No-kill era means less help but more stress for the caregivers
Part III of a three-part series
At least two psychologists during the 1990s counseled animal caregivers in group settings, at conferences and other in-service training venues: Kate Prevost Myers and Caterina Spinarsis.
Neither, however, appears to have been involved in the humane field since 2005, apparently due to lack of employment opportunities.
Animal care-&-control background
Myers, a former animal control officer in northern California and past editor of the National Animal Control Association magazine, changed careers in midlife ––partly, she admitted in a 1999 interview, due to burnout. She earned her degree in human resources psychology from Antioch University of Seattle in 1994 and a Ph.D. in 2005.
Between earning her degrees, Myers returned to her original field because, she said, she perceived major untreated need among fellow animal care-and-control workers.
Law enforcement & correctional workers
Spinarsis, who for the past 17 years has focused on counseling law enforcement personnel and correctional workers, describes herself as “a naturalized citizen, of Greek origin, raised in Egypt, educated in England and Canada before landing in the U.S., who has always been an animal lover.
“Growing up in Egypt was very hard,” she recalled in 1999, because of the abuses of dogs she witnessed.
“I turned vegetarian after I read, of all things, a book by a Christian author who turned vegan,” Spinarsis said. “I read it during a time in my life when I experienced severe emotional abuse, and as a result, I totally identified with the animals’ plight. Further hard experience down the road caused me to withdraw from people more and more on a personal level, and to attach to animals instead. Perhaps it was not the most balanced approach,” she laughed, “but it was the best I could muster at the time. I ended up connecting with dog and cat rescue groups in Denver,” at least for a time.
“In my experience, covering seven years and contact with at least 5,000 people, about 75% of animal welfare workers are experiencing some degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Myers assessed.
Agreed Spinarsis, “The cumulative impact [of animal care and control work] on the empathic psyche, exposed to prolonged ‘compassion fatigue’ and horror, is real, enduring, and irreversible, unless one works hard at getting well.
PTS not recognized or treated
“The saddest thing is that in the animal community post-traumatic stress does not get recognized and acknowledged,” Spinarsis said. “Thus, not much is done toward countering or preventing it.
“Yet if self-care does not improve,” Spinarsis accurately predicted, “workers will keep dropping off like flies or becoming toxic to others and themselves.”
Agreed Myers, “Setting up ongoing mental fitness programs for animal care and control agencies should be a priority for humane organizations. Animal care and control is a high-trauma profession. People need support and encouragement. Healthy people make healthy agencies, which in turn better accomplish their mission.”
Resistance among leadership
But Myers added, like Spinarsis with a considerable element of prophecy, “I have found resistance in the mainstream of animal welfare administration to the idea that this is a high-trauma profession, and that organizations are morally obligated to provide intervention programs. I believe this is due to the habituation effect of repetitive traumatic events,” she theorized.
“Most administrators have come up through the ranks,” Myers observed, “and are invested in their participation in the work.”
Hires from outside suffer too
This is much less true in 2016 than it was in 1999. Hiring senior shelter administrators from outside the animal care-and-control and veterinary fields has in the interim become not just a trend, but almost the norm, as board of directors seek administrators who are not associated with storms of online attacks elsewhere, and have management skill sets that include a heavy emphasis on public relations.
But people coming into the animal care-and-control field from other occupations are by no means exempt from the pressures leading to suicide. One executive director hired from a law career to head a major no-kill shelter killed herself only seven months after taking the job.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome was first recognized, diagnosed, and treated in combat veterans, rape victims, and former inmates of concentration camps. But recent research indicates it is even more common in people whose routine work is emotionally stressful. One investigator, Abigail Zuger, found that post-traumatic stress afflicts about 5% of the general population, 20% to 30% of combat veterans, and 67% of prostitutes.
“This bears out the research that I have done into high-trauma professions,” said Myers. “Most post-traumatic research has studied people who had traumatic events inflicted on them. Police, firefighters, emergency medical service providers, and animal care-and-control workers have in common with prostitutes an element of choice, about risking trauma in their selection of an occupation.”
