It’s been a while since I fell off. Life happens, but you gotta get back up again. This past summer I went to CatCon in Pasadena, California, and met the wonderful Shelly Roche from TinyKittens! I wrote the article below about compassion fatigue in animal rescue. How I was so ignorant of it before is beyond me. It’s really important as animal lovers we do our share to alleviate some of the pressure. A bit of a long read but one I think can be appreciated.
As animal lovers, we are addicted to animal photos and videos that dominate the Internet. If you’re like me, your social media accounts are bloated with subscriptions to a potpourri of animal channels, whether they are celebrity pets; animal rescue organizations showing the incredible life-saving work they do; personal pet pages or heartfelt feel-good videos capturing good Samaritans unexpectedly finding themselves helping out other animals in distress and need.
Behind all these stories that tug at our heartstrings prompting joy, inspiring us to donate to causes, or even taking action to foster or adopt, there is a hidden human price to be paid for providing us this invaluable education and enrichment. It’s called compassion fatigue. People in the caregiving professions are most at risk. Dr. Charles Figley at the Florida State University Traumatology Institute defines compassion fatigue as: “[e]motional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.”
The statistics from the first-ever survey for veterinarians by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2014 revealed that one in six veterinarians had admitted to having suicidal thoughts. The suicide rate for animal rescue workers is a staggering rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers, according to a study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This statistic is comparable with the suicide rates by firefighters and police officers, compared to the national suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.
I’ll admit I have never heard of this condition until this past June at the 5th annual CatCon convention in Pasadena, California. Shelly Roche, the founder of the cat rescue group TinyKittens in British Columbia, gave a seminar on what TinyKittens does for feral and stray cats and kittens. The theme of her presentation was compassion. Roche’s work is nothing short of phenomenal. During her presentation, she mentioned compassion fatigue. She said animal rescuers suicide rates are on par with first responders. That prompted an uncomfortable silence from the audience. As uncomfortable as I was hearing about, I felt compelled to research the topic further.
While the general public may be ignorant of it, as I was, animal caregivers are all too aware of compassion fatigue. The general public’s lack of knowledge of this condition contributes to the problem. It’s too easy and tempting to indulge in online armchair animal activist/veterinarian quarterback behind the safety of a keyboard when responding with highly critical comments to footage of heartbreaking footage of animals in need. Now couple that with animal rescuers dealing with first-hand horrific trauma of animal abuse, despite all their tireless efforts, facing the cruel realization that they cannot save them all. Veterinarians have to deal with grieving pet owners by being the bearer of the tragic news that their beloved pet didn’t make it or has a terminal disease.
“Burn out? Of course! I am crispy fried!” said Alana Miller, founder of Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary located in St. Pauls, North Carolina. Blind Cat Rescue (BCR) is a lifetime sanctuary for blind, FeLV and FIV positive cats since 2005. With tireless dedication and building a grassroots online social media presence, BCR now has over a million followers on their Facebook page and has managed to thrive on donations from loyal donors to help the sanctuary provide the very best care for a demographic of cats that would normally be deemed unadoptable in most shelters. When I asked Miller about work-life balance to help counter compassion fatigue, she replied, “Balance? I wish. I do now force myself to take two weeks off vacation; I would love to say that I am completely unplugged, but that is not true, but I do try to only check in 1 or 2 times a day.”
Grassroots animal rescuers and caregivers like Miller never really take a day off even when they are technically taking a day off. To do this type of work and to do it well, is not for the half-hearted. It demands one hundred and ten percent sustained dedication. The best and the brightest of caregivers can succumb to compassion fatigue. Symptoms can consist of suppressed emotions; overwhelming grief and helplessness; feelings of isolation; unable to concentrate, mental and physical exhaustion; perpetual nightmares and flashbacks; neglecting yourself physically, which includes an unkempt appearance and poor hygiene; and possible substance abuse.
The silver lining to combating and overcoming compassion fatigue is now there are more support spaces than ever before. The best cure is prevention. It is vital for animal caregivers to take of themselves first and foremost. Putting themselves first means they will be better to serve the animals they seek to help. Finding positive time away to recharge is key. There are also communities of support. Veterinary social workers are available to provide therapeutic support to overwhelmed caregivers.
In Defense of Animals – an international animal protection organization since 1983, provides telephone hotline, e-mail and chat room support. The counselors they provide have been specifically trained to help animal caregivers, as they are animal activists as well, so they empathize and can relate to what beleaguered animal caregivers are going through. The counselors can also refer callers to a list of vegan therapists for longer more extensive treatment of therapy.
Despite the very uncomfortable truths about compassion fatigue, I am glad my curiosity motivated me to learn more about it. I already admired and respected what animal caregivers and activists do, but learning about compassion fatigue, has made my respect for them go to the nth degree. I’m going to take Shelly Roche’s advice from her presentation at CatCon. She encouraged the audience to go out and help a feral or stray animal, no matter how small and share your victory with the world. More shared stories on social media can motivate people to become more involved by taking Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) classes and feeding local cat colonies in their area. Isolation is how compassion fatigue forms and festers, with more people helping out, we’re not only making a huge positive impact on animals’ lives but on our fellow humans as well.