Critter Talk Column

Last week I lost someone dear to me. He apparently took his own life. It’s a loss to the world at large, because he was a young man so full of promise and potential. He had so many possibilities in his future.

This young man had worked devotedly at the animal shelter for over five years. He started at only 23-years-old as a kennel tech, caring for dogs and cats. Over time, he learned all sorts of things, and became kennel manager. Parts of his job were really happy...adopting animals into new homes or reuniting lost pets with their families. Parts of the job were emotionally devastating...caring for dogs and cats so mistreated and damaged they would never recover in any meaningful way, and euthanizing animals, as needed. There was never a single dog or cat that he wanted to euthanize, but it was a part of the job none the less. 

I have read about a thing called “compassion fatigue.” This week I have read more, trying to make some kind of sense of the loss of this young life.

According to Tulane Traumatology Institute, compassion fatigue is “emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized animals or people.” Common symptoms are a lack of connectedness (support of family and community), feelings of hopelessness, and isolation (being cut off from other people).

According to the CDC, animal care workers and shelter staff have a suicide rate of 5.3 per one million people, whereas the suicide rate for other American workers is only 1.5 per one million. That’s quite a difference. Animal care workers have the highest suicide rate, shared only by police officers and fire fighters. 

Folks who work in animal shelters and rescues aren’t in it for the money. Most people in this field don’t get paid anything near what I consider a living wage. They may have taken the job because they needed a job, but they stayed for the love of the animals.

Shelter workers often hate the things they are forced to do. Think about it...the shelter staff members that take in animals, often neglected or abused animals, are often the same people who, if no home can be found, must euthanize them. So, they care for the animal each day. They feed it and give it as much personal time as they can squeeze into a busy day. They love every animal that comes to the shelter. They try to find it a home or convince a rescue organization to take it. And then, if none of that works, they take it to a room and with tears in their eyes, euthanize the dog or cat as gently as they can. Can you imagine?

Compassion fatigue is a very real thing and it causes real and sometimes fatal with my friend.

There are a number of things we can do as a community to at least ease the stress shelter staff feels. First, don’t blame the shelter for animals being euthanized. Blaming shelter staff is like blaming the janitor because a drunk puked in the corner. Give shelter staff credit for all they do.

Volunteer, either at your local shelter, or at off-site adoption events, fundraisers, and such. Let the shelter staff know that the community stands behind them, and is working hard to make the lives of both the staff and the animals in their care easier. After a day at the shelter, it is a huge thing to have someone say, “Thank you for all you do for animals in our community. You can’t save them all, but thank you for saving so many.” 

During my time working in a shelter, we had wonderful people in the community who would bring cookies, or a luncheon picnic, or sodas for the break room. We had people who would send Christmas cards with personal notes of appreciation inside. There is no end to what the community can do to support the people who do this devastating job.

None of this will help my friend, who took his own life for reasons that I have no doubt involved his work at the shelter. He is gone. But community support would certainly save the lives of others in the future.