Note: This blog post was taken from my newly released book, To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior.
I have been involved in animal welfare for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure it all started when, as a young child, I learned that hamburger was a code word for cow. Little did I know that my refusal to eat meat was just the beginning of what would become a lifelong dedication to helping animals in need.
As a young adult, I became involved in animal rescue and have since volunteered and worked with various animal welfare organizations. I’ve scooped poop, and I’ve cleaned kennels. I’ve been a foster parent and a euthanasia technician. I’ve worn both the boots and the sandals—meaning that I’ve worked on the law-enforcement side and the shelter side. I’ve burned out, and I’ve bounced back. I’ve seen the worst in people, and I’ve met some of the most kind-hearted and selfless people on the planet.
When Caring So Much Hurts
My role in animal welfare—and my life—took a turn when my little feathered soul mate, Albert, died suddenly. The devastation and grief that I felt were indescribable, and those feelings took me to a very dark place. When I finally emerged, I decided to go back to graduate school to study psychology. I wanted to honor Albert by helping others who had lost their own pets. I also wanted to help all the animal-welfare warriors out there who dedicate their lives to caring for animals and who struggle with the pain that sometimes comes with this unique, rewarding, and challenging career and/or lifestyle.
I’ve personally felt frustration and even anger toward the public as they’ve lined up at the local shelter with boxes of unwanted puppies and kittens, stray dogs and cats, hamsters the kids stopped caring for, and parrots who either were too loud or didn’t talk. I’ve been filled with disgust by the sight of dogs covered in scars—physical and emotional—from years of fighting, farm animals too sick and emaciated to even stand, and cats who have been mutilated for someone’s idea of sick, twisted fun. I’ve felt my lungs burning from the stench of ammonia inside hoarders’ homes. I’ve felt the guilt, heartache, and rage that came with giving that fatal dose of “blue juice” to all the animals I couldn’t save. For those of you who work, volunteer, or are in any way involved in animal welfare, you may have had similar experiences—or at least similar feelings—in response to the harsh realities of the field. The reality of pet overpopulation, animal abuse, dog fighting, factory farming—the list goes on—can take a hefty toll on those of us who care the most. In fact, research has shown that those of us who have high levels of empathy, which is the ability to literally feel another’s pain and suffering, are at a greater risk of developing compassion fatigue.
So What is Compassion Fatigue Anyway?
Compassion fatigue has been described by traumatologist Charles Figley (1982) as the “cost of caring for others in emotional pain.” In his book Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized (1995), he adds that “the display of symptoms is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people or animals.” In other words, whether you’re a humane officer or a shelter volunteer, a vet tech or an animal-rights activist, you have likely seen, heard about, or experienced things that most people can’t even begin to understand. Long-term exposure to abuse and neglect, trauma, euthanasia, grief-stricken clients, etc., can not only impact your work productivity and satisfaction, but it can also wear on you mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If you don’t learn to manage the stress associated with helping others, then your compassion satisfaction can slowly fade, leaving you feeling angry, depressed, anxious, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained. Compassion fatigue can affect your professional life and spill over into your personal life. Eventually, it may even lead to burnout, which causes some people to leave the field altogether.
Shedding Light on Compassion Fatigue
Does this mean that if you choose to devote yourself to helping animals then you’re destined to a life of suffering? Absolutely not. One of the most important advancements in animal welfare, in my opinion, is the acknowledgment that compassion fatigue exists. It’s a common topic of discussion in other helping fields like nursing, social work, and counseling. And although it may sometimes seem like animal welfare is the “red-headed stepchild” of the helping professions, the good news is that we’ve begun to recognize it. When I started in the field, we didn’t talk about it. I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was going through. This needs to change because many of you are crashing and burning. Did you know that animal-control officers have the highest suicide rate—along with police officers and firefighters—of all workers in the United States? (Tiesman et al. 2015). In fact, recent research revealed that an alarming one in six veterinarians in the United States has considered suicide (Larkin 2015). Another study revealed that veterinarians in the United Kingdom have a suicide rate of an astonishing four times the general population (Tremayne 2010). Folks, we have got to start talking about this!
Help for the Helper
So what is the antidote to compassion fatigue? Currently, what we know is that it is a combination of self-care (something helping professionals can often struggle with) and support. Let’s take the former—what does that look like? Think of it as a way to recharge your battery. People I’ve met and worked with in the animal welfare field often feel guilty or even selfish when taking time for themselves, and I’ve felt that way too. I’ll admit it took me a long time to realize that if I didn’t take care of myself, then I couldn’t take care of the animals very well either.
Whether you are new to the animal welfare community or a seasoned veteran, my new book, To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior, is designed to help you recognize the symptoms and warning signs so that you can take steps to prevent, manage, or overcome compassion fatigue. The workbook was created for shelter workers and volunteers, animal-control officers, veterinary staff, rescue workers, trainers and behaviorists, wildlife rehabilitators, humane investigators, animal attorneys, foster parents, ethical vegetarians and vegans, animal-rights activists, pet sitters, dog walkers, groomers, and (of course) all-around animal lovers.
As someone who has worked in the trenches, it is my hope that I can now offer what you may need the most—compassion, validation, and understanding, along with some ammunition to help you continue to wage this seemingly endless battle. For every one we save, there are countless others who need us. And sometimes the best way to help is to help ourselves.
The workbook provides many practical and proven strategies to help you reduce anxiety, let go of anger, ward off depression, manage stress, and improve your overall well-being. Not only will you discover techniques for conquering compassion fatigue, but you’ll also learn how to cultivate compassion satisfaction—the key to staying strong, healthy, and energized so that you can continue to fight for those who don’t have a voice.