I recently received the following message from an animal rescue volunteer: “Sadly, I have been struggling a lot in the animal rescue field. Sure, I’ll continue to donate and adopt from shelters or rescues, but I’ve just been burned financially and emotionally too many times by those in rescue. Too many folks in rescue are so blinded with helping save as many as possible that everything else becomes lost in the fray. As a pet foster parent, I always end up feeling forgotten and abandoned. After this current foster is adopted, I’m done.” As yet another volunteer wearied of the animal welfare field I began to think about those who are just starting out. The advice I’d offer them can be summarized in two words: Be kind.
Dear New Volunteer:
Welcome to the wonderful world of animal welfare! For many volunteers including myself, it’s a field where one forges multiple friendships and discovers one’s passion in life. Unfortunately, it’s also a field where one can sometimes drown in sorrow and drama. As you delve deeper into the animal welfare field, I encourage you to find balance by embracing kindness.
Be kind to fellow volunteers
The motto for the Best Friends Animal Society is “together we can save them all,” with emphasis on together. As animal welfare volunteers, we all have one motivation for giving our time, energy, and money to the cause—a love of animals. For that reason, working together should be easy to do. Unfortunately, we don’t always agree on the best way to help animals. Moreover, unity can be hard to practice when caught up in the emotional angst of a moment. One day a conversation in a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group turned mean. The discussion started when the sole caretaker of a feral cat colony vented about the physical, emotional, and financial toll her responsibilities were taking on her. Initially, others chimed in to commiserate. Next she started criticizing those volunteers who were “not in the trenches,” such as marketers, photographers, writers, etc. A few caretakers disagreed, only to find themselves a target of criticism. The discussion then disintegrated to the point that even those “in the trenches” were being criticized if they were part of a larger group instead of a one-person operation. As I read all of this, I felt disheartened. After all, when people who share a common passion can’t support each other, is it any wonder that so many animal welfare volunteers split off to start their own groups or quit the field?
In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and cooperation ruled. My husband and I were driving through Ohio, a two-day drive from where we live, on our way home from a vacation. At the hotel where we stopped overnight, I saw some stray cats, including one that was injured. I had no idea what to do other than to post a plea for help in at a Trap-Neuter-Release Facebook group after we got home. To my relief, no one judged me for not intervening myself, but instead suggested people I could contact. One wonderful woman, who has since become a friend, took up the call. She talked to the hotel manager and to residents about the cats. In cooperation with a spay-neuter clinic, she proceeded to trap the cats and have them spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and treated for injuries. She also enlisted the support of locals in providing continual care of the cats. At any point, this situation could have turned sour. My friend could have demanded cooperation from the hotel manager, which might have resulted in the cats being taken to the shelter, where no doubt they would have been euthanized. My friend could’ve blasted the residents or not taking better care of the cats, which might have turned them against the cause, leaving the cats without any caretakers. Instead, the situation had a happy outcome. The hotel continues to this day to manage the feral cat colony. In addition, four cats have been adopted.
Be kind to pet owners
The longer you volunteer in the animal welfare field, the more often you’ll hear the sentiment: “I love animals; I hate people.” If you scroll through enough media stories, there’s certainly justification for this negativity. Animals across our country are suffering and/or dying due to neglect, abandonment, hoarding, and even abuse. The longer you stay in the field, the greater the likelihood that you’ll personally encounter these situations. However, while sometimes the right response will be to advocate for legislation, report a crime, or confront a neighbor, the reality is that many pet owners act out of ignorance, lack of resources, or a feeling of being overwhelmed. In these cases, while it might prove hard to keep your emotions in check over questionable decisions, kindness to your fellow pet owner is the best action.
I follow pet forums where members can ask pet advice and even attempt to re home a pet, and sometimes the discussions get heated. A recent situation involved that of a pet owner with two senior dogs that had grown up together, but the one had turned aggressive in its senior years, and so the owner raised the possibility of finding another home for the aggressive dog. Some commenters offered empathy and/or practical solutions, while others accused the pet owner of being callous and even expressed the desire for the person to suffer that same fate as the aggressive dog, that of being discarded in his old age. While this particular pet owner remains active in the group, there have times when instead such bullying has caused a member to leave. While blasting a pet owner for what we view as wrong might feel good at the time, I question the long-term outcome. The pet owner will in the future feel reluctant to ask for help. In addition, in the absence of constructive advice, the animal in need will undoubtedly end up in a shelter where euthanasia is a real possibility.
