of you.  

The second thing is to remember the mantra: “You can’t save them all.” Of course you want to, but allowing that desire to drive you is where burnout starts. I get all the emails, FB pokes, and such about cruelty, neglect and worse. But you MUST KEEP PERSPECTIVE. You can make a difference in your area of the world; the rest will fall into place.  

Here is where your heart and head collide. Mastering this concept is critical if you are to sustain your rescue and succeed.  

Finally, when that animal who earned you 20 new grey hairs finds his or her family, go to their forever home, or when the parvo puppy finally eats for the first time, I can tell you: there is no feeling in the world. It sustains your soul, your passion, and your love for the furry babies you love and save.

Cathy Nechak is founder and president of OFOSA, and a professional nurse. She lives in Aloha with her husband and their three dogs.