“Animal care-workers are pain-saturated people”
Part II of a three-part series
Taiwanese animal shelter director and veterinarian Jian Zhicheng, who killed herself on May 12, 2016, was only the most recent of many human casualties in a “culture war” raging in and around animal shelters throughout the world.
“No kill” shelter proponents often portray the central issue as a conflict between themselves and “the killers,” but the realities are much more complex.
High-volume killing is history
When rescuers describe animal shelters today as “high kill,” they are engaging in hyperbole meant to help rehome an animal. U.S. shelters today collectively kill fewer than nine dogs and cats per 1,000 residents, less than 10% of the national average circa 1970 and half the national average circa 2000.
More than half the human population of the U.S. is now served by shelter networks killing fewer dogs and cats per 1,000 residents than the five-plus animals per 1,000 people that the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco city shelters killed in 1994, when then-San Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino proudly proclaimed that San Francisco had become the first U.S. no-kill city.
High-kill devices history, too
The era of high-volume shelter killing as an intended low-cost approach to dog and cat population control began with the introduction of carbide gas chambers circa 1895, followed soon afterward by devices meant to electrocute animals.
The killing accelerated with the addition of decompression chambers to the shelter arsenal in 1950.
But high-volume killing effectively ended a generation ago, with the dismantling of the last decompression chambers and electrocution devices.
No one now working in hands-on animal care-and-control has ever used either type of equipment––at least not in the U.S., where the last electrocution devices were scrapped before World War II, and the last decompression chambers were junked in 1985.
Gassing almost gone
The last decompression chamber known to have been in use, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was scrapped in 2001. The last electrocution devices had been dismantled and junked several years earlier, in India and Pakistan.
Gas chambers, the last high-volume killing method in common use, remain in operation in only a few dozen shelters, in just seven of the 43 U.S. states, and long ago ceased to be used in most other nations.
Who are the critics of no-kill?
Critics of “save-them-all” approaches to animal sheltering today include many of the same longtime animal care professionals who were most influential in replacing high-volume killing methods with one-by-one pentobarbital injection, and in narrowing euthanasia criteria to include only incurably and painfully injured or diseased animals; those at imminent risk of infecting entire shelter populations in shelters without adequate quarantine facilities; and those whose behavior threatens the safety of workers, the public, and other animals.
The leading critics of “save-them-all” sheltering also include many of the people who were instrumental in introducing the now-standard no-kill techniques. Among them are high-volume dog and cat sterilization, adoption promotion, transfer of animals from animal control facilities to high-volume adoption venues, and neuter/return street dog and feral cat control, where appropriate.
The fundamental difference between “no kill” advocates today and their critics within the animal care and control field is that the critics hold––as the mainstream of humane work always has––that the first priorities for animal shelters should include preventing suffering and protecting other animals and the public, not just preserving the lives of impounded animals at any cost.
Caught up in the conflict are shelter directors, veterinarians, other animal care-and-control personnel, and volunteers, some of whom––like Jian Zhicheng––have difficulty handling the stress.
In the high-volume killing era, alcohol and drug abuse became so common among animal shelter personnel that during the 1990s almost every major humane conference included seminars on coping with what was then called “shelter stress,” and was medically recognized as a form of post-traumatic stress, akin to “combat fatigue.”
Suicides among animal shelter personnel were then typically associated with alcohol and drug abuse, and were the most extreme end of longterm patterns of depressive and self-destructive behavior.
Alcohol and drug abuse among animal care-and-control workers visibly declined as high-volume killing ended––and then appears to have rebounded, coincidental with the advent of online social media and, in particular, online bullying, some of the most vicious of which is by erstwhile “no kill” advocates, directed at animal care-and-control personnel.
Meanwhile, as animal care-and-control personnel became more and more reluctant to acknowledge killing animals, largely to escape bullying, humane conference organizers gradually dropped coping with “shelter stress” from their programs.
Coping with bullying from “no-kill” proponents via social media has yet to be added to humane conferences in a prominent way, perhaps in part because none of the organizers are willing to risk being seen by the most vehement and irrational part of the “no-kill” sector as “pro-kill.”
Suicides appear to have increased
Suicide again appears to be common enough among animal care-and-control workers to warrant concerned and sympathetic attention.
No organization makes a systematic effort to collect case reports, but about once a year a suicide shocks much of the humane field, worldwide.
Suicides as protest
Some suicide cases involving animal advocates, perhaps including the Jian Zhicheng suicide, can be categorized as desperate acts of protest. But most of those cases involve volunteers, not people working within institutional structures.
