Rescue 101: Planning – Policies and Operations


A rat peeking out of a cage door

It’s time to start thinking about the policies you will set for your organization.

You’ve come a long way in your planning process at this point, and now it’s time to start thinking about how your rescue will operate on a regular basis as well as what policies you will follow. A good way to start looking at this planning process is to imagine the steps to your regular routine for different aspects of your rescue program.

Your Policies on Animal Intake

In this section we’re not discussing the limit to the number of animals you will take in to your rescue, but rather the policy for which animals you will take in to your rescue and from which sources. For example, North Star Rescue accepts animals from four types of situations: Animals coming from Animal Shelters, Animals coming from Other Rescues, Privately Owned Animals from Individuals and Found Stray Domestic Animals. The Rescue has a policy not to take animals from pet stores that buy animals from a breeder and want to place them somewhere else because they are sick or have behavioral problems, we expect them to be responsible for the care of the animals since they are a for-profit business. North Star Rescue also has a policy that we won’t take in animals from professional or hobbyist breeders unless they are closing their breeding operation and surrender or otherwise dispose of all of the equipment they would use to re-start, it’s a way of ensuring that the rescue’s limited resources aren’t used by people who are looking to ease their own budget by taking advantage of a charity. North Star Rescue’s policy is also to take the most at risk animals first, which means animals that have an euthanasia date at a shelter. That means setting a policy that even if an owner surrender writes in to surrender a rat before a shelter writes in to say that they have a rat that will be euthanized if rescue space isn’t found by a certain date, the shelter rat will receive space at the rescue first.

Your intake policy may also encompass policies for owners surrendering animals and bearing part of the cost of their care. For example, North Star Rescue does not charge owners a surrender fee if their animal is healthy, social, and not too old to go up for adoption at the time they are surrendered. If they are sick and need medical attention, the rescue will assess a fee on a case by case basis that is 50% of the estimated cost to get that animal ready for adoption again. If the animal is shy or aggressive, the fee will be 50% of the estimated care costs to house and care for the animal while it’s being socialized before it can go up for adoption. If the animal is very elderly, the fee is 50% of the estimated cost to care for them and have them in a hospice foster home for the rest of their estimated life span. Those fees can enable a rescue to continue to take in difficult cases that might not have other alternatives.

In establishing the policies for North Star Rescue’s intake fees, we also did not want to turn away someone in a bad financial situation who would not be able to afford a surrender fee so we set an additional policy that we would waive surrender fees with proof of financial hardship, which could be provided through evidence of financial aid from another agency. We decided to require some evidence of financial hardship because we found that some owners didn’t understand the difference between not wanting to spend their vacation budget on a sick rat versus being on disability and not having anything extra in their budget to give.

Your Policies on Handling Adoptions

When it comes time to adopt an animal in your care to a new home, you’ll set some criteria for what is deemed to be a safe home for the animals who are under your care. This means setting Adoption Requirements. For example, North Star Rescue has the following base requirements for adopters:

  • Adopters must be over 18 / The Primary caregiver must be over 18
    The rescue will only enter into an adoption contract with an adult, and has a policy that even if an animal is being adopted primarily for a child, the parent or guardian must take responsibility for that animal’s care and wellbeing.
  • Adopters must be prepared to care for the pet for their natural lifespan.
    We reinforce to adopters that animals are not “starter pets” or around until they or their children get tired of them, they need to understand the life span of the species they are adopting and commit to caring for them for that length of time.
  •  Pets adopted from North Star Rescue must not ever be bred
    Not all of the animals that are taken in by North Star Rescue can be spayed or neutered, so we have a requirement that adopters not be interested in breeding their animals at any point. Since all of the animals that end up in rescue are “surplus” animals, there is no need for adopters to be looking to contribute further to the overpopulation problem by breeding the animals they adopt.
  •  Pets must be provided with Veterinary Care
    We reinforce to adopters that even small animals need Veterinary care, and they should expect to incur the expense of treatment if their animal should need it during their life time.
  • Pet Habitats must be located in a Safe Place and Indoors
    We require that adopters house their animals indoors in a safe location, meaning a part of the house where other humans reside. This is to avoid the people who might want to get animals to house in a hutch outdoors, which is not safe for them, or that might neglect an animal’s care and socialization by housing them in a garage where they would be isolated.
  • Owners must provide regular care and sanitation
    We require that owners follow basic, reasonable care standards such as providing species appropriate housing, diets and regular interaction with humans. Since this varies between each species we deal with, we provide owners with education and care hand outs on any species they are interested in bringing home.

