Sanctuaries are places where animals live their best lives, safe from slaughter, abuse or abandonment. But they aren’t always an option for every would-be rescuer. Microsanctuaries offer an alternative — enabling a more diverse community of rescuers to create safe havens for animals.
Unlike larger farm sanctuary operators in the U.S. and Europe, microsanctuary founders typically cannot afford to purchase dozens of acres of land, patiently await local commissioners’ decisions or provide food, medical care, enrichment and shelter to hundreds of animals around the clock. For a microsanctuary, that’s not a disqualifier.
In the microsanctuary movement, rescuers are empowered to do the work even if they live on small, suburban land parcels or in rented apartments. It’s a way to reframe what’s required to offer sanctuary to animals, and to do so in an explicitly anti-racist way.
The Microsanctuary Movement Meets People Where They Are
The term “microsanctuary” was first coined in 2014 by Roz Van Kleeck. Roz and partner Alastor Van Kleeck created the Microsanctuary Resource Center to support microsanctuaries around the world, giving visibility to people who care for companion animals in their spare time at home, usually without recognition as nonprofit organizations.
For Alastor, their microsanctuary work extends to causes like anti-racist activism, gender equality and trans rights, as well as access to reproductive care. Alastor says, “just being vegan isn’t enough. We have to understand the complexities of systemic oppression and take what steps we can to support total liberation.”
Systemic oppression prevents many would-be sanctuary owners from rescuing animals, because, historically, they haven’t been able to afford the land. Running a sanctuary has long required the resources to buy land for keeping animals, and that requires significant disposable time and income. In the U.S., 98.8 percent of farmland is owned by white people, according to Soul Fire Farm’s analysis of USDA data. This disparity is a result of religious and legal rules enforced by European colonizers to take land from and attack people of color, most notably Black and Indigenous peoples.
Microsanctuaries Create Space for Closeness With Animals
Em Alves’s father had tended baby birds who had fallen in his youth near the Guyanese Amazon. Decades later then when they lived in Miami, neighbors would bring sick birds to their childhood home for their father to rehabilitate.
It soon became common for neighborhood chickens to roam into their family’s yard. “I would always try to convince my parents that it’s my chicken now and they would never agree,” Alves says. When Alves would visit Puerto Rico and see free-roaming chickens everywhere, it made Alves dream of one day becoming a chicken veterinarian.
Since childhood, Alves felt compelled by the injustices that animals and humans face within the field of agriculture. They think a lot about food systems and how there “should be a more symbiotic relationship than we’re having with land and animals.”
Now as an adult, Alves identifies with the microsanctuary movement, taking care of hens — but no roosters — at their house. A key factor that allowed them to do so was “having access to a backyard for the first time,” said Alves. “I could put up a coop.”
Living with chickens makes Alves feel closer to their culture: “Both sides of my family are from farm work.” Their grandfather traveled from Puerto Rico to Massachusetts to do migrant farm work for most of his life.
Doing regenerative gardening with the chickens also helps Alves connect to their ancestry. They didn’t have the privilege of developing a close connection with their abuelo before he died, since he lived in a time where few historical records existed for him. Alves only has approximations of his abuelo’s experiences. But Alves says, “I have to use my hands. It allows me to feel both present and connected to the past and the future. Nothing has ever lowered my anxiety the same way. ”
Microsanctuaries Are an Anti-racist Alternative to Discriminatory Regulations
Alves is a light-skinned American of Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Portuguese, African, and Taino ancestry. They co-hosted the Brujeria Veganx podcast and co-organize the Veggie Mijas chapter in Denver, Colorado. Alves lives with seven hens in western Denver County since roosters are not allowed there.
“I think that’s pretty racialized, too. This idea of not keeping roosters in areas that are predominantly BIPOC,” Alves said. If you go across the street into Lakewood, a predominantly-white area in Colorado, you’re allowed to have roosters, according to Alves. “You’re allowed to have a lot more animals in general.”
Lakewood is “farmer country” though “extremely residential,” Alves says, similar to their own neighborhood. “If my neighbor can have six llamas, why can’t I?”
Racial discrimination in housing is not new to Alves’ family. Alves says when their mother was growing up in the 1960s in New York City, “It was extremely common to see signs that said, ‘No dogs, no Blacks, no Puerto Ricans’ in storefronts and having those apartment listings say it point-blank.”
