Compassion fatigue is one of those things you don’t quite understand, you hear the term and you kind of know what it means but it’s a broad term to grasp. Like a numbness and disconnect to the everyday hardships that you experience over and over that burn you out. You see so much bad that eventually your feelings about it are curbed. It’s hard to explain to people in different professions, who haven’t had the types of experiences in a setting where compassion fatigue is prevalent. Working in a shelter is hard. Maybe not always physically demanding but it is emotionally and mentally taxing in a way not a lot of jobs are. It wears you down and burns you out. You see the best and the worst. There’s this common idea that my job is all fun and games, playing with dogs and fostering kittens. And it is, a lot of the time. There’s a lot of good things that come along with the territory: saving lives, watching shy dogs and cats come out of their shells and become sweet, outgoing creatures, fostering and socializing hissy pissy kittens, finding fabulous homes for fabulous animals, adopting out a cat who has been at the shelter for several months and simply seeing good people doing good things: bringing in donations, spreading the word about us, children who ask for money or donations for the shelter instead of presents, fabulous pet owners and people who come in and just say “thank you for doing what you do.” There’s so many good things that it can be enough to make you cry. Don’t even get me started on the overwhelming support and generosity I experienced at the Masquerade Gala last fall. It was incredible.
But there’s a lot of bad stuff too. Angry people who scream and curse at us, who wish pain and death upon us for doing our job. Horrible people doing all the wrong things for their pets, seeing cats declawed, dogs chained up outside and never allowed inside, animals that were abused, neglected, sick, emaciated, terrified, or seriously injured without any [good] owner to care for them. Then there are the puppy mills [not once but twice] and bestiality cases and cruelty cases that sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. Animals who are being mistreated by their owners, who cower when you say their name or are clearly terrified of their owner. Sometimes we can save them and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it’s because the judge doesn’t rule in our favor. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have the resources to fix it, the foster home to care for it while it recovers, the space in our kennels to give them time or sometimes it’s just too serious a behavior or medical issue. We are limited but we try. Oh, how we all try. We save a lot of lives and I am grateful for every one. But there are some lives that we could save if we had more room, more support from the community, more foster homes, more time, more resources, if we had gotten to them sooner… There are so many cases where you feel awful, you know the injury or the shyness or the behavior could have been rehabilitated if you could just… but you can’t. And even while you’re mourning the loss of one life, another is coming in and you have to keep going.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about open admission shelters. That is, a shelter that is not a “no-kill.” The simple name, “no-kill shelter,” is already putting out this idea that open admission shelters are “killing” animals and that’s just not true. It’s also extremely unfair to the employers. Every shelter operates differently, every shelter sees awful things, and I can only speak of my experience with my shelter but I will say that people need to open their eyes to the reality of what’s happening. No-kill shelters have to limit the animals that come in. They often do not take in stray animals, usually only transfers from other shelters and rescues. Open admission shelters take in every animal, regardless of age, health, space or temperament. That means they will take in your aggressive dog or your dying cat, your unwanted rabbit or facility permitting, the horse you can’t afford or the pig you can’t contain, no animal is turned away and they do the best they can with them. Sometimes, they best they can do is euthanasia. It can be a mildly unhealthy, possibly treatable 9 year old cat that is shut down, hiding and won’t interact with shelter staff, or a friendly, reasonably healthy 10 year old cat. Without working at a shelter, you don’t understand that people don’t like adopting 9 year old cats. Sometimes it’s hard enough adopting out a 5 year old cat. People want kittens. No matter how much you explain to people that no matter how many years they have with their cat, it will never be enough, whether you have a cat from a kitten to 15 or a cat from 5 to 15. You will be devastated when you lose that animal. There’s a lot of hate about 10 year old cats being euthanized, a lot of trying to turn people away from us, telling people not to support us when the reality is you need to be PROMOTING us and encouraging people to adopt senior cats so that we don’t have to euthanize them. Shelters and rescues everywhere are full and resources are limited. If we had as many people coming in for cats over 8 as we do people coming in for kittens, they would be up for adoption. But as it is, we seldom get people interested in senior cats and you have to draw a line somewhere. What’s worse, a 10 year old cat sitting in a shelter kennel for months and months and months and being stressed and being passed over again and again… or euthanizing it and not making it go through months of stressed kennel life? There’s the space issue too, which is a big one for many shelters and luckily, not one that we run into often. But you do run into it occasionally. No matter how much you reach out and inform people of the importance of spay and neuter, no matter how many programs there are to assist and lower or cover the cost, there is a never-ending supply of homeless pets and not enough responsible homes to take them. Sometimes you have limited kennels, the other rescues and shelters you usually transfer to are full and without anywhere for them to go, you are out of options and you have to pick out the most adoptable ones. There will always be disagreement over the answers and I don’t think there is a correct one. At the shelter, we can only do what we feel is best for the animal and it isn’t easy. You make your decision and it sucks and it breaks your heart but you have to keep going.
