Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Establishing A Herp Rescue/Shelter Organization

©1995 Melissa Kaplan


A few folks have written to me asking how to set up a reptile rescue organization or shelter. Some are interested in doing it as part of a herp society, others going it alone, still others as part of a youth group effort, such as 4-H clubs. Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject...

Room is key, as is access to a sympathetic/compatible vet (one who understands the needs of rehabbers - i.e., that they have little money and need breaks on fees and that they can learn to do much of the work themselves or assist in office in the work on their animals). In L.A., we had a vet who co-owned a pet store and had a large room...his business relationship with the partner failed but he and his wife had room in their home and outbuilding (they lived in a trailer too while their home was being built) and the rest of us were able to take in animals, as well.

My Experience:
I was part of a small group who tried to get one going as a committee of the local herp society to which we were all members. We wrote up a 20 page proposal - several times, and made repeated appearances before the board of directors. They were totally weird about it so we went off and did it on our own. We formed a nonprofit corporation under the State of California Department of Corporations regulations, and once that was done we applied for our Federal determination of tax exempt status, to get our recognition as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. This means that we can ask for donations that really are tax deductible for the donor. We also wrote a newsletter to announce our formation and what we did, goals, etc. and mailed to prospective supporters and to numerous vets and animal shelters.

Since this is a corporation, there needs to be some formality at least as far as record keeping - accounts, annual state and federal forms to be filed, etc. In California, it costs about $75 to get the nonprofit set up, including application to wave the initial tax payment of $800+ required of for-profit organizations. It costs $150 + photocopy costs mailing expenses and phone calls to get the federal exemption. Annual expenses include annual state filing fee and various tax forms. Plus your newsletter (not mandatory but helps keep people aware of what you are doing and solicits donations/members and helps fund operating expenses.

When you write/call the state and ask for the packet needed to form a nonprofit organization, the materials will include the boilerplate verbiage you need to use. Each state varies so you are sort of on your own here, but suffice it to say that they make it look worse than it is. The federal forms are a joke - you'd never know that the 57 hours it says it takes to figure out the tax forms is supposed to be an improvement since the passage of the Paperwork Reduction Act! Messy, aggravating, but essentially a no brainer.

You need to come up with an operating budget for the first three years - year one for the state, years 1-3 for the Feds.

It's almost impossible and very expensive to get any insurance for this so think twice about involving minors formally in this sort of endeavor (such as a 4-H group).

Aside from the paperwork involved in setting up a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, you need to put together your rescue facility - whether in your home or in a separate building. You also need to change your life.

You need lots of spare equipment as you never know what it going to come in. You need to be able to quarantine animals that come in (which means separate rooms to put them in, or different locations). You need to lay in a supply of medical equipment and drugs (here's where the vet comes in handy - many supplies you can get from mail-order houses, but you can't get the drugs without prescriptions). You need to be able to store various kinds of food to have some on hand when needed to be able to get it quickly depending on what comes in.

If you've never really worked with the animals before, you ought to take some classes - which may or may not be locally available. If a local college has a vet tech program, you may be able to beg your way in without having to deal with lots of the graduation prerequisites. (When I took vet tech courses at Pierce College in Los Angeles, I already had a B.A. and was not interested in getting my state vet tech certification, just in learning the material. Had I wanted to go for the full certification, I would also have been required to take a basic English course and Health 101; excuse me, but no thank you!) The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council puts on wildlife rehab workshops around the country - it's all mammal and bird but you will learn about diets, how to calculate diet and fluid needs, dosages, etc. which carries over. You will need to acquire a small library of herp vet books and books on herp natural history to get you through the rest. (For wildlife rehab information and training courses, check out the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC)).

My house is pretty much given over to the animals: the kitchen has more medical supplies and food bowls than people stuff, with fluid bags and drug calculations hanging from the cabinet knobs, windowsill full of syringes and things soaking in disinfectant, boxes of needles, bandages, etc. My book shelves are loaded with herp and vet books, floor space given over to tanks and carriers and I spend a lot on heating, paper towels and food - for them! Vacations are pretty much out as it is difficult to find someone who can both come in and clean and feed - and give injections, assess status, etc.

On the whole, the rewards are great when you can pull a reptile from the brink of death, restoring it to lively health. Adopting them out can be a drag in terms of parting with favorite ones after an often grueling search for a proper home, but worth it when the animal's new family gives you progress reports. To help screen prospective adoptors, and drive home the serious aspects of caring for animals, I developed an adoption application form and adoption contact which others are free to use as they wish for their own adoption efforts.

For more things you need to consider when thinking about opening any sort of animal rescue, please read Key Questions To Ask--And Answer--Before You Start A Rescue Organization.


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