Compassion Fatigue

Sometimes, you just feel sad…..

Lately I have sometimes felt sad. Nothing I could put my finger on, just a sense of hopelessness.  Pictures on Facebook were making me cry.  Stories of loss and grief and pain were leaving me feeling panicked. The adoption of one of our birds (a really good thing) had me sobbing in my office.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on.  Did I need huge doses of antidepressants?  It wasn’t until I read an article about Compassion Fatigue (CF) that I finally figured it out.

In my working life I manage the Parrot Department for the sanctuary.  Each day I deal with phone calls from people who are tired of their birds. I work with parrots who have obviously been traumatized and abused.  I offer information and resources to groups working with hoarders.  I try and educate the general public, who really don’t have a clue about the plight of captive birds. There are too many birds needing placement, and not enough good adoptive homes to go around.  It is wearing on me physically, emotionally and mentally.

There are amazing birds like Violet, looking for a home

According to Dr. Charles Figely from the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Compassion Fatigue is emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people”.

Studies show that animal care professionals are the #1 most vulnerable group to experience CF and burnout.  Why?  Because of the sheer number of animals that need help, who are suffering at the hands of humans.  It doesn’t help that Facebook inundates us with stories of animals who have been abused, dogs on death row, birds killed in horrific ways, dog fighting/hoarding/puppy mill stories. Don’t get me wrong.  It is important that we share those stories. But there comes a point when all the pain, all the suffering, starts to adversely affect us.

What causes burn-out?  Experts tell us that being constantly exposed to the harsh painful realities of animal abuse can cause us to shut down emotionally.  Some of the other triggers include:

  • Never-ending volume of animals needing assistance
  • Dealing with the ignorant public
  • Trying to do all you can with limited resources
  • Little or no life outside of work

The first step of dealing with CF is to realize what is going on.  Recognizing the symptoms can help identify the problem and take steps to deal with it.  Here is a list of common symptoms of the condition. (Please note that not all of these need to be present to be experiencing animal care burnout.)

  • Apathy
  • Hopelessness
  • Decrease in pleasure
  • Symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression
  • Sleeplessness or nightmares
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Exhaustion
  • Sense of losing “self”‘
  • Sense of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Feeling that our efforts are futile
  • Wanting to quit
  • Sudden anger or sadness
  • Self-destructive behavior (drinking, drugs, over-eating, retail therapy)
  • Loss of productivity
  • Inability to focus
  • Self-doubt

Many of us were taught from a very early age to think first of others.  To put other’s needs before our own.  To become “caregivers”.  There is nothing wrong with taking care of others…as long as we remember to take of ourselves as well.

There is no knowing if or when you are at risk of “burn-out”.  It isn’t more prevalent in men or women, it doesn’t affect anyone based on age or length of time in the field.  It does tend to affect people who do not have a clear boundary between home and work.  If you think you might be moving towards CF, there is a wonderful self-test that you can take at home:

And here is a hand-out designed for animal welfare professionals:

What it comes down to is being aware of what is going on, and taking steps to address it.  Dr James Fogarty has some great suggestions, including:

  • Talk about your experiences with enough detail that you can connect emotionally with what happened.
  • Acknowledge and safely express your feelings
  • Brainstorm options and take action
  • Take care of yourself
Take a walk with a friend…

The best way to take care of yourself is to make sure to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and have interests outside of animal welfare. Make yourself leave the house and take part in social activities in the “real world”.  Spend time with friends who are not involved in rescue. Get out and experience nature.  Take a walk, with a dog or alone.

This blog is actually serving to help me with my own sense of burn-out.  I am doing research about what can be done to deal with different problems, and it gives me a sense of power and control.  Since my usual place in animal rescue is with birds, dealing with dog issues in a positive manner allows me to step away from my workday struggle to save and rehabilitate parrots.

When you start feeling like  you can’t do enough to help, you need to take a step back and do something enjoyable for awhile.  We can’t concentrate on the mountains we still have to climb…instead let’s take a moment to celebrate the ones we have already conquered.