But the appearance of choice may disguise a compulsion.
“The idea that people choose work that mimics their family experience is valid,” Myers explained. “Even if the work stress is bad, it’s familiar. Many people in animal work come from abusive backgrounds or addictive families. I’m sure such a history influenced my own choice of professions. I needed to protect other innocent beings, the way I wasn’t protected.”
“One reflection is the role of workplace as surrogate family,” Myers continued, “is that priorities at many shelters are decided by emotions, even though the emotional influence on the decision-making may not be recognized.
Emotions are a factor, not the answer
“There is nothing wrong with using emotions as a factor in deciding where to put your resources,” Myers said, “but solely using personal opinions and emotions can be counterproductive. Post-traumatic stress tends to narrow people’s focus, making them base their beliefs and thinking on limited input. Thinking outside the box is not easy for someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. The person’s primary concern is making the world safe for himself or herself––a reasonable reaction, but tending to preclude flexibility.”
Both Myers and Spinarsis preferred to work with whole agencies; neither did individual counseling
“Briefly,” explained Myers, “my approach is to normalize traumatic response, provide education about what is happening, and provide intervention solutions.”
Myers’ specialty was “a package program called Staying Sane in Animal Welfare,” she recounted, “a one-day workshop with half a day of team leader training.”
Said Spinarsis, “I deal almost exclusively with volunteers,” including presenting “a seminar on understanding vicarious traumatization of animal workers and dealing with it. We had volunteers, shelter personnel, and animal control officers.”
“My experience has been that volunteers and to a somewhat lesser degree shelter personnel often have psychological trauma histories,” Spinarsis observed, echoing Myers’ finding.
“They are low in people skills, and often have what shrinks call borderline personality disorder, which is more often than not related to a background of abuse, neglect, and invalidation.”
“Animal work brings old problems back”
Spinarsis and Myers also agreed that many personnel, especially volunteers, bring problems such as depression and bipolar disorder to animal work; the problems don’t necessarily develop from the work.
“However,” Spinarsis added, “the nature of animal work tends to bring old problems back.”
Myers in 1999 saw the traditional stoic attitude of shelter workers toward killing as a major contributing factor to many stress disorders.
“When I went through euthanasia training,” Myers remembered, “there was a woman who fainted every time an animal was killed. She also cried a lot and talked a lot. The instructor ridiculed this woman and ultimately she left the program. The rest of us took our cue from the instructor, and were tight-lipped and clinical. Except that I cried every night and had vivid dreams about dead animals.
“When I got into animal control,” Myers said, “I began to harden my external responses. I no longer cried, toughed out emotional situations, and swallowed my feelings. Later I learned that such response may be why many animal care workers develop eating disorders. People mistake mental toughness for mental fitness.”
Commented Spinarsis, “Hurrying to put animals down who could otherwise be saved,” a common volunteer complaint about veteran shelter professionals, “to me is a symptom of vicarious traumatization. People,” including individual rescuers, “end up wanting the whole problem to just go away, and they know there are more animals waiting. Administering death becomes a way to stop the drain. I’ve caught myself at times thinking that way,” Spinarsis confessed, “so I’m speaking from personal experience.”
As of January 1999, neither Myers nor Spinarsis mentioned bullying from outside the shelter environment as a major stress factor for animal care-and-control workers, but Spinarsis by April 1999 felt coping with bullying, then just emerging at the intensity seen today, should receive priority attention.
“Animal helpers face both primary traumatization,” Spinarsis wrote then, “e.g. when attacked by an irate animal hoarder or a dog, and secondary traumatization, from bearing witness to animal suffering. Secondary traumatization has also been called ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘vicarious traumatization,’ or VT for short.
“Both types of traumatization can produce profound and toxic changes in animal workers’ core beliefs about themselves, others, and life in general. Primary traumatization needs to be treated, when it occurs, as any other psychological trauma. VT must be seen as an inescapable occupational hazard. The irony is that the workers who are most susceptible to VT are those who are the most empathic and caring. So, the more effective you are at working with animals, the more likely you are to be adversely affected by witnessing animal suffering.