There’s also the terrified dogs. Usually a super shy little dog that may make friends with a staff member or two but nowhere near the majority and most can’t even touch it. You know it’s terrified, you know it can likely be pushed into biting if you go in there and try to pick it up or put a harness on too quickly, that it most likely will bite a volunteer who is perhaps newer or not so experienced in canine body language. You also know that it won’t show well to people as it took you, someone experienced with dogs, several days to make friends and that most people don’t want a project dog and it is a liability to have up for adoption. Sure, it could go into a foster home and be worked with but you don’t have one, at least not experienced enough for the amount of training this dog will need or with enough time to dedicate to it- it could be in a foster home for a year before it finds a permanent owner. And it’s not handling the kennel stress very well and sometimes, you need that kennel. So you aren’t left with many options and it breaks your heart. Every time. Most of the the time, a behavior problem like that could be worked through if you just had ________. But you don’t have ________ and you can’t dwell on it, you can’t beat yourself up over “if only” and “what if,” it’s not healthy and there’s another dog coming in that needs a kennel set up. You have to shake it off and not let it break you because you have work to do. Again and again, you are faced with that question; which is worse? How long does this dog have to sit in a shelter, how stressed, how miserable does it have to be, before you make a decision to end it? I’ve heard all the arguments and I’ve seen a lot of name-calling. “You’re a murderer, you’re sick, you could have done something, you could take a pay cut, you could have found somewhere for it to go, you didn’t do enough, if you had just tried.” Unfortunately, there isn’t always something you can do, somewhere for it to go, and I’m sorry, but while I really don’t make much, my job is not a minimum wage job. My job is hard and it is a job that a lot of people wouldn’t and couldn’t do. And on the other hand, even if I was making minimum wage, I’d be sick for murdering helpless animals for minimum wage. We can’t win and we did everything we could. And worse, while these people are fighting open admission shelters and pushing support of only “no kill,” they are missing the big picture: we need to promote spay and neuter and educate. The shelter wouldn’t have so many cats if people would get theirs fixed, there wouldn’t be so many dogs if there weren’t so many irresponsible breeders, we wouldn’t have to euthanize so many aggressive dogs if their owners could understand what chaining a dog up or using a prong collar or hitting it or Cesar Millan-type training does, there wouldn’t be so many pit bulls and bully breeds euthanized nationwide if more people understood the breed. Open admission shelters are not the problem and we are forced to make tough decisions every day because we have to. You quickly realize how many things there are that are worse than quick, compassionate and humane death.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the Olympic Animal Sanctuary that was supposed to be housing unadoptable dogs but was in fact an unhealthy and horrid hoarding situation. There are a few problems with this and the first and foremost being that even if the kennels and dogs were managed properly, even if the facility was top of the line with enough volunteers to walk dogs and good food and proper beds and it was cleaned every day, you have to realize what it is- a warehouse. There’s also the story of Mickey, a pit bull left unattended with a child, who it ended up biting, and that dog was sentenced to defanging and life in a shelter. Kennels are stressful, dogs do not deserve to live their lives out in kennels. I do not believe in warehousing, I have seen even the most mellow and nicest of dogs go stir-crazy in their kennels because even when they go on a few walks a day, they get time in the yard a few times a day, volunteers come and snuggle them throughout the day, it’s not enough. There are too many people, too many dogs, too much stress, not enough comfort and no home to truly relax in. It’s not a life. Some dogs can handle it longer than others and generally, cats and small animals handle it better than dogs, but I would rather euthanize my cats than see them live out their lives in a kennel. They deserve a home and there are worse things than death. People will usually agree with that on a basic level but without seeing it with your own eyes, the stress and crazy look in their eyes, the distraught body language, touching it with your own hands, you don’t truly understand what that means or what’s worse.
