When Caring Hurts: Compassion Fatigue and How to Protect Against It

It takes a strong heart to deal with the cruelty that confronts animal rescue workers on a regular basis. One day at the shelter I saw an article posted on the bulletin board in the staff area. Its subject was “Compassion Fatigue,” and it described the psychological burden on vets and animal workers of seeing so much suffering and death, and also of being the instruments of death in the performance of euthanasia that shelter work sadly often requires.

Shocking initiation. Veterinarian Dr. Douglas Fakkema has been a pioneer in the identification and treatment of compassion fatigue. When he began his career in the 1970s, things were very different. His account of what happened on his first day of work in a California shelter is chilling to read.

As reported in Animal Sheltering magazine, “Fakkema showed up at 8 a.m., and the very first minute he was there, a shelter employee named Bob greeted him and told Fakkema to come with him. ‘So I followed him, we put a leash on a dog, and I walked behind him with this beautiful dog on a leash and went into this back room,’ he recalls. “I didn’t get a tour, there was no orientation, there was no training. They had me pick this dog up and put the dog into this cage on wheels. So I did that, I shoved the cage into this weird-looking machine, and closed the door, latched it and hit a green button.’”

The machine was a decompression chamber, a particularly inhumane form of euthanasia that has since been widely banned. Dr. Fakkema didn’t have a chance to process what he saw and experienced that day; he was put to work right away cleaning kennels.

A force for change. Back in the ’70s, spay and neuter were not commonly practiced, and uncontrolled breeding of animals meant that shelter workers like Dr. Fakkema were euthanizing as many as 90 animals a day. Understandably, this took a psychological toll.

Douglas Fakkema helped to make the humane form of euthanasia-by-injection the standard practice in shelters today. Still, it can be a heavy emotional burden on those who must perform it frequently, largely because of people’s continued refusal to spay and neuter their animals.

Four stages. Dr. Fakkema used his own experience to identify the common, successive stages of compassion fatigue: Honeymoon (“I’m going to save them all!”); Depression (“Nothing is changing.”); Anger (“It’s the owners who should be euthanized, not the animals. In fact, the person who just cut me off in traffic should be.”); and, hopefully, Resilience (“I have done the best I could and made a difference. I am developing a rich life and meaningful relationships outside of work.”)

For more information see Dr. Fakkema’s website http://www.dougfakkema.com/articles.html and the profile in Animal Sheltering magazine https://www.animalsheltering.org/magazine/articles/good-man-hard-job

Limited ability, limitless need. For myself, though as a volunteer I am insulated from the very hardest work that has to be done in the shelter, I am sometimes overwhelmed by all the need I see and my own inadequacy in meeting it. In any given dog-walking session I can only walk 6 or 7 dogs – and that leaves some 50 others in the adoption wards who I know are desperate for attention and a break from the confinement of their kennels.

And there’s always much, much more that can be done. Drive a transport of animals to a city two or three hours away…take dogs to an all-day adoption event, or an outdoor concert, or a shopping center, or a ballgame, where one of them might just meet his or her forever family…volunteer at a spay and neuter clinic in a poor neighborhood….It’s easy to think that these potentially life-saving activities should take precedence over anything else that I have to do.

I see big-hearted staffers and other volunteers at our shelter taking orphaned newborn kittens home to bottle feed through the night, or adopting just one more dog when they already have three. I admire them – and yet I’m concerned about their psychological stamina.

Self-care strategies. Everyone has to find his or her own way of coping with the stress of shelter work. “I go home and hug my dog.” “I hike in nature.” “I spend time with my fiancé.” “I sleep.” These are some of the healthy strategies that my fellow workers have told me they use.

And you have to draw boundaries. You have to say no.

Speaking personally, I feel fortunate in that I have faith — or, at least, hope — in a power greater than myself. I pray to this power for the shelter animals and those who care for them. Sometimes pausing before a kennel, or hanging out on a bench with a shelter dog whom I love and whose future I worry about, I will murmur the beautiful blessing from Numbers 6:24-26:

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you; And give you peace.”’

And then I go home and hug my dog.

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