“Do something nice for yourself tonight,” my friend Katya said.
“Why?” I asked, oblivious to her reasoning.
“Just trust me. Take care of yourself, okay.”
I hung up the phone and packed my bag for a day of touring shelters in southern California. I was working on a presentation about shelter reform and rather than get stock photos, I decided to take pictures myself of actual dogs and cats in shelters.
This was about ten years ago, before the New Hope Program among Los Angeles shelters and rescues started, before Best Friends started NKLA. I scheduled myself to go to some of the shelters with the worst live release rate (otherwise known as the highest euthanasia rate.) I wanted to help transform shelters from appearing like jails to being what they were always meant to be: places of safety and healing. In order to do that I had to experience what they were like now.
I spent the day taking photographs of dogs—some cowering in their dens, others full of hope, running right up to the front of the kennels. Some dogs wore what looked like old style hotel door key rings with numbers on them. Everyone was a number. The ones with names never made it to the kennels; no three day hold was necessary for owner surrenders.
By the time I returned home with a camera chock full of digital photographs to process, I still had no idea why my friend had told me to take care of myself. It had been a productive day. In the running from one shelter to another, I even got in a transport for Patti taking a little dog from a shelter to a foster. I sat down at my laptop, loaded up the photos and started going through them, categorizing them, studying them, picking which ones to use. Within minutes, something started to crack inside me. My mind was fine, but my heart was breaking. Tears started to seep from my eyes and within fifteen minutes, I was sitting alone at my desk at midnight, sobbing loudly.
My photographs had captured the souls in those dogs—the terrified ones, the hopeful ones, the one in such despair. My mind had been able to shield my heart while the activity took place, but once alone, my mind let down its guard and my heart processed the grim reality I had witnessed: many of those dogs, whose reflections of their souls faded in and out on my laptop with each mouse click, would be gone by the end of the week. Maybe even the morning. Some of them knew. You could see it in their eyes, the ways their toes gripped the chain link in the front of the kennel. They were on death row; they knew it.
Now I understood my friend’s warning. I was new to this. She had plenty of experience. Her gift to shelter dogs was that every week she found out which dogs were to be put down, and she would spend the dog’s last earthly afternoon with him or her, buy him or her a McDonalds Happy Meal, and let them experience a few moments of happiness before the consequences of human society’s failing came to pass. It was the not the dog’s fault; it was ours. Katya was our community’s representative, offering her condolences for a life un-lived, for a death sentence caused by us.
What she did, I could not. I am the ever hopeful one—I do not accept Death. I see him as the enemy. I steal puppies and kittens off Death’s doorstep and make a run for it. There are always more than I can take, but I don’t look back and only hope there is someone close on my heels to take the others before he opens the front door. But that’s a coward’s way out. Rescuers look back. They see who is left behind, mourn the loss of those they cannot save, and although they say they focus on those they can save, a little bit of them dies with each they cannot save.
People get into animal rescue because they love animals. They want to protect them, to shelter them, to find them homes, to be their advocates. But rescue isn’t just the feel good, hopeful cushy jobs: the freedom rides and the home visits and adoption events. It’s walking into a hoarder’s house, and rather than bursting into tears from the horrific scene, reaching into each filthy cage and showing that individual animal human compassion for the first time. It’s going to a dogfighting ring, and seeing the horrible conditions bait dogs suffer, and yet experiencing how much they wish to love. It’s looking into a person’s face who has neglected an animal and educating them, rather than succumb to a violent rage.
It is an emotional rollercoaster working in animal care and rescue. Animal care workers have the highest rate of suicide among all American workers, according to a 2015 study by the American Journal of Medicine. It is double any other occupation—and perhaps because it not just an occupation for most; it is a volunteer job, a passion, a compulsion that goes beyond a 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule. There is no clocking out when you work in rescue.
