Discover more from Nathan Winograd
The Cure for “Compassion Fatigue”
“I was just devastated. I started crying.” A volunteer is traumatized when her foster kittens are killed by the pound even though staff promised they would call if they had a “space crunch” and needed her to take them back into foster care. “I never got the phone call…”
In the early 2000s, I took over as director of what was then a dysfunctional municipally-contracted shelter in upstate New York. Neglect and killing of animals were common and volunteers were treated poorly. After reforming that shelter and — with the help of those volunteers — creating the nation’s first No Kill community, I was invited to speak at a national animal welfare conference about how others could do the same.
Also speaking at the conference was a psychologist giving a workshop on “compassion fatigue,” which was being blamed for high rates of burn-out and turnover among volunteers (as well as rescuers and shelter staff). I remember being confused by the focus of the workshop on a term that would not become popular until almost two decades later: “self-care.” It seemed to me that this is what volunteering at an animal shelter was supposed to be since it is doing something one loves, helps others, and, therefore, should make people feel good, not bad.
It also seemed to me that since people who want to help animals feel morally conflicted and therefore emotional pain working in jobs — paid or volunteer — where they watch, enable, or participate in killing, eliminating the killing would make the moral turmoil euphemistically referred to as “compassion fatigue” go away. In other words, the workshop had it backward: it was looking inward at how to help people reconcile with psychological harm, when it should have been looking outward, at how to fix its cause. Yet tragically, none of the workshop’s recommendations involved doing so, with attendees instead given a laundry list of “self-care” regimens.
In the community where I was the director, our volunteers did not experience “compassion fatigue” and our shelter did not suffer the resulting attrition. In fact, we had so many volunteers, I had to institute a rule that dogs could not be walked more than five or six times a day, otherwise I’d have adopters in the shelter looking for dogs and few dogs in their kennels. Instead, potential adopters found rows of empty kennels and signs reading: “I’m on a walk, I’ll be right back.”
Stop the killing and you’ll stop the harm
Before Tompkins County, NY, became a No Kill community, the volunteers at the shelter had to endure the knowledge that animals were being routinely neglected, needlessly killed, and at the mercy of a shelter manager so lacking in compassion that she once killed a puppy with muddy paws who jumped up to greet her and dirtied her skirt. One volunteer told me of how she had stopped volunteering after kittens whom she had fostered for the shelter were killed shortly after she returned them to be adopted:
I checked the logbook to see when they were adopted. Instead, I was stunned to learn that two of them had been killed. I never even received a telephone call or an email asking that I take them back. They had been perfectly healthy and loved and wanted, and they had a place to go if the shelter ran out of room. I felt sick. The room began spinning. I was in tears. I’ll never forget the looks of shock on the faces of the other volunteers. The staff didn’t budge. One other volunteer was concerned and tried to stop me from leaving, but I fled the building and somehow managed to bike the several miles home, even though I could barely see for crying.
That all changed when we stopped killing. Sure, there were still moments of pain: a hoarding bust, a cruelty case, the abandonment of an older animal with medical problems, but given that the victims no longer faced further violence once they were in our custody, seeing the animals turn around, gain weight, heal their broken bones, grow their fur back, and then go on to loving, new homes was therapy enough. In other words, success — rehabilitating and rehoming the neediest of animals — fosters enthusiasm, determination, a healthy workplace environment, and self-satisfaction.
My attempts to have this conversation with the person who led the workshop did not go well.
New study reaffirms killing as cause of volunteer trauma
Now, almost 20 years later, a new study that looked at compassion fatigue among volunteers has come to the same conclusion. It noted that other research had already found that, “Higher live release rates (the number of animals that are returned to owners, are adopted, or are transferred to another shelter or rescue)” correlate to better mental health for paid shelter staff. Study authors wanted to determine if the same held true for unpaid volunteers. They hypothesized that volunteers should experience more psychological harm than paid staff because they are “exposed to the same set of stressors while also suffering from feelings of diminished control over animal outcomes” (emphasis added). Unsurprisingly, their hypothesis turned out to be right.
Higher rates of killing did correlate with higher psychological harm and this held true regardless of the reasons for the killing. It didn’t matter if shelter managers were killing for space, out of convenience, because the animals were ill, injured, or deemed aggressive. To volunteers, killing was killing and it upset them. The study also found that as long as the shelter was killing, even thanking volunteers and “feeling appreciated is not sufficient to counteract” harm.
In the end, if we want to help people who volunteer at shelters feel better about the work they do, we need to reform the pounds. Not only does doing so protect animals, but it radically transforms the culture of a shelter, making it a safe, hospitable, even rewarding place to volunteer.
A glaring omission
Yet despite these findings, the authors still proposed strategies like “structured meditation” and “group-guided imagery activities” to promote “resilience” to killing; ignoring that hundreds of communities have already stopped killing and, in doing so, provided a roadmap for others to do the same. At No Kill shelters, there is no need for euphemisms, watering down of ethics, blame-shifting, taking time off for “self-care,” or engaging in vacuous rituals like “group-guided imagery activities.”
Unfortunately, the authors bought into the myth that “open admission” facilities could not be No Kill. Ignoring the large number of “open admission” shelters that are also No Kill, they falsely claimed that “Increasing live release rates… may not be possible” in open admission facilities. Instead of calling for the embrace of the readily-available, cost-effective programs and services which make No Kill possible or legislation to force shelters to do so, the authors simply call for “Further research on ways that such shelters might be able to increase live release rates…” To anyone who has paid any attention to the monumental shift that has occured in the field of animal sheltering over the last two decades, this is a glaring omission.
As a society, we owe a particular debt of gratitude to people who voluntarily offer a helping hand to the needy. That includes our nation’s homeless animals. Shelter volunteers are compassionate people who open their hearts and homes to provide a safety-net for animals others may have abandoned and whom our dysfunctional shelters routinely betray even further by killing. Volunteers are already donating their time, their energy, their resources, and their love to make our world a better place. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their emotional health, too.
The study, “Compassion Fatigue Among Animal Shelter Volunteers: Examining Personal and Organizational Risk Factors,” is here.