TRIGGER WARNING: This week’s blog goes out to the true heroes amongst our animal-loving community-those working in the animal welfare field. This blog openly and honestly addresses the feelings of depression and emotional distress that affects those in the animal welfare field. Resources for those who need crisis help are listed at the end of the blog.
As an animal lover or a potential new adopter, we scroll through the social media pages and websites of pet rescues and shelters, looking at the lovely photos of adoptable animals and “oh” and “ah,” over their cuteness. Or, we may even stop at a shelter, kennel, or rescue and walk up and down the aisles and see the pens and cages that hold a healthy, eager dog or cat ready to go to their forever home. While sometimes we may consider, briefly, what that dog or cat’s story was before they came to be on the adoption floor, we probably move on fairly quickly from that thought and begin to look towards the future that that pet will have. And, it’s even less likely, that we stop to consider the other hundreds of animals that came into that shelter or rescue but never made it onto the adoption floor. Today, I ask you to consider, for a little bit longer, the people behind the scenes of those shelters and rescues and the weight they carry in their hearts from working so tirelessly to try to save every animal that comes into their care.
According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate amongst all American workers (the same rate as police officers and firefighters).” It was only recently, in the 1990s, that the term “compassion fatigue” came into use as a diagnosis for the exhaustion and depression that animal welfare workers felt in correlation to their job efforts. According to the Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute, compassion fatigue (CF) is defined as: “Emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals (or people).”
Day in and day out, animal welfare workers dedicate their lives to the care of animals that enter their facilities. Animal control officers, humane investigators, vets and their clinic staff, animal care staff, behaviorists, intake staff, adoption coordinators, volunteer staff, the rescuers, and the administration of these kennels and rescues all see these animals during the most traumatic and stressful moments of their lives. They see animals that have come from extreme circumstances of abuse and neglect. They nurse them back to health, and then must begin the long and emotionally arduous process of showing these animals that not all people are monsters. Then, there’s the ones that couldn’t be saved; The ones that couldn’t be shown that people can provide love and warmth and not pain and suffering. These are the cases that end in euthanasia, and the ones that cause the heaviest burden of guilt and grief. Those are the ones that take the biggest toll. There is not a single worker in animal rescue that wants to turn their back on these animals- that do not want to give their every effort to save them. That, even if they’re dangerous, aggressive, terminally ill- that they don’t want to give that animal a chance. Even when a kennel can celebrate a 91.9% live release rate of the animals that came into their shelter- it’s the 8.1% that they carry home with them at the end of the day.
When an animal welfare worker continually focuses on that negative percentage, the animals that couldn’t be helped in their care, it can lead to some detrimental consequences. Compassion fatigue could begin and this leads to a person feeling numb to the suffering of others. One of the biggest problems with CF is that people who are experiencing it are unwilling to admit to it and try to continue working through it. This denial is what can lead to extreme depression and suicidal thoughts.
So, the next time you have the opportunity to speak with an animal welfare worker, take the time to give them the thanks they deserve. Thank them not only for caring for the animals that you see at their rescue and kennel but thank them for carrying that emotional burden of letting go of the ones that didn’t make it out to the adoption floor. The hearts of those in animal welfare are of the biggest you could ever imagine.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms you may have compassion fatigue:
You can also use the Crisis Text HotLine to talk with a crisis counselor- Text HOME to 741-741
REMEMBER- YOU ARE NOT ALONE. The Weirdo Leadership team cares about its community and urges you to reach out to a member of leadership if you need to talk.
On behalf of the Weirdo Cat Lovers of Cleveland, we see you, we appreciate you, and we understand you.