by Diana Hockley
KRL enjoys featuring the many rat rescues around the country. This month we are chatting with Critter Camp Exotic Pet Sanctuary in German Valley, Illinois who not only takes in pet rats, but other exotic animals as well.
KRL:Rescuing animals is a labor of love and total dedication. What was the catalyst for the creation of Critter camp?
CC: About 14 years ago as a single mom I began homeschooling my son with special needs after he suffered a severe trauma, and my gifted daughters (my older son was already in college.) One of the first projects my kids wanted to do was take in new pets, so their assignment was to study all kind of pets first. They chose ferrets and we took in a pair of them. Then people started bringing us pets they couldn’t keep. We enjoyed learning about them and finding homes for most of them informally, but soon we found that there was nowhere for the old, sick, aggressive, fearful or very unusual pets to go. So we decided as a family to become a sanctuary for those very pets. We became licensed by the IL Dept of AG as a shelter, by the USDA to exhibit the exotics for educational purposes and got our 501c3 charity status. Critter Camp is now the only all volunteer rescue of its kind in the US only taking these unadoptables, and not wildlife, cats or dogs.
KRL: What sort of set-up do you have – is it a private house or a purpose-built complex?
CC: Currently Critter Camp is operated out of our home and one outbuilding that is fully insulated and heated. Our plans are to build a standalone facility on three acres of land we purchased with a grant a few years ago. Critter Camp has been chosen as one of the shelters which a pilot TV series called Animal House will build new facilities for next year. Hopefully within a year our new building will be a reality.
KRL:What species of animals do you rescue, and how many can you accommodate of each species?
CC: We care for over 350 unadoptable abused, abandoned and otherwise homeless small and exotic pets of 30 different species. All have different set-up to live their lives as happily as possible. The rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets have free range rooms. The parrots have out-of -cage time every day. The foxes are free range in the house. All the rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, etc. have very large multilevel homes with lots of sleep sacks, hammocks, hideouts, wheels, and toys. Lizards have large tanks, etc. Nocturnal animals are in quiet bedrooms during the day so they can sleep. Yes, they are up at night but we are so tired we sleep through it!
KRL:Are rats popular pets in your area?
CC: Rats are becoming more popular here. We are in a sparsely populated rural area, so rats have some stigma still attached. However, we are always pleasantly surprised at presentations when several people come up to us afterwards to tell us they too have pet rats. A main point in our educational presentations is that there are very few animals that truly make good pets for most people–those include cats, dogs, rats and bearded dragons.
KRL:Do you get any wild ratties into your rescue?
CC: We specifically do not accept native wildlife because it is a different license here in IL. However, we had a nice couple bring us what they thought was an escaped pet rat they trapped in their very upscale gated community. It was quite obviously a wild rat but they would not believe it wasn’t a pet. So we kept him in a secure large cage and took care of him for his lifespan about two years. He was not handle-able, but that is fine because many of the animals we have here are not. Also we took in a group of half-wild ratty pups from a girl whose female rattie got loose in her apartment and came home pregnant. They too were not handle-able, but again it is fine.
KRL:How do the local community regard your activities and are they supportive in adoption and/or monetary terms?
CC: We receive most of our support from outside our local area. We take in animals from the entire US and have a large internet following. Locally people say we do good work but don’t financially support us much.
KRL:What are most popular animals adopted from your rescue and the percentage of each species?
CC: In general, we do not have “adoptables” unless we take in a pregnant animal or a large group and determine some are adoptable. That said we still manage to adopt out about 50 animals a year. Last year it was hamsters from “hamstergeddon” when we took in what was supposed to be 20 from a high kill shelter but was in fact 40 and half were pregnant. We adopted the babies and the few friendly, younger healthy adults.
This year we had ‘ratastrophe.’ A couple rescued an abandoned pet rat, bought it a friend (of the wrong sex!) and they had litter after litter. Baby males were not separated out soon enough. No other rescue would help them, but we did. They said there were about 25 rats they needed us to take. Well the carriers contained 69 when we picked them up. Some were pregnant. There ended up to be about 110 finally. We adopted out 40+ of them. Many that came in had not been handled and were very bitey and fearful.
KRL:How many rats can you accommodate and do you have adopters wanting them?
CC: We do not have adopters waiting. It was very difficult to find enough adopters for the rats this year, but again many years we don’t need rat adopters at all. We currently have about 140 rats and are full. We would take in a few if it were an emergency.
KRL:How do you go about checking the credentials of your adopters, particularly the rats?
CC: We have an adoption application. They have to supply their name, address, age, occupation, a personal and veterinarian references (which we always check) and their past and present pet experience. Red flags come up if they claim to have had too many pets, especially ones with long life-spans etc. For example if a 25 year old says they have had sugar gliders, iguanas etc that is not a good reference because those animals live 15 years. What happened to theirs? Did they give them away?
KRL:Do you charge an adoption fees?
CC: We do not charge adoption fees, but we ask for a donation. Most people are more than generous.
KRL:Do you have many volunteers and how do you recruit them?
CC: We are all volunteer operated. We have posters up at local schools and colleges, on our website and a listing on VolunteerMatch.
KRL:Do you receive a discount or help from the local vets?
CC: Yes, we receive a discount from our vet.
KRL:Rescues depend on donations from the public. Do you have PayPal and credit card facilities and are you an accredited charity?
CC: Yes, Critter Camp is a 50c3 tax exempt charity, and we do accept Paypal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Credit cards can be used on the Paypal site as well.
KRL:Are there county or government grants which you can apply for?
CC: No, there are no government funds for our rescue at all. As a matter of fact, there are virtually no grants for small unadoptable pet rescue. A tiny percentage of the pet welfare grants actually allow small pets, but unfortunately exclude exotics. We rely on our supporters to donate, occasional contests and a few conferences that choose us as their charity each year. We also have an Amazon Wish list people can order directly through and are on Amazon Smile where people can choose Critter Camp to receive a percentage of their order totals.
KRL:Have you any fundraising events coming up and would you like to give the details?
CC: We have one annual event locally – a stand up comedy night we do as partners with the local humane society in May. Right now, we are in the Animal Rescue Site Shelter Challenge and are always looking for votes there for two more weeks.
KRL:Tell us about your own pet rats, their names and how many.
CC: I don’t have any personal pet rats and we care for over 140 right now. All have names and unique personalities. My very best education ratty is Shadow. She is the friendliest best rat I’ve ever known. She loves everyone, from tiny tots to elders in nursing homes. She gets out of cage time a lot to hang out with me and go to presentations.
KRL:What are your website URL and FB and Twitter details?
We encourage everyone to follow us on FB for adorable pics of all of our animals everyday and to keep up to date on all our rescues. We also have a free email weekly newsletter that people can sign up for on our website too. Critter Camp appreciates this opportunity to help get the word out about saving all pets, not just the adoptable healthy young ones. We have an obligation as people to care for all the pets we’ve bred, even when they no longer have “value.” Our rescue is more a nursing home, assisted living, hospice for those pets that need a final place to live out their lives, loved and cared for.