Empathy Burnout, Compassion Fatigue: The Downside of Being an Animal Rescuer


We're doing it for the animals and the work is never done

I know I'm not alone in receiving notes from huge-hearted people who work tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of nonhuman animals (animals). Some do it full-time, whereas others fit in this incredibly important and often soul-draining work among numerous other demands on their time and energy—and on their hearts. Thus, I was thrilled to see a very valuable recent essay by Kasia Galazka called "How Animal Rescuers Are Burning Out Their Empathy." Her piece is available online and I highly recommend it to everyone who does any sort of rescue and rehabilitation work—in fact, any type of care-giving work—where it's not uncommon to have to witness individuals in deep pain and to have to end the life of an animal who just isn't going to make it. Ms. Galazka's essay focuses on work done at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, the largest marine mammal rehabilitation center in the world. However, the topics on which she writes go far beyond this wonderful facility.

A few snippets from Ms. Galazka's piece are worth noting and revisiting from time to time because of the incredible stress that accompanies rescue and rehabilitation work. She begins:

No one likes to hear about the freezers full of euthanized animals. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but often animal rescue workers have no option but to kill sick or badly wounded animals—as humanely as possible. For these professionals and volunteers, administering euthanasia is a major contributor to compassion fatigue—the chronic stress that stems from extended caregiving. Combatting the fatigue requires attentive self-care, and the ability to emotionally distance oneself from animal patients. But looking into the eyes of hundreds of distressed creatures day in and day out can make that difficult.

Compassion fatigue is very common among caregivers. Ms. Galazka notes, "most people don’t appreciate the strain this work causes." She quotes Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, as saying, "Not only do [animal welfare workers] suffer daily in the work they do, they also often deal with the public’s total disregard and criticism of their work. Shelter work was one of the most distressing and sorrow-filled work I’ve ever done.”

Another cause of compassion fatigue and empathy burnout is the recognition that the work is never finished, according to Jeff Boehm, executive director of the Marine Mammal Center. We all know that feeling. We're also told, "The Marine Mammal Center oversees the more than 600 miles of coast that make up California’s spine. Last year, the number of animals admitted to the center peaked at over 1,850—a sharp increase from the thousand animals rescued the previous year."

Ms. Galazka ends with a lovely quote from Bob Schoelkopf, the founder and director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey—"The bottom line is we’re doing it for the animals... People have to understand that the animals are given a second chance.” Ms. Galazka goes on to write, "The best part of the job, he says, is turning them loose, stronger and more robust than when they arrived."

Of the1,850 animals brought into the Marine Mammal Center, only 632 patients survived

Of course, turning animals loose isn't always the case and, when an individual has to be euthanized, it's a huge heartbreaker. Ms. Galazka notes, "You can’t keep every patient alive. Doctors know this, and so do people who work to save animals. Of the 1,850 animals admitted by the Center last year, only 632 patients survived to be released back into the wild. Of the starving sea lion pups brought to the Center, only a third survived."

It's true, the work is never done, and in an increasingly human-dominated world with other animals experiencing "the rage of inhumanity," it's unlikely there will be any shortage of work to be done for hapless and innocent animals who globally are on the receiving end of human arrogance and disregard.

A huge and heartfelt thank you to all who work to help other animals trying to live in a world that's been taken over by over-producing and over-consuming human mammals, many of whom have little to no regard for how they're negatively and irreversibly affecting other animals and their homes.

I've reread Ms. Galazka's essay a number of times and highly recommend it to everyone who works with other animals in need. Indeed, it's also essential reading for those who do not work for other animals and have little to no idea of the physical and emotional drain of trying to save the lives of other animals for whom we are their oxygen and lifeline. So, please share it with them as well. The animals will thank you in their own ways. 

Note: For more on this topic please see "Beating the Burnout While Working For a Compassionate World" and links therein, along with a more personal view in "Take a Walk on the Rewild Side." I'm deeply indebted to my parents for unknowingly giving me many valuable suggestions for "how to walk away from my brain" to rekindle and get going again and again and again ... 

Please also see Kathleen Prasad's "Compassion Fatigue and Animal Rescue: How Reiki Can Help."

This article was originally published by Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission.

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