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“No Kill” Compassion Fatigue Takes Toll on Animal Shelter Workers, Volunteers and Veterinarians

ANIMAL WATCH - Los Animal Services’ shelter workers have recently been criticized for using the City’s COVID-related leave policy as a reason to not come to work,

but it is also likely the City’s cruel, overcrowded “No Kill” philosophy and resultant conditions are causing another equally serious and debilitating malady—called “compassion fatigue.” 

study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal welfare workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million, according to “The Fatal Epidemic Of Animal Care Workers That No One Is Talking About.” 

Horrific events and attacks have taken place as a result of “No Kill” policies, which include keeping unadoptable animals too long—especially known-dangerous Pit Bulls—in kennels and cages where they breakdown physically and mentally, fight and kill each other and unpredictably attack humans trying to help them—or, later, adopters and children wanting to love them. 

An irresponsible attempt by L.A. Animal Services to decrease its intake is avoiding bringing in strays or lost animals and refusing to accept unwanted pets without an appointment, enabled by Councilman Paul Koretz, head of the Personnel and Animal Welfare Committee of the City Council. 

This included approval of changes to the City’s municipal code, which formerly provided strict and predictable guidelines for these “open admission” shelters paid for by taxes, which used to take in all animals in need. (Animal shelters were originally created to prevent the spread of rabies and assurance of vaccintion is still vital to public/animal health.) 

The changes in L.A. municipal code now allow finders to keep potentially owned animals in their homes—with no supervision by the shelters and no determination of the ability of the finder to provide proper care or health records for the animal. 

It also allows strangers to transfer a pet to a new home without it being impounded or altered. There is no legal notice to the shelter enforced—nor enforceable—under these provisions. 

(See: LA Animal Services GM Barnette Less Than Truthful about the New Finders-Keepers Law) 

Added to that are the policies developed during the COVID-era that required an appointment to bring in a lost/stray animal to the shelter. 

There is little enforcement of animal cruelty and abuse laws in the City. (See: Man Beating French Bulldog Shoots at Witnesses) 

The Toll On L.A. Shelter Workers  

Most of the long-time, experienced, animal care technicians, animal control officers and veterinarians have recently left LAAS, driven out by “No Kill” policies they considered cruel and dangerous—taking with them years of experience in how to cope-not only with animals but with the sadness that is an integral part of this job. 

But politicians who thrive on political correctness and favors from large donors—and who never enter shelters—call this “saving lives.” 

In the City of Los Angeles, this group includes L.A. Animal Services interim-General Manager Annette Ramirez, Councilman Paul Koretz—who created a Council Committee to also give him oversight of the Department’s finances and large donations—and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Board of Commissioners, none of whom are seen at the shelters. 

Employees Cannot Escape 

Employees have to face tragedies daily and also protect themselves, coworkers and the public from injury, knowing there is no hope of many of these animals ever being safe pets. They also must comfort animals abandoned by their owners and see them suffer from fear and constant anxiety—waiting for a familiar face to return for them. 

Working under these very stressful and tragic conditions and always on edge, waiting for the next emergency or seeing animals suffering without hope or the ability to truly help them, can result in an invisible but very real physical and emotional breakdown in officers, shelter caretakers, volunteers and veterinarians, called “compassion fatigue.” 

It requires special counseling—patterned after that which “debriefs” police officers and fire fighters who are constantly on the edge of life-threatening uncertainty.  But those departments provide special counseling, available 24-hours a day. Animal shelter employees—and volunteers—are left to deal with their pain and feelings of helplessness alone.  

Two of the most blatant examples at L.A. Animal Services of the Citywide failure to care and support employees were the horrendous attack on ACO Priscilla Romero and the Pit Bull whose throat was cut by his owner at the shelter because he was told he needed an appointment to surrender the dog. 

But on a smaller scale, employees face these traumas daily, with no end in sight and little hope for a better future in a City that does not curtail breeding nor maintain a strict policy of enforcing animal-cruelty laws reportedly because they bring more animals into the shelters which are already filled beyond capacity. 

