What Is A “Rescue?”

According to Merriam-Webster, “rescue” is a transitive verb that means “to free from confinement, danger, or evil.”

But what is the definition of “rescue,” the noun?

In common vernacular, the word “rescue” has come to mean a group or organization that saves homeless dogs, cats, or other animals. Most people have heard it used in a sentence by now, but just as it is with the word “megabyte,” the exact meaning remains obscure to a large demographic. The general association is clear: a “rescue” saves animals, and “megabyte” refers to a unit of digital measurement. But when asked to further explain the function, size, and storage capacity of a megabyte, most people are at a complete loss. The same is true when it comes to defining rescue.

A rescue is a group or organization that works to save the lives of imperiled animals–whether it is incorporated or not, 501c3 (IRS designation for non-profit) or not, capable of housing animals or not. Regrettably, at this time there is no licensing process for rescues in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But there are rules, and there is accountability. Rescues must report annually to the state Department of Agriculture (VDACS) and submit to routine or random inspections when required. It isn’t just a group of people, or even a single person, who has decided to call themselves a “rescue,” start a Facebook page, and hoard up a collection of animals.

In Virginia, a home-based rescue is exempt from many of the inspection requirements faced by shelters. This is a practical and common sense application of a very appropriate law. How many homeowners would pour a raised concrete floor, install a professional ventilation system, or subject their private residence to regular, posted business hours? Not many. Yet those same homeowners can provide excellent care for needy animals. From this philosophical standpoint, the policies and procedures for companion animal rescue agencies emerged.

A rescue is not a shelter, neither limited nor open admission. It is not a humane organization. It is not an adoption center. Many of the most effective rescues have no facility whatsoever. They operate through a fostering system where new intakes are farmed out into the community and housed in private homes alongside family pets. Some rescues will not allow interested potential adopters to even view their roster of available animals until that person has completed an adoption application and been approved through the process. Those of us who administrate Tazewell ARC have opted to be a bit more accessible and transparent in our operations, but we certainly understand why other groups choose not to be. We maintain a more public presence than many rescues for the sake of the sponsors and donors who support our cause, and we do, in fact, entertain dreams of opening a public facility someday. But “rescue” and “public facility” are two separate enterprises, and while they can co-exist under the same roof in a symbiotic relationship, they cannot merge into one all-inclusive entity.

The primary focus and objective for a rescue is saving animal lives. Needs of the humans who put those lives in peril come a distant second. For this reason, rescues and their volunteers are often vilified by the community. That’s a common phenomenon, despite the numbers of lives saved. To avoid falling into this trap, it’s important for everyone to remember that a rescue DOES NOT SERVE THE PUBLIC. This is how rescues differ dramatically from shelters, animal control agencies, and humane organizations.

Can we work in tandem with those groups? You bet we can. But our mission is quite different, our methods more rudimentary. Consider this analogy: a humane organization like a shelter, an SPCA, or Humane Society serves as embassy for animal welfare, interfacing with the public and providing for public needs. Rescues are the soldiers in the trenches. We’re the front line, the infantry, the grunts. We’re guerilla fighters for animal welfare. And yes, some rescuers are terrorists. Those people scare us as badly as they scare most of you. But it’s important to remember that we’re all engaged in fighting the same war, and that is to improve the lives of animals in our community.


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