Once you’ve established your policies for adopting out animals, you’ll be able to evaluate incoming adoption inquiries against that criteria. This is something you’ll also want to have visible to the public, either as a print out for your adoption tables or posted online on your website. This way you give your adopters an opportunity to understand what is being expected of them, and to ask educated questions if they need help making sure they are prepared to bring that animal home.

I also want to stress that while the process of talking to a potential adopter is generally thought of as “screening”, the most important thing you can do during this process is to educate the adopter on how to care for that animal. An adopter that doesn’t meet your requirements when they start the dialogue with you may become the perfect home for one of your animals once they better understand their care needs. A lot of potential pet owners are dealing with a wealth of misinformation out there about the proper care for different types of animals, you don’t need to look any further than the “starter kits” that are sold by pet stores for small animals to see how badly some people are prepared by companies interested in selling them products.

When handling an adoption, it is also important to have a contract that adopters sign agreeing to terms of their adoption. This document will cover several important aspects that dictate what you are expecting from them as an adopter, and what they can expect from the rescue after the adoption. For example, you may re-state your adoption requirements in the contract to reaffirm to the owner that this is an important part of the adoption. You may outline a trial period where they can return the animal if it turned out not to be the right fit for them. You may have a health guarantee for a certain period of time. You may require the owner to return the animal to the rescue if they cannot personally keep it. You can see an example of the Adoption Agreement used by North Star Rescue online here.

Your Policies on Health Issues and Returns

Even if you take all of the care in the world to make sure you are adopting out healthy animals who are well socialized, at some point you will have to deal with adopters who bring an animal home and have a health issue develop, or an adopter who needs to return an animal for a variety of reasons. This is something that should be spelled out clearly in your Adoption Agreement Contract that you have each adopter sign at the time they take the animal home with them.

You’ll want to make sure you have policies that protect your rescue, protect the animals you are working with, and provide the adopter with a reasonable level of comfort that you are there for them as well. North Star Rescue offers a base trial period and health guarantee of two weeks so that the adopter knows that they will have an opportunity to see if this pet is a good fit for them, with an option to receive a refund of their adoption fees or exchange the animal for a more suitable match if things don’t work out. This also protects the animal from ending up back in the shelter right away, because it gives adopters a clear avenue that the return will be readily accepted by the rescue if it doesn’t work out. This health guarantee period also ensures that the adopters know that the rescue has invested in the health of the animal and stands behind them, and they won’t bring an animal home to find it has a serious illness that requires expensive Veterinary treatment right away. North Star Rescue’s adoption agreement stipulates that if an adopter suspects a health problem, they will return the animal to the rescue for treatment. This provides the rescue with protection against the animal being taken to a vet that might not be familiar with treating that species, or from unnecessary medical work being performed outside of the rescue’s budget. For example, an adopter might take home a rat who develops a sneeze after the first few days. The rescue may be able to take back the rat and put it under observation, or provide an inexpensive treatment for upper respiratory infection, since a return to the rescue’s treatment was required. If the rescue offered to reimburse the owner for medical expenses during those first two weeks, the rat may have been taken to a vet unfamiliar with basic treatments who may have decided to run x-rays, blood tests, and hold the rat at the clinic for several days under observation which would be astronomically expensive compared to the treatment the rat actually needed.

The Intake to Final Adoption Cycle for a New Animal

Thinking about the overall steps that you will take from the time an animal comes in to your rescue to the time they are placed in a new home will give you an idea of what you need to prepare for and establish policies for. Below is an example scenario of the steps that happen when an animal needs to come in to your rescue, all of the way until they are adopted in to a new home.

