Animal people are some of the most compassionate and caring people that I have ever met. For those of us who work and volunteer to help animals, none of us are immune from getting exhausted from the never-ending work that often involves horrific incidents of torture, abuse and loss of life. When we work/volunteer in situations where we encounter chronic tragedies and stress, we take on that stress as secondary trauma. It’s called compassion fatigue. We are then often filled with grief for our animal companions and anger towards those who caused the harm. We are even angry with people who just simply don’t care about the exploitation and harm being done to animals. It’s difficult to make a difference when we feel such negative emotions. We lash out with our emotions and then it’s challenging for people to take us seriously.
Compassion fatigue comes from helping abused animals recover, from watching far too many animals lose their lives in shelters due to overpopulation, but it can also come from working with humans who are challenging (to put it mildly) to deal with. Many people gravitate to helping animals because we, frankly, are sick and tired of the dysfunctional and mean-spirited nature of human beings. Yet working with animals will not insulate us from these people.
Some people work or volunteer in shelters where staff or directors actually condone inhumane practices against the animals (such as selling animals to research, gas chambers, and so on). Just this week, I listened to a radio interview of the director of a shelter in Michigan that still gasses. This person actually advocated for using the gas chamber and described in horrific detail how he puts the animals in the chamber (and he said the words with no thought that his practice is outdated and barbaric). My prayers went out to the poor animals who are unfortunate enough to encounter this person and shelter. Then my prayers went out to all of the staff or volunteers who truly care about the animals and know that this is a wrong way to run a shelter. Imagine the stress that they are under every day as they help the animals and try to get them into adoptive homes or to rescue groups, but then watch them being loaded into a chamber to suffocate to death? I know this stress because I’ve been there when I volunteered for almost 4 years in a shelter that engaged in pound seizure and had a high euthanasia rate. I basically did not sleep for 4 years because I and the other volunteers worked round-the-clock to get the animals out to safety. It was exhausting, but it had to be done. That, my friend, is compassion fatigue.
When you suffer from compassion fatigue, it can drastically impact your physical and emotional health immediately and long term. It is also when you become less objective and more irrational. Battles will rage amongst the people because everyone is so freakin’ exhausted! So it is best to take care of yourself along the way so that you do not become so depleted that you are unable to help any animal or think clearly.
How do you do that? I write about this in my book Defending the Defenseless. But here are a few tips to keep your spirits elevated so that you can do your best work:
- Keep expectations in perspective. You will not be able to protect every animal in every situation at every moment. Help those that you can, when you can.
- Celebrate the small victories and each moment when you help an animal. These little moments of joy will energize you to help the next, and so on.
- For each animal that you help, take a photo of them and keep a photo album. This will help during dark days when you feel overwhelmed and lost. I still do this in photo albums from a decade ago that show all of the cats that I saved from a Class B dealer and being used in research. It will help you to know that you are making a difference.
- Give yourself some animal-free time, which includes socializing with people who are not involved in animal protection, yet are supportive. Finding friends, events and quiet moments where you can get away will leave you refreshed to help another day. It should not be animals 24/7.
- Give yourself some you-time where you pamper yourself. Walk in nature (with your dog), take a nap (with your cat), light scented candles, take a bubble bath, journal, meditate, do yoga, run or walk. Do something to benefit your body, mind and spirit.
- Surround yourself with positive people. When you’re dealing with the stress of helping animals, having encouragement will help you to keep going. So stay away from the nay-sayers and those who bring you down.
Allie (comforting Shallot)!
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