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What to Consider if You Want to Start a Reptile Rescue or Sanctuary

I'm an avid herpetoculturist. I hope to pursue a career in herpetology and eventually start my own online reptile business.

If your dream is to start a reptile rescue or sanctuary, there are some important questions to ask yourself first.

If your dream is to start a reptile rescue or sanctuary, there are some important questions to ask yourself first.

Do You Want to Start a Rescue for the Right Reasons?

So many reptile lovers ponder the idea of starting their own reptile rescue. Unfortunately, many of those people are ill-prepared, oblivious to the amount of time and money involved, or, in the worst cases, just want free animals.

If you are just interested in "rescuing" reptiles to sell them for profit or to get free animals, you are very much in the wrong. You aren't helping animals that are really in need of help. You are merely thinking of "rescuing" for selfish reasons. If you genuinely want to help reptiles and eventually see them placed in loving, knowledgeable homes, please keep reading!

How You Can Help?

If you really want to help reptiles and the reptile community, consider waiting to start a rescue! There are many other ways to help reptiles in need until you are fully prepared to open your own rescue.

  • Foster: Get in touch with other rescues and organizations. You can foster reptiles or even help transport them to foster homes.
  • Donate: Donations are always gladly welcomed. You can donate not only money but also supplies, food, etc.
  • Volunteer: Of course, volunteering is an excellent way to help as well.
  • Learn: I would recommend always continuing to gain more knowledge about reptiles in general. Keep in touch with reptile forums and chat groups. Read as much as you can, and if you have a question, ask it!
  • Network: Speak with people who run rescues already and really gain an understanding of how much work goes into running a rescue.
A Green Iguana. One of the most popular rescued reptiles.

A Green Iguana. One of the most popular rescued reptiles.

Important Things to Think About

If you've decided to take the plunge into starting your own rescue, you'll need to think about a few things first.

1. Where Will the Money Come From?

Reptiles are expensive and costly to keep. Even the largest reptiles rescues greatly rely on their own money, donations, and adoption fees to keep going. Most of these fees don't even cover half of what they spend! Here are a few things you'll regularly be spending money on:

  • Caging
  • Food
  • Gas money for driving to pick up and deliver animals, and visits to the vet
  • Veterinarian visits
  • Supplementation
  • Medications
  • Proper handling equipment (gloves, snake hooks, bags, etc.)
  • Electricity is a big one that many people don't think about
  • Cage supplies and furnishings
  • Cleaning supplies

2. Where Do You Live, and What Space Requirements Do You Need?

If you live in a rented house or apartment, your landlord will not likely be pleased with you keeping so many reptiles. You'll need to first check with them, and don't assume that they won't find out. If you live in a smaller house or apartment, where will you be keeping these reptiles? Even if you only rescue smaller reptiles, any reptile owner knows how bulky cages can be. If you rescue larger reptiles (which are usually the most popular rescues), those cages are larger than most people's furniture!

The reason I mention your own home and not a store is because many reptile rescues start out in their own homes. If you really start rescuing large animals or many animals, you may very well be forced to rent a store. If so, add rent and insurance to the above costs. Another way to help with space is to start a network of knowledgeable, trustworthy foster homes!

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3. What About Liability, Licenses, and Permits?

Liability issues in one that many people don't think about. For example, let's say you just rescued an ornery Burmese Python. What will you do if she escapes and injures someone? You'll be held directly responsible. As for permits and licenses; they'll depend on where you live, the size of your rescue, and sometimes even the reptiles you are rescuing. You need to look into all legal aspects, business permits, etc.

It is absolutely essential that you, as an organization, are established as a legal entity. Did you know that it is illegal to ask the public for donations if you are not established as a legal entity? Some rescue groups are considered incorporated associations. This simply means that a group of members is all working towards the same goal. Many already established rescues will recommend meeting with a lawyer just to be sure every base is covered and what you are doing is legal. Be sure that your rescue is documented and has been certified.

5. What Will You Do When (Not if) You Acquire a Sick Rescue?

Veterinarian care is by far the most expensive cost when it comes to rescuing reptiles. Medical bills quickly add up and are the biggest reason why rescues don't last long. It's hard enough to find an experienced exotics vet, let alone a veterinarian hospital that is sympathetic enough to offer discounted prices, payment plans, etc.

A good, reliable vet is going to be one of the most important assets to your rescue. You will get sick animals that need treatment, and you'll need a veterinarian who knows what they are doing. If you try starting a rescue without a veterinarian that is available, you and the animals will quickly suffer.

6. What About the (Not So) Minor Details?

  • Volunteers: You're going to need volunteers. One person in charge of rescuing a large number of reptiles will not be able to do it alone. Volunteers will be a godsend for you and are the backbone of any rescue.
  • First Aid Kits: Whenever you work with any animal that is capable of inflicting harm upon you, you'll need first aid kits for both you and the animals. This is a very important item to have at your rescue.
  • Fire Prevention and Suppression: It amazes me how many budding reptile keepers and rescues don't understand how important it is to use fire detection (smoke alarms for example), and have fire suppression (extinguishers) on hand. You're going to have numerous lights, heat mats, etc., that can possibly malfunction. Think about it.
  • Quarantine Areas: Quarantining will be a must to prevent the spread of contagious diseases and parasites.
  • Finding Homes: How the heck are you going to go about placing animals when only a select few are knowledgeable about and want to keep them? We all know how many kids want reptiles as an ego boost, and all of those reptile (especially snake) haters out there.
  • Advertising: Advertising costs to help find homes are going to be expensive. If you plan on going to conventions and reptile shows (which is great!), how will you pay to set up a booth, drive there, etc.?
  • Unique Needs: Keep in mind that certain species of reptiles need very specialized care, enclosures, and diets. Enclosures get expensive, and the proper diet can be hard to get.
  • Time: And lastly, if you decide to start a rescue, you'll have no life! Okay, maybe not that extreme. Running a rescue takes so much time that you'll very likely go through phases of regret. You can't take a break from a rescue. You very likely won't be able to go on vacations. Nearly all of your time will be directed towards your organizations, the reptiles and all of the time, money and care that go into them.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Mellon on April 04, 2017:

My lizard has a swollen toe. What does that mean?

Burnfinl on January 09, 2017:

Hello my name is Linda the city I live in had a pond. I started going to the pond after my home burnt down. One day while sitting by the pond a turtle swam over to my that is when I noticed a hook in her mouth. I took her to the vet and they responded very badly because of the moss on her back and when I asked if I could Check on her they said no she is a wild and they can't give me any info. After that I started going to the pond and watching for the turtle's with the hooks in there mouths. For 5 years I have taking care of the turtle's. Paying for everything out of my money. I called the reptile rescue in our area when one was in bad shape and I never received a call back. The thing I did wrong was mentioning it was a water turtle. I got close to the turtle's now they are talking about draining the pond and I was worried about what would come from it so I took a large amount home. At this time I have 32 and take care of all the sick turtle's around me because no one wants to help with the sliders.

Christopher labor on February 23, 2014:

Thank u very much for the information provided I'm a try animal lover but more fond of the reptiles. Heath and wellness are my top goal for all critters under my care I know it will take time and dedication but even a small scale rescue can be beneficial I know I can't save them all but for those I can it makes the world of difference

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