  1. You receive a request to take in an animal.
    The first step is receiving notice that an animal needs your assistance. You may decide that you will take animal requests by phone call or e-mail, or either. You may require that certain information be received before you can consider the intake of an animal, such as age, behavioral issues, medical issues, breed, species, etc. so that you can make an educated decision about if you have the room and resources in your rescue to help that animal. If you are receiving a great number of requests to take animals, something that likely won’t be an issue as you start your rescue but will quickly become an issue as you become more well-known, you may want to keep track of requests in a spreadsheet to help the people who have been waiting the longest first.
  2. You agree to take the animal.
    Once you’ve decided there is room in your program for the animal, you’ll notify the surrendering (owner) or transferring (shelter or rescue) party that you can take in the animal so that transportation can be arranged. This may mean arranging to pick up the animal yourself, or setting a time and place where the animal can be delivered to you.
  3. The animal is transferred in to your care.
    If you pick up the animal from a shelter or rescue, you may receive paperwork and sign off to certify that you are taking custody and responsibility for the animal. If you are receiving the animal from a private owner, you may require them to fill out a form saying that they have surrendered the animal to you and relinquish rights to it. If you are doing a quarantine separate from other animals at your rescue, the animal will be moved to your appropriate quarantine location.
  4. You perform an incoming assessment of the animal.
    Now that the animal is in your care, you’ll want to perform a basic incoming assessment. You’ll handle the animal to see what their behavior towards humans is like, check them over for any visible medical issues, and determine what needs this animal has at your rescue before they can go up for adoption. If they are shy or aggressive, you will make your plan on how you will socialize and rehabilitate that animal. If they have a medical issue, you’ll determine what medical attention they need and how to get it for them. If they came from a quarantine risk situation, you’ll determine how long they need to be under observation. If it is a female animal that was in contact with males of the same species before coming in to your care, you’ll determine how long they need to be held to be sure you aren’t adopting out a pregnant animal. You may also want to consider an incoming flea/lice/mite treatment as part of the routine for incoming animals to prevent the potential spread of parasites to your other rescue animals.
  5. The animal is held through a quarantine or gestation period.
    Depending on the background of the animal you have taken in, you may need to quarantine them or put them on gestation watch before they can go up for adoption in your program. This is a good time to determine what your policy for different situations might be. For example, if you pick up a rat from a shelter and don’t know anything about its history, it would be prudent to put it under a quarantine period before adopting it out to make sure it does not have any transmittable illnesses. If you are receiving a pair of rats from an owner who has had them for six months with no contact with other rats, they have already been through a quarantine before arriving at your rescue and won’t need to be held for the same length of time. If you are picking up a litter of rats and don’t know if they were gender separated in time, you may want to hold back all of the females for 21 days, which is the average gestation period of a rat, to make sure you aren’t adopting out pregnant rats.
  6. The animal is placed up for adoption.
    Depending on how you have planned to advertise animals to potential adopters, this might mean listing an animal on your website, on pet search engines like Petfinder and Petharbor, printing flyers for them, or adding them to your schedule to go to adoption events with you.
  7. An Adoption Inquiry is received.
    An adoption inquiry might be as simple as a generic call or e-mail from someone interested in adopting a pet of the species you are working with, or it could be as specific as receiving a completed application to adopt a specific animal. At this point you’ll be applying your screening policies, as described above, to determine if the adopter would provide a good home to the animal they are interested in, or if you have a good match for the type of pet you are looking for. You may have some back and forth communication to help prepare your adopter or clarify questions they might have.
  8. An adoption appointment is made.
    The adopter comes to meet the animal, either at your location or at an adoption event, so that you can both see if the animal and the person would be a good fit for each other. During this time you’ll be able to work with the potential adopter hands on to coach them on handling practices and answer care questions for the animal they are interested in adopting.
  9. The adoption is finalized.
    If the adopter and the animal are a good fit, you’ll complete the adoption by having the adopter sign an adoption contract. After this point the animal will enter their care, and if you have a trial period you will be waiting to see if the adoption works out beyond the trial period and becomes a final adoption.

Now we’ve taken a look overall at different core policies for your rescue, and the life cycle of the adoption process. This isn’t an inclusive guide, but more of a starting point as you’ll have to consider different aspects of your program and operations to determine what policies you will adopt. Setting policies and making them available both to the public and your volunteers will help everyone understand what you are willing to do, and help them work within guidelines that you feel will be beneficial to everyone involved.


About Lauren Paul

Lauren is the founder of North Star Rescue, a non-profit organization in California’s San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the rescue and welfare of companion pet rodents. Lauren operates Alma Rodentia, a website featuring an online store for pet rodents and their humans and a blog about rescue and life with pet rodents.

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