One hot summer day many years ago, I pulled up to work at the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit and there was a cardboard box already waiting for me at the front door. I looked inside the box and found four neonatal kittens without their mother. The kittens were so young they would immediately need a foster parent to bottle-feed them every few hours. If I didn’t find a foster home in the next couple of hours, the kittens would have to be euthanized.
I went inside the shelter and headed to my office. Before I could even put my things down and grab a sip of coffee, an animal evaluator was running up behind me, telling me we were on over-load. Almost every cage was full and we needed to clear out space for more animals that would be coming in that day, as our average intake is about fifty animals per day. So the evaluator and I walked through the shelter and picked animals to be euthanized. Some had been there awhile (meaning two weeks) and we picked those first. The first dog I held in the euthanasia room was licking me as we put her to sleep. As I wiped tears away from my eyes, I realized we were officially open so I needed to go unlock the front door and make sure our phones were on.
Immediately when I turned on the phones, our switchboard started lighting up with calls. The first call came from a man who was on his way to work and he saw a duck get hit by a car. The man explained that a duck was walking with her ducklings and all the ducklings fell into a sewer grate. The duck started frantically flapping around trying to get her babies, and that’s when she got struck and killed by a car. The man was wondering if we could come save the ducklings that were now stuck in the sewer. I paged for one of our emergency rescue drivers to go rescue the ducklings.
Then I heard my named being called over the intercom. It was our cruelty investigation division needing my assistance on a case. The cruelty division received a call from a woman who stated that her neighbor was living in his garage because his house had become over run with cats. Upon investigation, it was discovered that hundreds of cats were living in filth. The investigators received a search warrant to remove the animals. One of our cruelty investigators called in sick, so they needed my help. When we got to the house, the air in the home was so polluted from the high levels of ammonia, that we had to wear hazardous material suits and breathing apparatuses to rescue the cats. Even with those precautions, we could only operate at fifteen-minute intervals due to the unbearable air quality. It took almost all day to remove 300 cats from the 800 square-foot home. Every single cat that we removed from the home had to be euthanized due to his or her condition.
When I got home that night, I decided to go for a run to clear my head. Twenty minutes into my run, my phone rang. It was our nighttime evaluator calling to tell me that a rescue driver had just brought in a severely emaciated cat, who was so covered with fleas that she was anemic. She had also been hit by a car and appeared to be in pain. From the evaluator’s description, it sounded like the cat was feral and she didn’t have a collar or microchip. The evaluator wanted my authorization to waive the four-day stray holding policy and put this cat out of her misery. I agreed.
That night as I tried to fall asleep, visions of the day went through my head. Even though I had showered three times, I still smelled the ammonia stench from the cat hoarder’s house. That’s when I reached for a Tylenol PM and tried to get some sleep before I had to do it all again the next day.
This is an example of just one day in the life of an animal welfare worker. And I am just one person. There are millions of us. Some are veterinarians; some are kennel cleaners. But many of us suffer from one thing that not many of us talk about – compassion fatigue.
Last September, 48-year-old veterinary behaviorist and best-selling author Dr. Sophia Yin died of suicide. Dr. Yin was a trailblazer in the dog training community. She wrote books, created instructional videos, and developed tools for positive reinforcement training. In the Huffington Post, Anna Jane Grossman writes that it is impossible to understate Dr. Yin’s contribution to the world. Grossman states, “It is, perhaps, this overwhelming dedication to animals that led her to take her own life. According to those closest to her, Dr. Yin likely suffered from compassion fatigue.”
Jessica Dolce a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator, says: “Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of our work with animals, whether you are an animal control officer or kennel attendant in a small town or an internationally recognized veterinarian. Our work requires that we compassionately and effectively respond to the constant demand to be helping those who are suffering and in need.“ Dolce believes that your first line of defense against compassion fatigue is to accept the reality that you cannot save everyone. Take things one day at a time and do not underestimate the importance of saving one life. That one act makes a world of difference to that animal and to the humans who will love them.
At the shelter I managed in Michigan, we took in 50,000 animals a year and only adopted out 12,000. You do the math. No matter what your position was, you were emotionally affected by the sad reality of the animal overpopulation crisis. But we tried to focus on those 12,000 animals that we did save.
Experts believe that those in the animal welfare industry need to recognize that it’s normal to be affected by our work. Once we realize this, we can take steps to manage the impact that compassion fatigue is taking on us. Compassion fatigue is a real and prevalent problem. If you work in the animal welfare industry, encourage your staff to read a book, take a class or a webinar. Luckily, the animal shelter I worked at in Michigan required us to attend a yearly conference on compassion fatigue. That conference, along with daily exercise, has helped me immensely.
For more information on compassion fatigue, visit: COMPASSION FATIGUE