Help For The Helpers
by Brenda Shoss
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At times I feel like an urban soldier armed with videos and photos. As an advocate for animals, my job is to expose cruelty and apathy. I am their witness, from the first impersonal thrust of a slaughterhouse knife to the final moment they are dismantled limb by limb. I am beside the homeless when a gas chamber takes their anonymous life. My eyes verify the bullhooks, flank straps and spurs used to goad unwilling animals in circuses and rodeos.
Millions of stolen souls inhabit my office as I feverishly write letters to demand their protection. Sadie sits nearby with a tightly wrapped electrical cord branded into her neck. A Lab-mix puppy searches for the eyes and head a Michigan teen cut from his body. Amid the monotonous soundtrack of daily life, I hear their cries.
What I sometimes don't hear is my husband. Or the phone. Or an inner voice urging me to take a break. It's probably compassion fatigue. Initially, I discarded the term as trendy psychobabble. But compassion fatigue (CF)--the secondary post-traumatic stress experienced by emergency care and health professionals, law enforcers, animal shelter/rescue workers, political activists, and others in contact with trauma victims--includes symptoms that far exceed ordinary burnout.
For animal advocates, CF traits may show up as:
- I cherish animals more than myself.
- I embrace a victim's pain as if it were my own.
- I feel isolated. No one can possibly understand what I have seen.
- My sleep and concentration are interrupted by flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the animals I've tried to help.
- I am defensive and sometimes feel hostile or antsy around others.
- While viewing or working with tortured animals, I have wanted to lash out at the abusers.
- I am often distraught. I live with a sense of failure that I cannot rescue every one.
If a preoccupation with aiding others disrupts relationships, you may be a CF junkie. Over time, confidence, personal life and health can deteriorate. According to author Theresa Wagner, who created the website www.animalsinourhearts.com as a forum for healing, the compassion-fatigued sometimes focus energy on external pain to circumvent their own psychic wounds.
"Giving love and support to animals in need is a sacred thing that fulfills a healthy need to help and to love. Along with the rewards, there can be deep wrenching heartache," Wagner says.
For Susan Wilson, executive director of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, the stream of suffering, death, and human stupidity can take its toll. "Like the afternoon the 79th animal came through receiving with one of its ears completely removed to the base of its head with a knife or a razor blade, " Wilson recalls. "When we asked the owner why he hadn't sought veterinary help, he just shrugged. ŚMy kids didn't tell me... I can't afford it... It's just a dog.' But now the dog was flawed, and he didn't want it anymore."
Wilson shares a common dream among animal welfarists--to never again euthanize any adoptable animals. But that vision relies upon responsible guardianship, adoptions instead of breeder or pet shop buys, comprehensive spay/neuter programs, and a basic paradigm shift that elevates animals from disposable things to unique individuals.
"In such ideal circumstances, experiencing inner peace in the midst of animal welfare work would be easy!" Wagner says. In reality, animal advocates return from the endless front with post-traumatic scars. Many who labor at the political level to instigate reforms for animals in food, entertainment, research, fashion and other industries are perpetually angry or forlorn.
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