28 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue

  1. I can definitely say Ive felt the effects of CF. Working in the horse industry, instead of giving auction horses “their forever home” we would bring an unbroke/untouched/beat up/skinny etc horse home, give them an education and give proper nutrition if nesissary. Would try to sell them privately but if not when they were ready, would take them back to the sale. The amount of back lash we received from the horse community was horrible. I always thought that if something is not working, do something else. ie horse is sent to auction b/c of perceived bad habbit of bucking not due to a lameness problem. Staff/owner sedates said horse to get it through the sale, someone buys the horse, thinking they have a “quiet” horse but hurts them or is too much to control. Horse goes back to sale. Dealer buys for cheap and tries a quick flip, gets horse back in trade, sends to auction again. By now the horse has been handled rough, stressed and a whole slew of defensive responses are evedent in its behavior. Now horse is bought by a “kill buyer” who in reality has no intention of taking the horse to slaughter but said to envoke panic. Step in good dooer. A more or less trail rider type that sees “one of the most beautiful horses she has ever seen” on a social media page she tells her husband who advertly agrees. She over pays the dealer, sends the horse to “quarantine” for 3 weeks board, and finally brings a skinny deflated horse to her back yard. Vet care (b/c we know he isnt current on every vaccines available-or so said the internet) feet trimmed, new tack b/c your fat pasture potato has access to the best hay grain and pasture saddle sits right on this horses spine. Horse seems super quiet…. diamond in the rough until it gains weight back and decide your going to ride him today. He bucks you off before you even get your foot in the stirrups. You chauk it up as something must be bothering him with the saddle (we will skip the purchase of $300 saddle pads, vet exams and trainers carrot sticks) husband is worried this horse is going to hurt you) You try to ride him again and he puts you in the hospital. Husband, fearing for permanent brain damage sends now fat fat fat horse back to auction where a kill buyer will purchase him for slaughter b/c hes about 300 lbs over weight.
    Now what we did was purchase these horses for cheap, give them an education or fix the problem before it be came more dangerous, and when they were ready, send them back as actual good riding horses. Never did we bid agenest private buyers only horses going “to slaughter”. We stopped this b/c aparently we are supposed to rescue and keep for life. Situations change, life changes. There are not enough homes for horses as pets so my theory, the sound horses should get another chance. There are so many factors we cant control that are the falt of an owner (over racing, hard training injuries)Save the one that can be saved. I couldn’t sleep at night, I started to get upset when I would take them back to the sale. This was b/c of what people on social media were saying. I wasn’t getting rich from what I was doing. Lost money in fact. There were just so many good horses and was trying to use common sense to help. It was just too emotionaly draining. Now we focus on other Avenues to do the same but is “socially accepted” such as Extreme Mustang makeovers. Still stings to let them go but that is a normal feeling


  2. I highly recommend the book, “The Joy of Giving to Animals”. It was co-authored by one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society. The other co-author is a psychologist who teaches a workshop BF gives annually on CF. The book is an e
    xcellent help in dealing with the stress of being so compassionate.


  3. I had to completely walk away from rescue, it was ruining my life and my husband almost left me. So sadly the friends I had made couldn’t understand how I was feeling because they themselves are suffering from this condition and the anger and hatred that people begin to exhibit from this condition is profound. It truly is awful how horrible animals are treated these days, but people need to find balance.


  4. Also prevalent in my line of work, nursing assistant for the elderly and those with dementia, always trying to do more, with residents that often cry for extended periods, we are noticing very high rates of depression and even suicide, and feelings of chronic fatigue


    1. I couldn’t put a name to what I’ve been dealing with…until now. My mother suffered from dementia for 5 1/2 months before she passed away…and I spent those 5 1/2 months away from home taking care of her. One day she was living alone, driving her car, going out with friends. The next day she couldn’t dress or feed herself. She kept asking for her long-dead mother. She kept falling and breaking bones. It’s been 4 1/2 months and I’ve dealt with the funeral arrangements, notifying family and friends, packing up or selling everything in her house, and sellingyou parents’ home. I haven’t had time to truly grieve….but I cry at the drop of a hat. I can barely function most days. I either sleep all day….or don’t sleep for days. I don’t know how to keep going.


      1. Lisa: I have been exactly where you are. In less than 18 months I lost 3 dogs, a macaw, my mother (with circumstances similar to yours) and then Ray. Please….take the time to do something for yourself. I went to a grief counselor for several weeks, and it’s the very best thing I could do for myself. Please consider finding someone who can help you process all of this. Hugs.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Something I’ve felt a lot lately myself. It just seems to be getting harder and harder – so many birds in need and so few resources to help them all out. It definitely takes an emotional and physical toll. Thank you for the reminders.


  6. May I share some of this information?

    Diane J. Gardner
    Upward Bound Director
    Snow College
    150 East College Avenue
    Ephraim, Utah 84627


  7. Thanks for this fabulous information. The blog is SO informative and educational especially for those of us that love animals and try to help those in need.


