How do you rescue an animal?

13th February 2023


Our team rescues and rehomes vulnerable animals, often from lives of misery in tiny cages. But it’s a complicated process, as Rescue & Care Officer Flo Blackbourn explains.

Image (c) Mark Richards.

With the help of our loyal supporters, adopters and Lifetime Carers, Born Free is able to operate our own sanctuaries as well as partner with other organisations.

Born Free’s Rescue & Care Officer, Flo Blackbourn

Through centres and our educational programmes across the planet, we can relocate and rehome animals that need lifetime care and raise awareness of their plight.  Whenever possible after careful rehabilitation we return rescued animals to the wild, but this often isn’t possible, so we provide them with a safe haven for life.

Since our first rescue in 1987, where we flew six tigers from a squalid UK circus ‘beast wagon’ to a lush forest sanctuary in their spiritual home of India, we’ve helped saved and relocate hundreds of animals some of which took years of work to complete. These include a huge variety of species from lions, leopards and cheetahs, to gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys, as well as elephants, bears and dolphins, and even giant tortoises and hyenas.

Born Free recognises the importance of every individual animal and we’re committed to rescuing them, be it ten animals or one. If you’ve followed the progress of any of our previous rescues, you may wonder why some take so long. If all parties are willing for an animal to go to a sanctuary, why can it take months or even years for them to get to their final home?

To help you appreciate the complexity of the process and understand why you may have to wait so long to hear updates from rescues we’re carrying out, here are some of the realities. As you will read, international relocation can be anything but simple!

Before Born Free can agree to help an animal in need, we must learn a few things. For example, we will not take an animal from a captive situation unless the current owner agrees not to simply replace the animal with another. We also need to know the individual is healthy enough to travel and there is somewhere suitable for them to go. Most of the animals we rescue are large mammals, who can live long lives of up to a decade or two, so sanctuary space is precious and not something we have in unlimited supply.

Internationally transporting a wild animal that’s included on the endangered list from the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), requires CITES import and export permits, along with a veterinary import permit. These take considerable time to complete, weeks to be approved, and then expire within a year or less depending on the circumstances. Therefore, when hurdles delay proceedings it isn’t unusual for a permit to expire and require re-application. Weeks before a move, time is also needed to fill in extra paperwork which includes the dates and logistics of the move.

Health tests are essential. If a certain disease is found, then the logistics of a move may be turned on their head. For example, Simao (also known as Simon), the chimp from Guinea Bissau rehomed to Liberia last year, was originally meant to be moved to a sanctuary in Kenya. But when he tested positive for a disease common in chimps, we had to find a home elsewhere as Kenya doesn’t allow the importation of animals with that particular condition.

Before animals can travel internationally, they must first spend time in quarantine and have the necessary vaccinations. Last year, an international move to a Born Free sanctuary was delayed when it was discovered an animal had missed a vital vaccination. The transportation was delayed by months and CITES permits needed to be re-applied for.

Even after test results are okayed, vaccinations given, permits secured, and a sanctuary is confirmed, there are still plenty of vital tasks to undertake. Finding a company to carry out part or all of the transportation (at a discounted price or even free if possible), ensuring the animal will receive appropriate monitoring and care on the journey. Our wider team needs to fundraise for the move (which can often cost in the tens of thousands), as well as secure a means of funding lifetime care (which can end up being hundreds of thousands of pounds). Meanwhile, we are busy sourcing suitable and safe travelling crates.

COVID-19 inevitably delayed many of our animal moves. Countries banned certain airlines in the short-term, and airlines changed their routes and cut down on their number of flights. This impacted several of our plans, with some rescues on hold for more than a couple of years.

It can sometimes be difficult to maintain contact with whoever is keeping the animal(s), awaiting transportation. At times, contact can be dropped for weeks, months, or even indefinitely. Some people decide to send an animal to a zoo instead, even after initial talks with Born Free. Others decide they would rather keep the animal themselves after all.

Airlines can pull out for various reasons or need to delay flights, even though everything else may have been put in place already. This has happened a few times, including recently, and usually leads to permits needing to be re-applied for, and throws off the arrangements of the sanctuary or sanctuaries involved on either end of the move. In the past, the authorities in certain places, who have been heavily relied upon to allow and facilitate moves, have shown indifference and needed frequent chasing up in order to assist. That, or staff restructuring has meant it can take months for somebody to be in a position to grant the permissions we rely on.

As you can see, the odds are stacked against the animals we rescue and, in fact, often have been since their birth. Many of them have been stolen from the wild, their parents killed, or intensively bred in captivity and taken from their mother’s side as an infant. They are then forced into a sad life in a cage, ill-treated or cruelly trained to perform for people. And even when Born Free is able to help them, they may wait years before they get to somewhere where they finally receive the expert loving care they so deserve.

But what matters to us, and to the animals in question, is that they find sanctuary eventually, and can then enjoy the life they were given. It may take years, but if it ensures a comfortable home for an animal or animals then I’m sure we can all agree that every single rescue is worth it.

You can help by adopting one of our rescued animals to provide the care and the life they deserve. To become a Lifetime Carer and provide all the support that an animal needs, email:

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