Compassion Fatigue and Animal Rescue

Animal rescue is hard. Often people in animal rescue see and deal with the worst of humanity.

People involved in animal rescue are often faced with negative (and very often) unwarranted criticism over policies in place, hate thrown their way for decisions made, and in some cases, threats (against animals and towards those involved with rescue organizations).

Social media tends to amplify this.

Recently, a rescue got attacked and threatened online after euthanizing a dog that had attacked (unprovoked) four different trainers. The rescue was in a no-win situation – do they put down a dog they’re trying to rescue that has a history of biting its handlers, or adopt it out knowing there was a significant risk it will bite it’s new family? – and made the right choice in not adopting out that dog despite their best efforts.

Rescues have been accused of “stealing” animals. I have seen people go on to a rescue’s social media page to leave negative reviews and spread false information about that rescue.

I have seen rescues attack other rescue organizations for policies or being open and transparent about vet bills only to be called “irresponsible”. The adoption process in place “takes too long” and to some people “it’s easier to adopt a child” (even though that’s not even remotely true).

We waited months to adopt Dolly. It was worth the wait.

I have seen people say that a rescue “must be rich” when thanking donors for donations.

It should be no surprise that every once in a while, people in rescue reach a breaking point and feel the need to vent about situations online. That is usually when that rescue gets told from people to “stop being so negative” and “focus on educating instead of venting”.

This is where compassion fatigue comes in for people involved in rescue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary describes compassion fatigue as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time” and “apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance”.

Sounds a lot like being in animal rescue, doesn’t it?

What happens to people experiencing compassion fatigue?

Anger, sadness, anxiety, depression and in some cases, suicide.

I have seen people start in animal rescue because they want to help out animals go from being a consistently positive person to someone who lashes out online all of a sudden. I have seen people become so completely overwhelmed by everything they see and deal with that they need to go on medication and regularly see a therapist (which I personally do). I have seen people who had to walk away from animal rescue completely because it became too much for them (mentally, emotionally and physically).

There are many people in different professions and roles (such as caregivers) who experience compassion fatigue. And sadly, seeing constant awful news online doesn’t help with anything.

So what can you do if you are the one who might be experiencing compassion fatigue?

Reach out for help. Ask volunteers to help take on some of the tasks that you do (such as get someone else to manage social media for a bit). Remember, you can not do this alone or all by yourself, and a team effort is always more beneficial than trying to be a one person show.

This is a tough one to do but, take breaks. I realize it’s easier said than done but this is where asking for help comes in. Take a couple of days to yourself and only give your number to the volunteer(s) you put in charge for emergencies only. Log off of the social media accounts for a bit or as stated above, get another volunteer to run them for you.

Once again, easier said than done but, learn to say no. There is honestly only so much of yourself to give. If you are running on empty, how can you possibly help? There may come times where you need to take a step back and realize that you are running at capacity and can not take in any more animals. And that is ok! It’s better for a rescue to realize their limits than get completely overwhelmed.

I can not recommend talking to a therapist enough. Like anything, it could be trial and error to find a therapist who works for you, but I found it helpful to see a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy. And if you find you are still struggling, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for medication.

What advice can I give to people reading this who are not involved in animal rescue?

I ask that before you jump online to leave a rescue a one star review because you “never heard back from them”, or leave the director a threatening voice mail because we are full and have no foster home for the dog you are deciding to dump, take a step back. Think. And mostly, have compassion and empathy for those on the front lines of rescue. It’s not easy. And if you think it is, sign up and volunteer and see first hand what rescues deal with.

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