Alves’s grandmother had 15 children with a full range of skin tones. Their abuela had an Italian-sounding last name, and she used to bring her two white-looking children when applying to rent an apartment and pretend to be Italian, so as not to be denied housing.
“I’m really proud that my abuela was like, my kids need to eat. My kids need a safe space to stay, and I’m going to figure it out.”
In Puerto Rico today, housing discrimination against people with darker skin color persists, with no authorities to correct it, Alves said. They added, “We are not sovereign.”
Microsanctuaries Offer a Rare Path for BIPOC-led Program Funding
BIPOC-specific funding programs in the vegan or farmed animal advocacy movement are limited.
“I didn’t consider myself a sanctuary or microsanctuary until I was able to apply for the [Microsanctuaries of Color grant],” says Nisha Kumar, a multiracial activist who grew up outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Three chickens stay in a spare room that Kumar converted into an enclosure, filled with bird furniture, perches, food, water and a sandbox.
Frances Gonzalez’s parents survived migration and economic hardship while they nurtured her independent spirit throughout her childhood in the Bronx and Westchester. Today, Gonzalez and her husband grow their food with the support of their neighbors and 23 guinea hens on a 15 acre property in Gardiner, New York. “All life is equal. I want to do my part as living that,” says Gonzalez.
MRC’s Microsanctuaries of Color grant program gives about $500 per grantee, each of whom are people of color who are vegan. The program helps pay for the expenses of medical and other direct care costs incurred in running a microsanctuary.
The program has awarded about 20 microgrants since 2018 to grantees in the United States and Europe, says Alastor.
Monique Monelle is one of five recipients of the grants awarded in 2022. Monelle, along with Magnus, Kumar and Gonzales, a veganic farmer of Puerto Rican origin, are all recent or former Microsanctuaries of Color grantees.
Starting with just three ex-factory hens in February 2021, Monelle now has six chickens, with plans to take in ducks and small mammals. The $500 grant money was used, she says, to purchase a rabbit run.
Monelle, who grew up in London, identifies as an Indian. Her father is from Bangladesh and her mother is Indian; both came to the United Kingdom when they were teenagers. “Caring for these animals is very expensive and not something I would be able to consider if I didn’t have a well-paying job and house with land. In the U.K. (as with many places) there is a divide between wealth and color,” Monelle writes of her experience running a microsanctuary.
Microsanctuaries Rely on Collaborative Animal Rescue
Microsanctuary operators often connect and learn from social media, as thousands of users share tips online about caring for their chicken, rabbit, insect and rat friends.
Kumar, who began rescuing chickens in 2019, was able to get help from Julia Magnus, a multiracial, neurodivergent, disabled and Latinx microsanctuary operator in Chicago. The group Magnus belongs to uses mutual aid to support each other, which has helped her access mental health therapy after a major rescue of ex-fighters.
“[Magnus] helped me when I’ve had issues with other chickens that I have taken in,” says Kumar, who co-organizes Milwaukee Animal Save. “She’s taught me via messenger how to give chickens oral medication.“
Microsanctury Operators View Animals as Family
When Monelle came across the term “microsanctuary” online, she realized it described the exact work that her family was doing in safeguarding slaughterhouse-bound chickens. In suburban Bristol, England, Monelle’s mother steps in and makes sure the chickens are able to range freely when Monelle and her husband get too busy with their corporate day jobs.
“I actually, first and foremost, describe what we do here, it’s more of a family,” says Monelle, who lives on a three-quarter acre plot of land. When the chickens first arrive at her house, she says, “they don’t know that they can trust us.” Monelle loves to see them grow and, eventually, to gain their trust.
Hemi is a writer and educator.
Alastor Van Kleeck (they/them) has a Ph.D. in English and lives with their partner, Roz, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They spend most of their time working at the Triangle Chicken Advocates sanctuary, which Alastor and Roz founded in 2014, and which inspired them to start The Microsanctuary Movement/Microsanctuary Resource Center together later that year. Alastor is also a co-organizer of the Humane Hoax Project. They have presented at the Animal Rights National Conference, the Conscious Eating Conference, and the Humane Hoax Online Conference, and have been interviewed on podcasts such as Our Hen House, Beyond Species, The Bearded Vegans, and others. Much of Alastor’s writing is available at strivingwithsystems.com.