This is the first article I have read that deals with the issue of compassion fatigue. As a person who is very involved in animal care, I find it interesting that no one has felt this was worthwhile to write about until now. It seems it took a suicide of a well-known veterinarian and animal behaviorist to bring this issue to light.
In the animal welfare community, there is usually very little good news. When an animal is rescued, there is the burden of finding a place to home that animal and there is the cost of maintaining that animal that has to be overcome. Unfortunately, we still have many “kill” shelters in the United States and that is also a big problem that can affect the mental health of the caregivers.
Please read this article and learn about the problems facing these wonderful people who want to make this world a good place for all animals.
In September of 2014, 48-year-old veterinary behaviorist and best-selling author Dr. Sophia Yin died of suicide. Dr. Yin was a trailblazer in the dog training community. She wrote books, created instructional videos, and developed tools for positive reinforcement training.
In the Huffington Post, Anna Jane Grossman writes that it is impossible to overstate Dr. Yin’s contribution to the world.
It is, perhaps, this overwhelming dedication to animals that led her to take her own life. According to those closest to her, Dr. Yin likely suffered from compassion fatigue.
“Emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.”
Compassion fatigue is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder” (STSD). The symptoms of STSD are similar to PTSD. As with PTSD, compassion fatigue can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
STSD is not rare and Dr. Yin’s suffering was not unusual.
The first ever mental health survey for veterinarians revealed that one in six of them have contemplated suicide. A recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicinereveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.
Jessica Dolce, a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator, says,
“Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of our work with animals, whether you are an animal control officer or kennel attendant in a small town or an internationally recognized veterinarian. Our work requires that we compassionately and effectively respond to the constant demand to be helping those who are suffering and in need.“
Yet, no one is discussing this very real and very prevalent epidemic. Perhaps that is because we think of animal care as more practical than emotional.
Justina Calgiano, Director of Public Relations and Special Events at the Delaware County SPCA, a private lifesaving animal welfare organization just outside of Philadelphia, spoke to us about this, saying:
“Setting personal limits is hard in animal welfare, because it’s not ‘just a job’ – it’s like a religion.”
Calgiano remembers a particularly difficult case involving a Pit-Bull named Precious whom repair workers found locked in a flooded basement.
“She was found amidst a flood of water, steam, and an outbreak of fleas. She weighed a devastating 17 pounds. She couldn’t even lift her head, let alone walk. We had workers come to the shelter in shifts around the clock to spoon feed her and flip her body to prevent bed sores. After investigation, it was discovered that her mom, Angel, died in the basement from starvation – the same fate Precious would have suffered.”
Now Precious lives a joyful life with a loving family of both humans and other dogs. Still, the trauma of witnessing Precious’s struggle will never leave Calgiano.
Success stories are not always possible. This is often due to medical reasons, behavioral issues, or most tragically for rescue workers, a lack of space.
The Delco SPCA once functioned as more of an animal control facility than a haven. In 2009, 2,325 animals were euthanized, while 1,845 were adopted.
Thanks to the help of their Executive Director, Richard Matelsky, Delco SPCA is now a no-kill shelter. Euthanasia only occurs for medical or extreme behavioral reasons. The shelter is now listed as one of the best in the country.