People often see shelter workers as an enemy, rather than our protectors. They are just like our police officers—and in fact have some of the same duties. But they are also very much like firefighters—firefighters, the community’s protectors who are held in the highest regard. People bring them baked goods, stop by to say hello, and always contribute to their firehouse when asked. When they are on the front lines, food, water, and supplies are given readily. Firefighters are heroes for they do what the rest of us cannot: go against all survival instinct and rather than run from fire, run directly into it to save the rest of us.
We need to look at our shelter workers and animal rescuers the very same way. I had one experience, just taking photographs, and I was in meltdown mode at midnight. I did not have to make the decisions of who would live and who would die because there was not enough room or supplies at the shelter. I did not have to find a dog whose mouth had been taped shut and thrown in dumpster, left to die. I did not have to confront a teenager who set a cat on a fire. I did not have to take in an owner surrender, knowing the moment I handed them to the back, they would be killed. And I did not have to be the one to be that pet’s last moment of human contact on earth.
In just the ten years since I set out to reform shelters, shelters have reformed themselves—mostly because we, as a whole society, have started to reform. Now shelter collaborations with rescues are commonplace; agencies teach volunteers how to take portrait photographs that get animals homes; organizations initiate unique programs like dogs at play in which they teach shelter workers how to oversee small group play sessions. Adoptions have increased; spay and neuter have increased. Laws have changed.
But even with all those advancements, being an animal control officer or rescuer is not easy. And I’m not just talking about those who make the decision of who will live and who will die, or even the hand that is forced to bring upon that death. As humans, we are problem solvers. So while good experiences and beautiful moments are had, it’s the horrific images and traumatic scenes that stick with us, that we go over and over in our mind, trying to find a solution.
It wasn’t until 1992 that words were finally put to what many caregivers (not just of animals but of people) had suffered from for ages: Compassion Fatigue. Manifesting in a number of ways: substance abuse, depression, irritability, sleeplessness, anxiety, if left untreated, can have devastating effects—not just on the person, but on those around them.
In every job—whether paid or volunteer—you use a toolbox of skills and equipment. Working with animals, you use your heart, your soul, you emotions to connect. With every trauma, with every stacking of one horrible experience after another, your tools get worn down. Police officers and social workers have therapists on hand to talk to. Shelter workers do not and rescuers, who sometimes don’t even have their own health insurance, have no such safety net. But you can’t take care of others if you, yourself, are not taken care of.
That leaves it up to us, as a community, to fill that need. Our shelter workers are there for us, to protect our animals. We need to protect them. The rescuers are there to supplement and assist the shelter. We need to help them help us. Baking brownies and dropping them off at a shelter as you would a firehouse isn’t going to magically make compassion fatigue go away, but maybe it will remind that shelter worker that they are every much a hero as the firefighter is. That we thank them for rushing into the metaphorical burning building because we simply can’t.
We can honor our shelter workers by helping them have less trauma: by spaying and neutering our pets so there are fewer out there in need of homes; by networking animals in need; by adopting pets from them; by licensing our pets so they can get proper funding from city and state based on actual pet population. And when we interact with them, we can say, “Thank you.” And if maybe they’re a little testy that day, or don’t have patience for our questions, rather than get angry and walk away, surprise them by simply asking, “What can I do to help?”
The shelter belongs to us, and while the people who work and volunteer there care for the animals, we need to care for the people. They are there because of, and for, their love of animals. But loving hurts. And we need to respect them for investing in every soul who passes through the front door, knowing that some may never pass back out of it alive, but they will do everything within their power to get that animal a home.
If you are a shelter worker feeling your tools worn down, your heart always hurting, know you are not alone. And there is help. You can find resources at www.compasisonfatigue.org for organizations and tips on how to cope. If you feel you are beyond coping, please know that there is always hope, and help is out there. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 is available 24 hours a day. You wouldn’t let any animal go untreated if he or she was ill or in pain; treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion as you do them. You are our hero, and the world can’t survive if we lose all our heroes.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.