Facts So Romantic

How Animal Rescuers Are Burning Out Their Empathy

Photograph by Frontierofficial / Flickr

No one likes to hear about the freezers full of euthanized animals. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but often animal rescue workers have no option but to kill sick or badly wounded animals—as humanely as possible. For these professionals and volunteers, administering euthanasia is a major contributor to compassion fatigue—the chronic stress that stems from extended caregiving. Combatting the fatigue requires attentive self-care, and the ability to emotionally distance oneself from animal patients. But looking into the eyes of hundreds of distressed creatures day in and day out can make that difficult.

People don’t always recognize compassion fatigue, says Jeff Boehm, executive director of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, the largest marine mammal rehabilitation center in the world. Sometimes referred to as empathy burnout or secondary trauma, the stress of the fatigue can manifest in depression or addiction. Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, says most people don’t appreciate the strain this work causes. “Not only do [animal welfare workers] suffer daily in the work they do, they also often deal with the public’s total disregard and criticism of their work. Shelter work was one of the most distressing and sorrow-filled work I’ve ever done.” One of Boehm’s biggest concerns is that if people don’t accept compassion fatigue as a very real issue, it—and its downstream psychic consequences—can’t be adequately treated.

Part of the fatigue stems from the almost Sisyphean nature of animal rescue. “It is a business where it feels like one is never finished, especially in an organization like ours,” Boehm says. With 60 staff members and over a thousand volunteers, the non-profit Marine Mammal Center has rescued and treated more than 20,000 marine mammals in its 40 years of existence. “At the end of a long shift, whether it be staff or volunteers, there’s this feeling of, ‘There’s more yet to do. There’s more that I can alleviate. I need to be there personally,’” he says. “And it’s simply not tenable.”

Tending to a massive 700-pound sea lion with a fish hook in its mouth requires a specialized response.

The Marine Mammal Center oversees the more than 600 miles of coast that make up California’s spine. Last year, the number of animals admitted to the center peaked at over 1,850—a sharp increase from the thousand animals rescued the previous year. California sea lions made up the majority, followed by a few hundred seals, a few dozen cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and one lonely sea turtle. The top reason for admittance is malnutrition, with over 1,580 animals needing care. Other reasons included trauma, oil or tar coating, cancer, and domoic acid toxicosis, which is caused by the harmful algal blooms known colloquially as the “Red Tide.” When ingested second-hand by marine mammals, via fish and shellfish, domoic acid can have devastating effects on the brain, causing animals to become severely lethargic or have seizures.

You can’t keep every patient alive. Doctors know this, and so do people who work to save animals. Of the 1,850 animals admitted by the Center last year, only 632 patients survived to be released back into the wild. Of the starving sea lion pups brought to the Center, only a third survived. Naturally, the high death rate causes distress. “People calling in [to report stranded animals] are incredibly emotional, and it’s really hard not to be affected by those emotions, especially when they aren’t able to get out to the animal,” says stranding coordinator Laura Chapman, who manages the Marine Mammal Center’s central dispatch. The center receives hundreds of calls about entangled animals, sometimes dozens about the same animal, and tending to a massive 700-pound sea lion with a fish hook in its mouth requires a specialized response depending on the animal’s condition, as well as its environment. If the team uses a dart sedative on a sea lion who then slips away, there’s a risk that the sea lion will drown. So sometimes it requires weeks, months—even years—to plan the appropriate opportunity for a monitored animal to be rescued, says Chapman.

“Every animal coming in is giving us some insight into what’s going on with marine mammal populations, but also, by extension, into ocean health in general,” says Boehm. “The scientific rigor around our work almost exacerbates that natural tendency to keep one’s emotions in check, to be the stoic clinician or practitioner, or animal caretaker, to a fault.”

Veterinarians, too, suffer stress from their work with animals, according to recent research. A 2014 study of over 10,000 of them found that one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might suffer from serious psychological distress, and one in six has experienced suicidal thoughts since graduation. They’re also four times as likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to a study published in the journal Veterinary Record.

Though there aren’t solid numbers to back it, acknowledgement of compassion fatigue across caregiving professions seems to have risen exponentially, says Smith. “Unfortunately, we are having a difficult time with measurables in this area,” she says. Other than a professional quality of life self-test, there are currently no other substantiated tests to help diagnose fatigue. But veterinary schools are working to discuss the implications of empathy burnout. More than 70 veterinary schools worldwide have already incorporated the “Healer’s Art,” a course designed for medical school curricula that focuses on the more human aspects medicine, such as grief and awe.

In the meantime the Marine Mammal Center, as part of its mission, offers workshops and will continue to provide training and support for frustrated staff and volunteers needing an outlet. “That’s one way we can mitigate that compassion fatigue from having to euthanize so many [animals],” says staff veterinarian Cara Field. Whatever the benefits, says Smith, “[Our staff] also has a very high degree of compassion satisfaction, which is the pleasure they derive from doing the work they do.”

“The bottom line is we’re doing it for the animals,” says Bob Schoelkopf, the founder and director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey. “People have to understand that the animals are given a second chance.” The best part of the job, he says, is turning them loose, stronger and more robust than when they arrived.

Kasia Galazka is a writer based in Atlanta who likes space, brains, and music. Follow her on Twitter @supergalaxy.

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The lead photograph is courtesy of Frontierofficial via Flickr.

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