Animal Compassion is Contagious, But So Is Compassion Fatigue

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Shelly Roche, Founder of TinyKittens in Langely, British Columbia and the adorable Aurora,

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.”

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Honey, and her blind kitty friends at Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary in St. Pauls, NC

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.

 

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Endangered Species Day

Cecil the lion – slain by trophy hunters in 2015. His death sparked an international outrage and turned the focus on endangered species.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of recent events. How many of you have heard the news of one million species will go extinct by the human race if nothing is done to stop our destruction? With it being Endangered Species Day, I am truly reflecting on this heartbreaking issue and what can be done. I went to the Audubon Society’s Women in Conversation gala luncheon yesterday at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. I get a little glimmer of hope of all the wonderful people doing thankless work to preserve our plant and animal life.

Even our beloved domestic pets are not safe from our hands. The heartbreaking stats of the abandoned cats and dogs that overpopulate the shelters only to be destroyed are staggering. Thanks to animal rescue initiatives such as TNR, animal sanctuaries, and strong effective adoption and fostering drives, the stats has lessened over the years but they are still overwhelming. Their plight is also due to our species’ manipulation of uprooting them from their natural homes and wild behaviors. Because of this, it is our duty to take care of them and provide them with the best life possible.

Cecil’s death sparked a debate but so much still has to be done. Reports of his brother and son also suffering the same brutal fate of being killed by trophy hunters hurts my heart but heartbreak won’t help these animals – consistent active participation to stop this will. We all have to do better.


I will never let this little guy down. He looks how I feel about the state of the world.



The Monday & the Restless

Look into my eyes.

Spring is in the air! Checking in after a very much needed reflective period of what has happened in my life and where I want to go along with staying in the present. I tend to look at Lancelot for inspiration, as a supreme cat, he stays in the present moment for the most part. A traumatic or pleasant past experience also motivates his behavior in the present. We can say we do the same thing as human beings.

Animals have always inspired me in a very creative way. I can look into my little guy’s mesmerizing eyes and feel I can write a masterpiece. What motivates you? Look forward to reading your thoughts.

Meowfest & CatCon – Here I Come!

A summer to remember.

Since my birthday is in July, I thought I would bestow myself with one the best birthday presents and take a weekend trip to Toronto, Canada for the second annual Meowfest event. The one-day catextravaganza raised over $10,000 for non-profits animal organizations and got some rescue kitties adopted in the process! The first one last year took place in Vancouver, British Columbia. British Columbia is one the most beautiful and greenest places ever. I decided to go to CatCon in Los Angeles instead. Well, this time, a girl is doing both! CatCon in June and the next week heading to Toronto in early July.

With this 24 degree New York City weather, I needed something to cheer me up and warm me up. Lancelot will not be happy with my absence but he never complains with all the goodies I bring back.

Make it up to me, hoomin, with bribes of treats and toys!

A Matchmade Not So Much in Heaven

Miss Swee'Pea, I hope you're living the high life as the and only Queen Cat!
Swee’Pea, I hope you’re living the high life as the one and only Queen cat! I’ll never forget you. xo

Today is National Pet Day. It’s making me a bit nostalgic to relive a time when a feisty, loving tortie cat entered my life. This is a bit of a long read but ones that tugs on your heartstrings.

Not so long ago, I noticed a small tortoiseshell cat on the corner of a major avenue intersection. She crouched down looking at the world around her of rowdy teens and overtired adults.

When I got closer to her, I noticed her fur had several bald patches. Despite her obviously ill appearance, she had an outgoing and confident personality living up to the tortie legend. Petting her I felt the bones protruding under the skin. I began a routine of feeding her breakfast and dinner when I came home from work. People noticed me feeding her and giving reports she’s been chased by angry homeowners and fighting the more seasoned street smart cats. I knew I couldn’t let her stay on the street.

I took to my vet. She tested negative for FIV and FeLV, plus, she had a spay scar. The bad news she had friends of fleas and their internal buddies – parasites. The craziest part came when the vet scanned her shoulder to discover she was chipped! The office called the owners registered to the chip number. They shamelessly said they were not interested in the cat anymore.

I thought this had to be a divine sign. I had been wanting to get Lancelot some company, perhaps this girl was the one. Because of her infections, the vet instructed she and Lancelot could share the litter box or food/water bowls. This meant their interacting together had to be very closely monitored. The saying you never get a second chance to make a first impression certainly fit Lancelot and Swee’Pea’s (her new name) encounter. Disaster from day one and even after two months, it never got better. Only worse.

Lancelot became obsessed with her. He wouldn’t give the poor thing space, nor would he take the cues of her growling and hissing to leave her alone. I got Lancelot from the ASPCA and his origins are somewhat of a mystery. I always suspected he did not have the opportunity to be around his siblings and his mother long enough for proper socialization. I tried switching them in different rooms, giving Swee’Pea towels he laid on to get used to his scent. These two were so incompatible, my then boyfriend at the time put a pet gate in between them when we went to work. By the approach of the third month, I knew she couldn’t stay but she would stay as long as it took until she could find a loving home.

I told a cat-loving coworker about my stressful situation. He said to call the Mayor’s Animal Alliance for NYC’s Animals. They helped him out when he rescued a stray off the street. I hesitated hoping I could find her a home but a lot of people were not interested in adopting (understandably so) a cat when they were still undergoing parasitic treatment. I finally broke down and spoke to a representative at the Mayor’s Animal Alliance, she said since the cat is chipped look if it can be traced back to a shelter or rescue. She said if they’re a no-kill shelter they will want her back

The people at HomeAgain would not release the origin of her microchip number. They said it had to come from a veterinarian’s office or animal rescue. My boyfriend had lady luck on his side. He said the customer service person told him right away Swee’Pea’s original chip owner was on other than the ASPCA! I immediately called them, and they verified that Ms. Swee’Pea was indeed theirs. They would be more than happy to take her back and finish up her medical treatment.

While joy and relief swept through me, I also had a horrible feeling. Those owners who dumped Swee’Pea adopted her from their organization. Their vetting process isn’t very thorough as I got Lancelot for a mere $30.00 and filled out an application. With a cautious heart, I did take Swee’Pea back to the ASPCA. They told me she has been here twice times already. One family took her back after they adopted her followed by those demons who left her to die on the street. I wanted to cry right then and there. They said they will continue treating her and when she is well enough to be put up for adoption.

I wanted to know about the people who abandoned her and left the cat to die. She said they are now flagged on their database and will be escorted off the premises if they fail to leave voluntarily. I asked who is in charge of their adoptions. They gave me the contact information of the executive director of their adoption center. I wrote a heartfelt and very detailed letter about Swee’Pea. I gave her the chip number all the information I could about this very sweet girl. I explained it can’t be stressed enough that due to this poor girl’s history of abandonment, stricter vetting procedures must be made in her case.

I got a response back that Swee’Pea is doing well and I could call anytime to check up on her. I did just that. They told me she is healing up nicely and getting a lot of interaction with staff as she has been through a lot. I kept checking up on Swee’Pea until I found out she got adopted. I pray in my heart of hearts this is her final home. It’s too bad she and Lancelot couldn’t stand one another. A definite love connection fail. I won’t give up hope. I know his “Guinevere” is out there for him.

Long live the Queen wherever she is!