Wear and Tear on the Heart

oiled puffin face

Work in wildlife rehabilitation and/or rescue long enough and you’ll hear this term: compassion fatigue.  You’ll hear it whispered as people point to burnt-out, angry colleagues.  You’ll nod sagely to yourself when an intern breaks down crying over a bird that didn’t make it overnight.  You’ll attend the talks and read the articles that tell you to remember to laugh and take time for yourself.

And if you’re like me, you’ll be a little bit suspicious of the whole touchy-feely psychological mess.  You’ll be proud that your practicality and clinical detachment keeps you grounded.  I mean, you’ll take it seriously – after all, this is your career, and you won’t go down because of ignorance – but a little (or big) part of you believes that it doesn’t apply to you.  You’ll be listening so you can help your volunteers, interns, shift-mates, or employees – not yourself.

If you’re really on top of things, you’ll crack a joke now and then (often the type that outsiders would blanch at), try to make sure everybody gets a lunch, and feel guilty every time you complain.

All the while, that practicality is insisting that you don’t have time for lunch.  Clinging to detachment leaves you feeling like maybe you aren’t cutting it, because that one animal’s situation really upset you.  And the seasons pass, you start to realize how big the task is, how repetitive – no number of education programs will get people to keep their cats inside, no safety precautions will keep every drop of petroleum where it belongs.  You love your job and there are moments where everything is gravy, but interpersonal conflicts are getting harder and the hours are getting longer.

I’ll cop to it – that was me a few years ago.  I’ve been in rehab a long time; since my mother was a home rehabilitator, I almost can’t remember a time spring didn’t mean baby squirrels.  I definitely can’t count the number of folks I’d seen “burn out” over the years.  But I always thought compassion fatigue had everything to do with death and euthanasia, and because I grew up beside them, my relationship with these events is not nearly as conflicted as other people’s.

Enter Lauren Glickman of Foray Consulting, who presented a day-long compassion fatigue workshop for the staff of my employer at the time (PAWS Wildlife Center).  Lauren had worked as the PAWS volunteer coordinator before my time, and everyone who knew her was very excited to have her back to speak.  It wasn’t long into the workshop that I found out why.

This workshop wasn’t like the talks and articles.  Lauren brought a new perspective on the problems caretakers face (or, as she would want me to put it, the problems caretakers choose).  She brought real, applicable tools – things far more tangible than “don’t forget to laugh.”

There are a host of joys associated with wildlife rescue!  When we choose to rescue wildlife, these are the reasons.

There are a host of joys associated with wildlife rescue!  When we choose to work in this field, these are the reasons.

See, the problem isn’t that animals die, or that we’re somehow constantly grieving.  Working hard isn’t the enemy.

What really wears at us is feeling powerless and hopeless when faced with an unending task.  It’s never resting.  It’s being surrounded and focused on negativity.  It’s being completely unable to give yourself permission not to feel guilty when you need to stay home sick, because something might not get done or other people have to pick up the slack.  It’s feeling responsible for things we can’t control, and beating ourselves up for being unable to change those things.  And all of that, I could relate to.

There are also many difficulties or sources of pain.  But when we choose to work in this field, we choose these things right along with the things that bring us joy.  They are inextricably linked.

There are also many difficulties or sources of pain. What we don’t often think about is that when we choose to work in this field, we choose these things right along with the things that bring us joy. They are inextricably linked.

I can honestly say that workshop changed the course of my life.

So when I had the opportunity to introduce OWCN to Lauren, I jumped on it – and I’m proud to announce that we hosted the pioneer Trauma Resiliency workshop on September 5th, with 25 attendees representing 14 different organizations.  The goal of the workshop was to “provide the employees and volunteers of OWCN disaster response efforts the tools needed to recognize, address, and minimize disaster-related stress and compassion fatigue.”  I hope we did just that.

This isn’t the last you’ll be hearing on this topic.  We want to build up a culture among our responders that values the long term over the short term, that puts emphasis on self-care so that we can continue to provide the highest quality of care for the impacted animals that depend on us.

So keep an ear out – we hope to offer this workshop again in the future (hopefully a bit further south!).  Lauren will also be helping us develop a webinar, so everyone will have access to basic information on this topic.

If you’d like to start now, I strongly recommend the book Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.  Barring Lauren’s workshop, this is the single most useful resource addressing this topic that I have come across.

A few other resources that Lauren suggested at her workshop, for those who are interested:

Thanks for the work you do, everyone.  You are making a difference – don’t forget to feel good about that fact.


3 thoughts on “Wear and Tear on the Heart

  1. Hello, I have just come across your article today and it resonates! I have shared it to my organisation’s fb page (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre). There is no assistance for animal welfare workers suffering from CF, here in SA. If I put something together,like a mini workshop, would you be able to share some guidelines perhaps?
    Thanks again, Nicci Wright, South Africa.

    • Hi Nicci,

      I’m so glad the article helps some! I’d love to help you, especially since it sounds like there’s great need in your area, but I’ve got to admit I’m more of a participant than an expert.

      I think you might want to talk to our facilitator directly – she’s got an independent consultation business, and she specializes in helping animal caretakers with CF and other related challenges. I’m sure she’d love to help you out, she’s very passionate about supporting wildlife responders. Her website is http://www.forayconsulting.com/ and her name is Lauren Glickman. Her email and phone number is right on her website.

      Good luck, and let me know if there’s any other way I can help!

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