Julie Hanan helped out at domestic cat rescues for years before she heard about The Wildcat Sanctuary, a refuge that cares for lions, tigers and other wild cats that have been bred in captivity and abandoned. When Hanan offered to run the group's Facebook page a few years ago, the group was run by about a dozen people and was really only experimenting with social media.
"At the time, they were struggling to get about 20,000 fans and followers," she remembered.
Hanan wasn’t a marketing professional. She was just a woman with time on her hands — a lot of time. So she spent 40 hours a week posting on Facebook for the refuge.
Her work paid off. Over three years, The Wildcat Refuge’s page has grown rapidly. It now has nearly 3 million followers, more than the Sierra Club and Greenpeace International. People in 45 different countries, ranging from wildlife biologists to children, follow the page.
"We seem to have developed a very loyal fan base," Hanan told me. The video below explains more about the group's simple mission.
'There is no stupid question'
Rather than using complicated corporate strategies and obsessing over buzzwords, Hanan just writes like a person.
She posts educational articles and videos rather than content that might stir up emotion but doesn’t bring hope.
"We can’t expect to inspire compassion if we don’t model compassion," she said.
Advertisers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in marketing. That’s what makes Hanan’s success so surprising, as well as so difficult; it's just one day at a time. Having such a small budget — really, a nonexistent budget — means that Hanan doesn't have many of the options that businesses do, like paying for stories to show up in the newsfeeds of Facebook followers. In fact, Wildcat Sanctuary followers sometimes message Hanan, asking why they aren’t getting updates despite being active members on the sanctuary’s page.
"It’s not like the old days" of Facebook she said. "We don’t have control over the reach."
Facebook has also recently started rewarding live video a lot more, which is problematic for an organization in rural Minnesota.
"We have very slow Wi-Fi," she said.
Despite these impediments, the Wildcat Sanctuary’s social media success is undeniable. Hanan hopes her posts will prevent wild animals from getting stuck in unfortunate situations in the first place.
Thousands of wild animals are kept as pets every year; when a lion or tiger cub in the U.S. gets too big, owners often release it onto the street. And we’re not just talking about a few wild animals: there are fewer than 4,000 tigers left in the wild. In contrast, Hanan says there are thousands of exotic in people’s backyards, far too many for the refuge to take in.
"We can’t rescue our way out of the problem," she explained. "Social media has been phenomenal for us. I don’t know what we would do without social media." (Take for example the great video below of exotic cats meeting snowmen; what better way to share your story than to let the animals do the talking? That's where social media shines.)
'We don't have that much wild left'
Despite the scope of this problem, a lot of animal lovers don’t know much about breeders, and well-meaning people sometimes complain that the refuge should lets its cats go free. Hanan explains that these cats, which were raised in captivity, have no idea how to survive in the wild. Besides, the planet is losing its wild places — almost half of the Earth’s surface is now agricultural land, for starters.
"Where would that wild be?" asked Hanan. "We don’t have that much wild left."
That’s why awareness is so important. Hanan said her page has mobilized people to contact government officials to try and get wild animal breeding banned. People are willing to help, but they need someone to point the way.
"People have to be given the tools," she said.
Social media has given tiny nonprofits like the Wildcat Sanctuary a kind of reach and voice that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. By helping cats, the sanctuary "gives a voice to the voiceless," said Hanan. And they don't need millions of dollars to be heard.