People view euthanasia as murder. The vet who taught my certification class said she once had a vet roommate who was not a shelter vet. While the roommate could be distraught over euthanizing a dog that was badly injured being hit by a car, the other was a monster for euthanizing a parvo puppy because, while sometimes treatable, it is not do-able in a shelter environment. It’s like you are viewed as a serial killer who gets joy out of ending lives, which is the most ignorant statement I think I’ve ever heard. Even when you aren’t deeply attached to an animal, or no matter how much of a good reason you have, you know you are ending a life and it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s a unanimous decision and sometimes it isn’t. Some you agree with and some you don’t, some you assist with and some you don’t. But the truth is, being able to perform euthanasias is a privilege. The vast majority of the time, you are grateful that you can end suffering. You can provide comfort to an animal while it lets go of its stress or pain. It hurts, but you are grateful, because you’d rather euthanize a dog now than have it be seriously injured in a dog fight because it’s very dog aggressive, because you’d rather euthanize it now than risk it biting a child out of fear and having to go through the stress of a bite quarantine before being euthanized, because you’d rather euthanize it now than risk it being abused because people don’t understand it’s fear-based aggression, because you don’t want to see this animal hurting someone or getting hurt because you know how stupid and awful people can be. Sometimes the reasons are much simpler for people outside the shelter to understand; an animal that was hit by a car and in pain, that has serious arthritis and can’t get around comfortably, cancer or otherwise unhealthy and suffering. We also offer public euthanasias, for pet owners to bring in their animal and have it put to rest. These are often the hardest because they are distraught and crying and you know what they’re going through. You’ve been there and you know it hurts.
I often bring home hissy pissy, semi-feral kittens and turn them around. I think it’s hilarious to watch the tiny one-pound kitten hiss at me all ferocious and I love earning their trust, getting them to purr, seeing them turn into semi-normal cats. It’s satisfying and you know you saved their life. But you can’t save them all. I recently had to bring in one of these kittens to be euthanized. Adorable screaming Cera. She was not making progress, she was extremely difficult to handle, she was stressed, she hated all interaction she had with me, she bit me all the time. I tried my hardest, I did everything I could and it wasn’t enough. I will never forget how terrified she was when I put her in the crate, how she was so easy to handle during the procedure because she was scared and I will never stop feeling like I failed her. Logically and realistically, I know I couldn’t have done more but my heart hurts every time I think of her. I feel guilty and I was constantly kicking myself over and over again the week following, thinking of the “what if” and the “if only.” And it’s hard to talk about because so many people don’t understand. Luckily I had many supportive co-workers and I just try to remind myself that four of the five hissy pissy kittens I fostered found a home and that Cera will not feel stress again. It was a final gift to her and one that I don’t regret making because she could have had something much worse.
So no, my job isn’t always fun and games. I’ve seen a lot of cute dogs and adorable kittens, I’ve seen a lot of heavily bred dogs making money for their irresponsible owners, I’ve seen kittens that have been thrown out of car windows, animals surrendered in horrifying shape that clearly didn’t happen overnight, I’ve seen great owners who buy a bigger car so they can more easily drive around with their newly adopted third dog, who move into a new house with a big yard for their newly adopted dog, I’ve seen unrealistic people return animals because they “realized they just weren’t cat people,” I’ve seen people bring in pets for euthanasia that they’ve been holding on to for far too long and people who bring in pets for euthanasia that are starting to suffer and they don’t want to see them go through that. I’ve seen people who don’t care to look for their missing pet and just want to get a new one, and people who come in to look for their missing pet for months. I’ve seen dogs redeemed to extremely grateful owners and dogs redeemed to extremely rude owners. I’ve seen and handled more dogs and cats than the average person will in their lifetime, some of each trying to bite me. I’ve seen a dog who was clearly kicked that bit every time the people in his home crossed their legs, a dog that cowered when you said his name. I’ve seen a dog returned after barely a week that the adopter wasted no time in ruining. Cats and dogs and small animals abandoned in houses or left on the street. I’ve seen newborn kittens and tiny puppies. Dogs with untreated broken limbs and cats with their leg dangling from almost nothing. I’ve seen cats and dogs take their last breath. I’ve seen a lot of good and a lot of bad. And one of the worst things is how hard it is to talk about. Co-workers are living it and it’s depressing to everyone else. It’s a job that requires strength, this idea that you have to be tough all the time and it’s exhausting. It’s okay to hurt and it can be hard to accept that because you can’t let it break you. Every day is a roller coaster of emotion- for me, for every one of my co-workers, for people in shelters and rescues all around the world that I’ve never met. It’s a job that chews you up and spits you out, it warms your heart and it fills you with gratitude. It’s a profession you keep going back to because you know that someone has to. You know that you make a difference and even when it’s hard, even when it breaks your heart, you know you’re doing something good. So you let yourself cry and be sad a little, you shake it off, and you go back to work.