Among the more dramatic examples of suicide-as-protest were those of Michael Lasner, 57, of Palm Beach, Florida, who committed suicide on September 29, 2002 in protest against city government efforts to capture and kill an estimated 1,000 feral cats; and Andrew J. Veal, 25, known to friends in Athens, Georgia, as a vegetarian activist who planned to pursue a career in the food industry. Veal shot himself at the World Trade Center site in New York City early on November 6, 2004.
Chinese vet & Sri Lankan monk
But prominent people employed in the humane field have also committed suicide-as-protest. One of them was Chinese veterinarian “Betty” Wang Pei, in her early thirties, who in mid-November 2005 threw herself off 24th floor of an apartment highrise in Beijing.
Then among the stars of the fast-rising humane movement in China, “Betty” Wang Pei had worked as a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Compassion In World Farming, and the Royal SPCA of Great Britain.
Also committing suicide as an act of protest was Bowatte Indrathana Thera, a Buddhist monk of the Porambe temple in Pelmadulla, Sri Lanka, who burned himself alive on May 26, 2013 to draw public and political attention to illegal cow slaughter. Under Bowatte Indrathana Thera and his many followers, the Porambe temple had fulfilled the traditional role of Buddhist temples as a de facto animal shelter, and had expanded into animal advocacy.
Protests were also acts of despair
Suicides described in last messages from those who kill themselves as acts of protest are, nonetheless, also acts of despair, by people who have lost hope of effecting change by less dramatic means, and tend to feel their day-to-day work on behalf of animals has become irrelevant.
Very often, those people have also become the targets of bullying by people who oppose their pro-animal campaigns, or misunderstand and misrepresent them, or simply enjoy venting personal frustrations by harassing and intimidating others.
Victims of online bullying
Among the suicides by well-known and well-respected humane workers who were subjects of online bullying were those of Jeffrey Proulx, 39, director of veterinary services & chief of staff at the San Francisco SPCA’s Leanne B. Roberts Medical Center, on August 25, 2004; Shirley Koshi, DVM, 55, on February 16, 2014 in Bronx, New York; and Sophia Yin, DVM, and animal behaviorist, 48, on October 1, 2014 in Davis, California.
The online campaign directed at Koshi was so intense, triggering demonstrations outside her clinic, Gentle Hands, and a lawsuit against her, that it prompted investigations by the New York Daily News and Riverdale Press.
Suicides often not acknowledged
What exactly triggers most suicides of animal care-and-control workers, however, is usually not reported, if even known to friends and family––and the suicides themselves are often not acknowledged as such.
The ANIMALS 24-7 files include information about seven relatively recent suicides by humane workers, including the September 26, 2012 suicide of Kelly Ann Rada, DVM, 38, medical director for Humane Ohio.
As shocked and surprised as anyone else, her employer, Aimee St. Arnaud, went looking for answers, and encouraged others in the humane community to revive, expand, and improve the programs for coping with post-traumatic stress which had mostly dropped off the humane in-service training agenda during the preceding dozen years.
“No one wants to talk about it”
“I’m finding that suicides are that dirty little secret no one wants to talk about because of the stigma,” St. Arnaud told ANIMALS 24-7.
“Even when this first happened with Kelly,” St. Arnaud said, “no one wanted me to say it was suicide for fear of what people would think about her and people’s reactions were strange in how they got silent and didn’t know what to say. If it was cancer,” St. Arnaud suggested, “they would have known what to say or do, because there was something tangible to grasp at as to what killed them.
Not easily grasped
“This is such a complicated, personal thing that isn’t easily grasped,” St. Arnaud continued. “I’m still trying to come to terms with why she did it and all the what ifs.
“But now that I’m talking to people and sharing her story,” St. Arnaud said, “I’m amazed by the people sharing confidentially that they are depressed or they tried suicide or lost a loved one to suicide. I think we need to find a way to open up the dialogue and remove that stigma. I’m not sure how to do that yet, but I sure am trying to figure it out.”
“Everyone who works in this field suffers”
“Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with,” Florida psychotherapist J. Eric Gentry told Cynthia Hubert of the Sacramento Bee in January 2015.
Identified by Hubert as a “leader in the study of traumatic stress and compassion fatigue, Gentry said, “The very thing that makes them great at their work – their empathy and dedication and love for animals – makes them vulnerable.”
“I think everyone who works in this field suffers from it to one extent or another,” agreed Sacramento shelter manager Gina Knepp. “This is the most stressful job I have ever had. It’s one of the reasons that turnover is high. Not many people retire from this industry.”
“Compassion fatigue,” as Hubert identified the problem, “can result, in part, from ‘secondary traumatic stress,’ the emotional wear that comes from regular exposure to animals that have been abused or neglected,” Hubert wrote, “and the heartbreaking task of putting them to death. It is compounded by daily interactions with the public, some of whom berate shelter workers as heartless.”