Not for Staff Only: Compassion Fatigue in Animal Shelter Volunteers

Not for Staff Only: Compassion Fatigue in Animal Shelter Volunteers
(Photo: Laura Young)

"Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

~Dr. Charles Figley, Tulane Traumatology Institute

I've worked with hurting people for most of my adult life, with over 20 years combined experience as a therapist and personal coach, but nowhere have I seen a segment of the population so perpetually poised atop the razor's edge between passion and psychological peril as I have in animal welfare. And I'm not alone in this observation.

A recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national average suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.

And if you think the role of stress and compassion fatigue is under-studied and under-recognized in animal welfare staff, the problem is only compounded for the volunteer workforce who can easily outnumber paid staff by a factor of ten or more. In fact, most rescue organizations are staffed entirely by volunteers.

For those volunteers who may work intensively with animals at risk for euthanization, but who have no role or control in how or when that decision is made, the level of stress is every bit as complex and impactful as it is for paid staff. Their essential lack of power, as studies on internal vs. external locus of control would suggest, could mean that for some volunteers (particularly the seasoned folks who are privy to the inner workings of the shelter), the experience of stress may even be higher.

While volunteers are theoretically free to leave, often their passion for the cause, their connection with the animals, and their awareness of inadequate staffing levels in many organizations make exercising that option extraordinarily difficult.

Further, for those who work in open-admission animal shelters, who are both on the receiving end of great numbers of 'cast off' animals as well as the happy circumstance of finding many animals homes, the ones that don't make it out of the system alive weigh heavily on their hearts and minds.

Typically, the job of euthanizing society’s unwanted animals falls in the hands of animal shelter workers (often young women still in their 20's), animal control officers, or other animal care professionals, creating what Arluke (1994) called a caring–killing paradox. In other words, they may be required to euthanize the same animals for whom they have also been providing care and protection.

With roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of adoptable animals entering shelters each year being euthanized according to most recent estimates by the Humane Society of the U.S...approximately 2.7 million healthy cats and dogs...that is a LOT of grief to bear.

No surprise then that compassion fatigue (also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder”), burnout, and complicated bereavement ensue, creating serious, if too often un-discussed, problems within the field.

Why are these issues not discussed more openly?

Remember, people enter this field primarily to take care of animals, not necessarily to take care of each other.

It's not that folks in animal welfare don't recognize stress in each other (although sometimes they might attribute the effects of stress to someone's temperament, not realizing that they are not normally so snarky, cold or cranky), it's that they don't necessarily know what to do with it once they see it. And, let's be honest, there are a lot of devout animal lovers who tend to prefer animals to people. Trust may not come easily. Asking for help may feel too difficult.

Unfortunately, stress left unaddressed and unfettered can start to define the culture of the organization, only reinforcing the problems. Water cooler venting sessions, the sharing of 'war stories' and the shoring up of each other's growing world view that the world is full of awful people, can have an insidious effect on those who may be increasingly hard-pressed (with good reason) to hang on to joy when they see so much cause for pain. (And that is to say nothing of how often those at home are on the receiving end of emotional fallout that spills over from the work day.)

The longer one is in the field, the greater the risk of become hardened by the abuses and neglect seen, and sometimes the ensuing cynicism can be accompanied by a strange sense of pride for what one can endure without tears (seen it all, honey, seen it all) and a tendency to discount the fresh-faced newbies and volunteers for being naive (and a dime-a-dozen).

Please be clear, this is not true of every individual person in animal welfare, nor does this hardened culture characterize every organization, but the risks are ever present when stress is high, demands are unrelenting and positive outlets are few.

If you recognize the risks in yourself, or your organization, it's time to acknowledge two basic truths:

1. In animal welfare, we need each other. It can't ONLY be about the animals, counter-intuitive though that may sound.

2. Pain is universal, even if you've gotten really good at carrying yours (or have convinced yourself you have).

Despite the many joys in helping animals in need, (and there ARE many, many joys) there is also considerable heartbreak experienced at every level within animal welfare organizations.

It is incumbent upon the leadership in animal welfare organizations to recognize their role in assisting not just their paid staff, but their unpaid workforce as well.

Volunteers often struggle to come to terms with the stress inherent in animal rescue. Their inner dialogue often goes something like this:

Well, it's a shelter. I mean, I guess I should have expected this. I know we can't save them all but I don't know...it seems all I do is cry, or worry...maybe I'm not really cut out for this. I've got to get tougher. God, I'm such a mess. What is my problem? It's not like I didn't know. I just have to stop falling in love with the dogs. I have to find a way to stop caring so much. Shit... (insert quick eye dabbing here)...if they see me crying...God, what if they tell me I can't do this anymore?

And those fears and self-doubt can be reinforced by staff who ask the question,

"Maybe this is too much for you. If you can't deal with the realities, maybe you shouldn't be here."

And while that point of view does have validity, it risks suggesting that shelter life is either/or...you can either suck it up and deal or maybe you should leave.  You cannot imagine the fear that strikes in the heart of many a volunteer. It sounds like an ultimatum. It sounds like an easy choice.

Deal or Can't Deal?

But life is not that easy. Not in animal welfare, nor anywhere else.

The ability to bear pain, to witness harshness, abandonment and human cruelty as rescue workers must do (ideally without simply donning a cold suit of armor and stuffing every pain in isolation) must be cultivated. There are those saints who seem to fall into lives of service naturally, with just the right perspective and requisite spiritual fortitude, but for the rest of us ordinary saps, we need to grow into our humanity.  Regardless of whether our roles carry an official status or are 'merely' voluntary, we all need the opportunity to cultivate our resilience, and we need permission to sit, supported, as we contemplate the actions of our fellow humans, for good or for ill, as we each find our way to answering the essential question of how much we can bear.

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