Former General Manager Brenda Barnette and her apprentice and current interim-GM Annette Ramirez, and short-term GM Dana Brown (now head of the City’s personnel department) have expressed no concern over the emotional toll of daily tragedies and suffering of kennel workers (ACT’s), animal control officers (ACO’s) and veterinarians in L.A. Animal Services shelters. 

“No Kill” Shelters Avoid Politically Incorrect Decisions

  

Taking in ALL unwanted animals and providing them with a safe harbor is the specific  purpose of tax-funded open-admission animal shelters. But, the public is urged by large humane groups that thrive on donations (but share little with shelters) to only support “no kill” facilities without explanation or concern over the conditions for the animals and employees—and they are equally at fault. 

The organizations with high visibility use “no kill” as a weapon over the heads of politicians who always need money and good publicity, and the groups boast of their power to enact legislation and influence elections subtly but strongly—including the office of President of the U.S. 

Remember President Obama promising to adopt a dog before election and then fortuitiously being given a purebred Portuguese Waterdog as a gift, and Joe Biden’s sad experience with a puppy adopted from a humane society, which later became too aggressive, or protective, to remain at the White House? 

These types of pre-election committments to the big-name organizations are almost essential in this world where the “animal vote” can determine the outcome of local or even national elections.

“Compassion Fatigue” – A Dark Shadow You Don’t See Coming 

Anyone working with/in shelters or the rescue of animals can be subject to this syndrome and not know it is happening. 

I was personally involved in a very serious rescue operation from a breeding kennel in a city near Los Angeles—at the request of the wife (and business partner) of the abusive owner (who was facing domestic violence charges also). 

We had removed dozens of adult Rottweilers and puppies, under the very real and dangerous threat of the abuser—a former law-enforcement officer, said to be armed—returning (which he did and that was a terrifying experience requiring local police assistance). 

After he was incarcerated, the wife said she wanted to keep their oldest stud dog and let him live out his life as a pet. I took him to be neutered and observed his somewhat anti-social personality. But he deserved a peaceful life with someone he knew and who had been a contributor to his life without close human contact. At least, I thought, this could be a shining moment in a dark, ugly case!

However, when I called to take him after his recovery, she refused, merely saying she had changed her mind and would sign him over to me. 

Because of his advanced age, size, physical condition and unpredictable temperament, I took him to the shelter with which I was working and asked that he be humanely euthanized. They evaluated him and agreed that he could not be safely rehomed—for his own welfare and that of an adopter. 

I was standing against a wall in the shelter, and as the very kind supervisor took his leash from me, I felt my legs buckle and I slipped to the floor sobbing. There was NO warning!  I was grateful that this dog’s suffering would finally end peacefully and continued to be grateful to the shelter that he would no longer be potentially abused.

However, in the days afterward, I would burst into tears for no reason, couldn’t eat or sleep and felt the need to be isolated. 

It took many weeks of healing and hours of counseling before I could return to working with animals, which was my passion. I learned through the counselor that this human condition has a name, “compassion fatigue,” and she described it as “caring too much.” I never felt it coming! 

LAAS and Other “No Kill” Shelters Abandon Employees 

Los Angeles Animal Services’ management and city government has abandoned both the paid employees and the caring volunteers. Employees say they have rarely, if ever, seen anyone from upper management in a shelter. 

And, this separation of leadership from reality is apparently not just happening in Los Angeles. 

Las Vegas, NV

Employees walk out on The Animal Foundation to protest 'appalling' conditions” (KTNV – Las Vegas) 

On September 26, KTNV News (Las Vegas) reported that on Sunday morning, there was a letter on the door of the Animal Foundation (City animal shelter) saying they were closed.

Reportedly this resulted from “more than half-a-dozen employees quitting on the spot, on Sunday morning, forcing the shelter to close to the public.” 

A member of the Las Vegas City Council shared a resignation e-mail from eight employees, in which they expressed “longtime concerns” and stated, “she had been hearing concerns and complaints about conditions for nine months, and was not surprised to hear the employees resigned.” 