Prevention & treatment
“Other major factors seeming to contribute to VT,” Spinarsis said, “are past or present trauma in the animal helper’s life (which seems to promote identification with animal victims), and extent of exposure to animal suffering either over time or through exposure to specific extreme cases.
“Prevention and treatment of VT,” Spinarsis suggested, “needs to occur on three levels: individual personal, individual professional, and organizational.
“In all three areas,” Spinarsis continued, “workers need to increase their awareness of how they are impacted by their animal work, to strive for balance in their lives, and to seek to maintain supportive connections with others.
“Let go of Messianic complex”
“Means of combatting VT include taking breaks; alternating duties; seeking education about the nature of VT; meeting with co-workers on a weekly basis to discuss their reactions to various animal situations; learning to limit demands on one’s time, energy and resources; enriching one’s interpersonal, self-protective and self-nurturing skills; learning to manage strong emotions; learning to intercept and correct faulty reasoning; engaging in advocacy work; learning how to pace oneself; letting go of one’s Messianic complex (e.g. ‘I am the only one who can save these animals, and I must save each and every one’); cultivating a positive spiritual outlook; practicing spiritual disciplines; reading inspirational material; belonging to a closely-knit, supportive community; scheduling regular play time, physical exercise and vacations; replacing self-destructive behavior such as substance and food abuse with constructive life skills; using humor; eating well; sleeping enough; remembering the meaning and importance of one’s animal work; and celebrating each victory, no matter how small it may appear.”
“The aim,” Spinarsis emphasized, “is to counter the physical stress and demoralization induced by the never-ending struggle for animal welfare, and to fight vicarious traumatization with vicarious celebration, compassion fatigue with compassion satisfaction.”
“Strong reaction is normal”
Explained Myers, “The first step in counseling is accepting that a strong reaction to a distressing situation is normal. Reactions include acting out, by expressing unfocused hostility, or engaging in substance abuse and other addictive behavior, and acting in, feeling depression, isolation, and disassociation. Nightmares, an increased startle response, a feeling of hopelessness, physical illness, and suicidal thoughts can all be part of the reaction. Journaling, recording a tape, drawing, or painting, often prescribed by counselors, are all ways of getting it out.”
“It is important to share released feelings with another person or people in a therapeutic environment,” Myers emphasized. “Just talking about them with co-workers can actually make a problem worse, as the event, not the feelings, becomes the focus of attention. Very bad cases can take on mythic proportions within an agency, without resolution or healing.”
Prevention beats cure
Prevention, Myers and Spinarsis agreed, is more effective than seeking a cure.
“Physical exercise, natural beauty, talking about feelings, and having loving relationships are all major helps,” Spinarsis said.
“The major factor in maintaining mental health seems to be actively living a balanced life,” said Myers. “Grief lives in the body. It is especially important to get regular aerobic exercise. Also pay attention to what you eat. Stress depletes many essential nutrients and affects your brain chemistry. Get some nutritional counseling, for any evident eating disorder.
“Work for change”
“Massage, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, and other alternative therapies are important to physical healing after a traumatic event,” Myers added.
Last but scarcely least, Myers recommended to animal care-and-control workers “engaging in some activity that changes the situation or gives support for the next event,” such as “working to change laws, educating police and social service professionals about the importance of reporting animal abuse, or setting up support groups. People become animal care workers in order to make a difference. This fulfills that need.”
“Learn to let go of what you can’t change”
Spinarsis again concurred. Her own humane projects, as of April 1999, included lobbying against a Colorado bill to exempt laboratories from the state Freedom of Information law, donating books and videos about factory farming and vegetarianism to schools and libraries, and opposing prairie dog exterminations, a particularly frequent problem in her area.
“Learning to let go of what you can’t change quickly,” like the nasty side of human nature, “may be all the humane worker can do, after the dust settles,” Myers concluded. “Heal. Then get up to fight the next battle.”