In contrast, what follows is an example of a situation in which kindness and education ruled. Years before I met her, a dear friend of mine setup a non-profit, Lakes Animal Friendship Society, which is dedicated to improving the lives of companion animals in northern British Columbia. Through her volunteer work as a humane educator, my friend teaches residents about animal care while also providing practical solutions to community problems. Her non-profit started the Doghouse Project, which builds shelters for dogs and cats in need. The organization shares its designs online, making its practical solution available worldwide, so that “even more dogs and cats can have a place to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter”. By offering pet owners practical assistance, her organization does far more to help animals than if she had chosen instead to berate pet owners who were not providing adequate shelter for their outdoor pets.
Be kind to those who don’t own pets
When you volunteer in animal welfare, you are a representative of the position that animals should be treated humanely. Each time that we interact with other people, especially those who don’t own pets, we have the opportunity to shape their opinion about animals and the humane treatment of animals. For example, this past month my youngest cat and I started visiting a senior retirement community. As we entered and exited the facility, we drew attention; people were surprised to see a cat in a stroller. The next two things to catch people’s attention were Rainy’s harness and leash. People are always surprised to learn that cats can be trained to accept a leash. People then asked about the reason for Rainy’s visit, which gave me the opportunity to tell them about therapy cats. This has led to people wanting to see Rainy up close and even pet her. These encounters might not convince anyone to go out and adopt a cat, but you never know. It’s better to be kind and sway people’s opinion of cats towards the positive rather than towards the negative. I grew up having no interest in cats due to hearing that they were independent and moody. It was because I found a special cat that my opinion of cats changed for the better. Now, with cat therapy, Rainy and I have the opportunity to shape other people’s opinions.
Be kind to yourself
Compassion fatigue is real. This became all too apparent to me when I began to read of suicides in the field. Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and internationally recognized pioneer in the field of animal behavior applied to pet training, took her life in 2014. Two years later, a veterinary doctor and director of an animal shelter in Taiwan made the news when she killed herself due to being distraught about her shelter’s euthanasia rate. She was only thirty-one. On the heels of these incidents, a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that animal rescue workers have a workplace suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. While these statistics are of paid workers rather than volunteers, sooner or later everyone in the field risks compassion fatigue unless we learn to be kind to ourselves.
Those who are involved in animal welfare and especially animal rescue are constantly bombarded with pleas for help and stories of abuse. When so many lives are at stake daily, cynicism naturally develops about the dedication of your fellow volunteers, the integrity of pet owners, and even your ability to make a difference. What about those who work with animals but aren’t involved in rescue? One dog trainer shared her experience online of how she initially expected “happy skies” because she was only working with responsible pet owners who loved their pets. Except then this trainer adopted a difficult dog, which led her to work with clients who also had difficult dogs, and this eventually took an emotional toll on her.
If you push yourself to the breaking point and end up leaving animal welfare altogether, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. Instead, by taking things more slowly and taking breaks, you’ll accomplish more in the long run because you’ll be able to stay in animal welfare longer. How exactly should you avoid burning out? The first truth you must accept is that you can NOT save them all. One day all of us together might turn the tide, but for now just focus on saving one life. If you do nothing else, this single act will change the life of that one animal and its owner; and herein you’ve made a difference. And on those days when tragedies happen, seek out inspirational stories such as those that shine a spotlight on the human-animal bond. You must also take concrete steps to ensure your life doesn’t revolve around animal welfare 24/7. Make time for family and friends, including your own pets. Focus on the parts of your life that you can control, such as a healthy diet and exercise routine. Ensure each day contains fun moments, whether it’s an hour of arcade games, a bubble bath, or a nap.
Animal welfare is a wonderful path to take! I wish you many blessed years on this journey upon which you’re about to embark. When I first started visiting a no-kill shelter to socialize dogs, I had no idea how many twists and turns my life would take. Nor how failures and successes I’d have, as I started to network with rescues. As you delve deeper into the field, you’ll probably find it hard to believe that one could never need a break. I fell into that trap myself, with the result that last year I found myself no longer getting any pleasure from the field. I finally decided to take last month off from helping animals. During that month, I decided which commitments to keep, and took time to enjoy life.
On an animal welfare podcast that I recently listened to, a guest speaker stated: “People are the problem; they are also the solution.” As you too pursue the path of animal welfare, please remember: Kindness matters, to fellow volunteers who care, to other pet owners, to non-pet owners, and to yourself.