Apparently, the Councilwoman had done nothing during that time to investigate, according to a later report. 

A spokesperson for the Animal Foundation told KTNV that, “the closure was due to staffing issues and that 116 animals were brought in to the shelter the day before.” 

Same Councilwoman Expresses “Surprise” During Las Vegas Shelter Inspection 

Councilwoman Victoria Seaman said she was “sickened” by the conditions during a surprise inspection on September 12, Sean DeLancey of KTNV reported

“I was appalled by what I saw,” she said, showing photos she took of “feces smeared on floors and walls, soiled blankets on the floor and food bowls tipped over.” 

She said more than 30 dogs in two rooms “were being tended by one employee and that there was no way they could have gotten to them all.”  Seaman said she was furious. 

But, she did not explained why it took nine months and multiple KTNV 13 Action News investigations to get her attention. 

Spokane, WA 

Shelter Workers Quit in Protest Local Humane Society in 'Turmoil ... 

Four Spokane Humane Society workers quit their jobs Thursday, saying they can no longer work for a board of directors they consider “inept and insensitive,” reports Spokesman.com 

One of them was Loretta Johnson, a supervisor who has worked at the shelter for 18 years who said she feels lost. 

“I’ve stayed with this so long because I love the animals,” she said. “Where do I take that love now?” 

Compassion Fatigue – Different, But The Same 

HUMANE-PRO   HSUS

Compassion fatigue is a condition that Jennifer Blough of the Compassion Fatigue Couch describes as “the emotional and physical toll of caring for others.” 

“It’s common in people who work with victims of trauma or suffering—no matter whether those victims are people or animals,” she says. 

Blough is now the owner of a private counseling practice and the author of the book To Save a Starfish: A Compassion-Fatigue Workbook for the Animal-Welfare Warrior

Help us understand compassion fatigue --What are the top symptoms to look out for? 

“I think trauma expert Charles Figley said it best: He said it’s the ‘cost of caring.’ It’s the emotional and physical toll of caring for others, whether it’s people or animals who are suffering or who have been traumatized,” she said. 

“Many people involved in animal welfare have a moral dilemma: They have to take the lives of the very animals they’re trying to protect. You don’t find this in other helping professions. As a therapist, do I work with suffering and traumatized people? Yes. Do I have to end their lives? No.” 

There’s also an incredible amount of grief and loss that’s not talked about enough in this community. Animal welfare workers and activists talk about large-scale grief. But they lose the animals they care for on a daily basis sometimes. 

“Animal loss is a form of disenfranchised grief—a type of grief that’s not widely validated by mainstream society,” Jennifer Blough says, “I’m sure many people have heard, “It’s just a dog; you’ll get another one.” You wouldn’t say that to someone who’s lost a human child. If an animal in your shelter dies, people might say, “Well, it wasn’t your pet. What are you sad about?” 

What can you do if you are experiencing compassion fatigue? 

She provides important steps to maintaining balance, one of which is “compassion satisfaction,” described as “…the joy you get from the work.” It’s the little victories and progress that is being made in your immediate—or the larger animal-welfare environment.”

 

Jennifer Blough says, “If you only focus on the negative, it can lead to a very dark place, and I’ve been there. … I’m still involved in animal rights, so I have to manage it like everyone else. I have to be aware of my own warning signs and take steps to prevent it.”

(Learn more at compassionfatiguecouch.com or email [email protected]

Important Personal Words On “Compassion Fatigue” 

Don’t ignore your feelings if you work or volunteer in any aspect of animal sheltering, animal control, veterinary work or rescue.  It is important to avoid isolation, which is subtle, and you don’t realize it until you suddenly have no one to talk to about a particularly difficult case, death of an animal you cared for or management problems. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re hurting. Join a group where you can remain anonymous, if necessary. 

And for those who have not worked in this field or who have been there but “forgotten” because they have promoted out of the field or daily work with animals, don’t abandon those who will be the next leaders or who are now carrying the heavy load. They deserve our sensitivity and deepest thanks every day.

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a contributor to CityWatchLA and a former Los Angeles City employee.)