Why shelters and sanctuaries get stoned from within

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1995:

As Lynn Cuny’s Wildlife Rescue and
Rehabilitation sanctuary has expanded, the incoming presi-
dent of the Association of Sanctuaries has learned to study
human as well as animal behavior. After absorbing a
media bashing led by former volunteers in late 1992,
between similar bashings endured by distant neighbor
Wally Swett of Primarily Primates, Cuny shared some the-
ories with ANIMAL PEOPLE that have subsequently
proved valid in many other sanctuary and shelter blow-ups.
“Problems don’t begin because of just one per-
son,” she said. “They begin with a particular combination.
You may have a potential problem smouldering for years in
someone who’s otherwise a very good employee or volun-
teer. This will be someone with low self-esteem, a pro-
found poverty mentality, who needs and wants an inordi-
nate amount of encouragement and recognition. If you are
a successful sanctuary or shelter, your success at animal
care can make these people crazy. They see the animals
being loved and appreciated, and money being spent on
care and medicine, and they don’t believe they could ever
have these things in their own lives. They become jealous.

Then you bring in someone else, who’s young and inex-
perienced and idealistic, with a good education and some
media savvy. That person quickly becomes disillusioned
with the realities of what you’re doing,” for instance when
a radical vegan sees Cuny accepting donations of venison
from hunters to help feed the WRR pumas. Although Cuny
herself is a vegetarian, she feels compromise is essential to
give the big cats as normal and natural a life as possible.
“The person who isn’t really committed to the
work,” she continued, “can use the complaints of the per-
son who feels jealous as a pretext to quit,” and may
orchestrate a campaign against the shelter or sanctuary in
question rather than acknowledge personal failures. The
strategy not only tends to harm the shelter or sanctuary, but
also harms the jealous person, who typically loses a job he
or she couldn’t afford to lose and wouldn’t ever have given
up without the intervention of the idealist.
“Something I learned from all this,” Cuny said,
“is that I don’t have to take anybody who shows up and
says he or she wants to work. If you believe that all your
animals deserve is whoever comes, then that’s all you’re
going to attract. You need to establish an atmosphere that
attracts sane, mature, experienced people.”
Gives people a chance
But Cuny hasn’t let her bad experience cut her
off from giving people a chance, even some who might
appear problematic. “You can’t not have volunteers,” she
explained. “It’s a coin-toss whether some of them are
going to work out, but I can’t live in fear that someone
won’t. We check prospective volunteers out to the extent
that we can. We ask why they want to help us, what they
think the animals’ place is, and what species they would
save if they could save a species. We ask if they’re vege-
tarians, because if they are and they want to extend that
belief to the carnivores here, obviously that’s not going to
work. We’re looking for individuals’ personal philoso-
phies. How they feel about zoos and circuses, for exam-
ple, sometimes does not affect the role they’re going to
play for us, and sometimes it does.”
Cuny has accepted volunteers who were hunters,
and has seen them change “spiritually and morally”
through their contact with the WRR animals. “There is
the action, and there is the individual,” she explained.
“A person who hunts isn’t always an evil individual.
Some want to work around animals like our pumas and
bears because of their macho image. Then they change
their own self-image,” as they get to know the animals.
“We’ve also had people who have worked in
research labs,” Cuny adds. “God knows there are enough
of those around here. They see that animals have value to
some people, and we can effect some real changes.
You’re not just getting people to clean up crap when you
recruit volunteers; you’re having some influence.”
Ultimately, like everyone else who takes on staff,
Cuny trusts her intuition. “When we meet somebody,” she
concluded, “I believe we know whether that person is right for
us. If we listen to what we already know, I think we will
make better decisions. Honesty is really important. The
expectations of volunteers have to be realistic. They have to
know if they want to be there or not.”
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