Compassion can be painful.
The more compassionate you are, the more likely you are to be affected by compassion fatigue, also known as emotional exhaustion, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or secondary victimization.
This often misunderstood and trivialized affliction is also referred to as secondary-traumatic stress disorder (STSD) and is actually a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It affects caretakers of all kinds but this article focuses on the animal rescue aspect.
While I don’t speak for every single person in animal rescue, I do know, from personal experience as well as accounts from many of my fellow rescuers and advocates, that the profession as a whole is extremely stressful already.
And those who work in Socially Conscious Shelters tend to fare a lot worse.
HSPs (Highly Sensitive People) and empaths can— through their natural ability to identify with and feel the pain of others (and quite literally take it on) — be more susceptible to this kind of torment. At the same time, they are very likely to be drawn to the role of caregiver, and many end up in some kind of animal-related profession.
The visible and the invisible
Animal rescue attracts highly caring and sensitive people to its lower-paying and volunteer ranks.
Some CEO, director, and management positions tend to be a lot less hands-on in large facilities and as such, they are focused on overall numbers and paperwork. They are in effect insulated from the daily horrors experienced by the animals and those who care for them. And they are not required to be animal people or even compassionate humans at all. In fact, the less you feel, the more profitable your operation tends to be.
We see this trend in every large business out there, but we tend to overlook animal rescue as a “business”, don’t we?
Animal shelters are presumed to be run by highly ethical and compassionate people driven by little more than their love of animals. But this is not necessarily the case, as evidenced by the generous pay some CEOs, presidents, executive directors, etc receive. See the example above from Guidestar.org. While I never begrudge anyone decent pay for a job well done, I don’t necessarily feel that all top people are actually doing such a great job. If they were, pets wouldn’t be dying needlessly.
The average donor helping to fund these large corporations (motivated by sad and effective TV commercials) is often completely unaware that the money they thought was going to provide necessities for animals in need is actually instead providing perhaps less-than-necessary items for people.
Another concern is huge amounts of money going to lobbying. The massive municipal animal shelters we see in cities across the country are often very political and funded by an abundance of money. A lot of it tax-payer money. Money that doesn’t always go where we think it does.
If taxpayers are paying for the service of “animal control”, shouldn’t they have a say in how that control is achieved? Transparency.
The stress and daily suffering that is animal welfare in the trenches create the perfect storm for sensitive folks. The people most likely drawn into it are by default also the ones who are most likely to collapse from the mental assault. According to this article:
“At 5.3 cases per 1 million, people involved in animal rescue have the highest suicide rate amongst all American workers. It is the same rate as police officers and firefighters (American Journal of Preventive Medicine1). The average suicide rate for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.”
Compassion fatigue is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder” (STSD)... [and] can lead to depression and possible suicidal thoughts.
As explained by Psychology Today in this article, the symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and sometimes difficult to pinpoint: Dissociation, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbances, nightmares, feeling powerless, nausea, headaches, general constriction, bodily temperature changes, dizziness, fainting spells, and impaired hearing are just some of them.
The horrors experienced by a caring human forced to comply with Socially Conscious Sheltering (“Pick-and-Choose sheltering”) policies can amount to a neverending spiral of depression. They see an overabundance of death on a daily basis. They feel helpless and hopeless. Even in the more progressive of the regressive shelters, the “save rate” is far from adequate.
Being forced to observe, or even participate in, the daily killing of relatively healthy and happy pets eventually (and sometimes very quickly) takes its toll.
Below are two graphics (kindly provided by No Kill Colorado) that show the actual — self-reported — 2018 statistics for six of the biggest regressive shelters in Colorado. These numbers are very similar to those of other regressive shelters across the country, but some areas are even worse.
These Socially Conscious Shelters eliminate on average one animal out of every five they take in.
To shed some light on these numbers, take a look at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (4th in the graph below). Their “all cats and dogs negative outcomes” number is 2,948. What does that mean? That means that 2,948 animals died in that shelter in 2018.
That comes out to 57 per week — or EIGHT per day every single day.
What does it do to a compassionate, animal-loving human to see that many healthy, hopeful souls simply destroyed on a daily basis?
Behind the scenes
Many surrender forms that owners have to sign when they give up an animal include a simple checkbox for “owner requested euthanasia” or “ORE”. People are often just instructed to check that box without knowing (or asking) what it means.
By surrendering your pet to a shelter, he or she becomes the property of that facility. As soon as your signature is on that form, they own the animal. They are then free to do whatever they wish.
That checked ORE box provides an “out” for the shelter in case they don’t feel that the animal in question is worth their time and effort. ORE numbers are omitted from the required PACFA reporting of total euthanasia rates but included in the graphs above.
Kinder shelters (no-kill shelters and rescues) of course also take possession of relinquished animals, but instead of going along with ORE they assess the animal first. If healthy or treatable they just don’t go along with it. They treat, train, rehabilitate, and do whatever is necessary to find the perfect home. It takes as long as it takes.
Sadly, owners often don’t realize that they’re literally choosing to have their pet killed as soon as he or she walks through those doors. If actually sick or not may not factor in at all in a regressive shelter’s decision to have the pet meet its untimely demise. It’s mostly money.
Before surrendering a pet to any facility, please look at their stats. These numbers are public information and should be accessible online.
Do you like the odds of a one in five chance of survival?
For the sake of not only homeless pets everywhere but also the selfless and wonderful people who devote their lives to caring for them, we should as a society consider all the benefits of switching all animal shelters to the no-kill model.
This excellent article discusses the benefits of the no-kill philosophy, including such overlooked issues as mental health, employee engagement, morale, donor and volunteer retention, community support, and reputation.
The person saying it cannot be done shouldn’t interrupt the person doing it. - Chinese Proverb
Despite constant attacks by the Socially Conscious Sheltering movement, no-kill is proving every day that animal rescue and rehoming can be done better, cheaper, and safer for all by simply being human and humane. Animal control through killing should be a thing of the past. And animal rescue should be left to the people who actually love animals.
We can do better!
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