  8. I’m not in animal rescue (any more), but I do have 2 senior dogs and a senior cat that were all rescues. Anyway, my line of work is substance abuse treatment. It is very challenging and rewarding at the same time. I find that I’ve been able to keep a huge gap between my work life and my personal life. Once in a while they try to collide, but I try hard to avoid that. Luckily, there are many departments that we can transfer to once burn-out starts. I was in one position for only 2 years that worked closely with DCF and CPI. That one wore me down quickly. I had to change. The position I’m in now I absolutely love! Hoping it stays that way a while. If not, I’ll transfer to another department. I do intend on staying with my company for a long time. Thankfully, they do realize the toll it takes and we have generous amounts of PTO. They even have no issue with us calling in periodically for a ‘mental health day’.
    I appreciate everyone who does any kind of emotionally draining work. Be it animals, children, healthcare, anything. It can be overwhelming and feel under appreciated. Do know that there are many more people who appreciate your efforts and sacrifices than you could ever know. The world would be a much worse place without you all 🙂


  9. This is where being Buddhist helps… a lot. It’s the only way I survived 10 years of sanctuary work. The two key concepts: non-attachment and impermanence. Being attached to something, someone, some ideal, only causes suffering. And nothing lasts forever, even death is just another part of “life”.

    It’s the reason dog and cat rescue doesn’t really phase me, since in the pure mathematical terms, their suffering is relatively short. It was the reason I chose bird rescue instead.

    It’s also what allowed me to socialize and handle birds without getting so attached I couldn’t let them go to a good home, or paralyzed me when a traumatic event would happen to one when I knew there were sill so many more out there that needed help.

    Although I know it also put me at odds with certain people and elements I worked with (not just at BF). You can come across seeming cold and harsh when you don’t cry for hours or mourn the loss of an animal, when the reality is anything but.


  10. It’s an amazingly hard road of compassion you’re on, especially with birds, about whom the public is so alarmingly ignorant. I’m sorry you’re suffering, and I hope you’re getting effective help. I’ve felt like you do, and I find that focusing on the moment, on my breath, on now — and letting all the head-swirling thoughts about the animals and the world be blocked out — helps me gain balance and an undeniable strength. I try to do the “mindfulness” activity many times during the day. I also think about the starfish saying — about not being able to help them all, but making a difference for one. At least know that what you’re doing for the birds is very, very worthwhile and valuable, and that you owe it to yourself and them to get to a secure and healthily functioning mind-state so that you can continue to help them. You’re doing really good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so true and I never knew of this. The only thing that keeps me going is my annual vacations to volunteer at Best Friends Sanctuary. Honestly, I have been doing it for 15 years, it recharges me to return home and continue the daily battle of animal rescue. Going to the sanctuary gives me hope, surrounds me with people with the same goals and I don’t have to explain to anyone why I devote my time to homeless animals. Thank you for this insightful blog. Only 83 days until I return to Kanab.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are describing exactly the way I feel- also a sense of dread every time I go on FB. Can you email me at drbonne@gmail because I think I could offer a good home to one of your birds—


  12. This is a great article sometimes I just want to crawl under my covers and ignore what is happening..then I realize these unfortunate animals cannot do this. So I take time away for myself to regroup then get back to the never ending fight to educate and fight for those who have no voice. Thanks for a great article

    Liked by 1 person

    1. After 16 years in animal rescue I had to resign. I still can’t watch graphic videos that at one time I felt compelled to watch in order to educate myself. After a 2 year break I have been asked to join a different rescue. I am still thinking about it. I have 13 birds and 2 dogs. Most are rescues and both dogs are from animal control; kill shelter. I so want to help but once again I would be taking time away from my own brood and emotionally? I am not sure.


  13. I feel for you. I encoountered the same kind of burn-out in nursing. I used to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Pecos, NM (although I am not Catholic) for the 5-day Easter Retreat. Now I go to Best Friends when I am feeling really stressed. I get the same spiritual sense of God, the meditation, the beautiful scenery, the outdoors and the exercise. I do not know how the staff at Best Friends do their jobs day in and day out over the years. The burn-out rate has to be high. Just in the 3 wks I spent there while Norton and I were renewing our acquaintance and checking each other out, I experienced an occasional sense of sadness over the plight of the animals. It did not help that the case of #367 was back in the news at Thanksgiving as these animals who pose as men were sentenced. I cannot believe the depths of depravity, meaness of spirit, immoralness that men will sink to in order to make a little money. We have to end the dog fighting. Enough of my rant. I admire and respect the staff at Best Friends for what they do with love in their hearts and respect for the animals. This was my 3rd trip since July, 2013. I usually come with my granddaughters and daughter. We have always been treated very well, with courtesy, respect and gratefulness for being there. I love all of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think Jessica Dolce from D.I.N.O.S. did a nice article along these lines as well. I haven’t gotten CF but there have been times I just feel dismayed that the steady stream of animals just keeps coming.
    We once had an adoption blitz weekend that cleared the kennels which was great, but seeing them refill so quickly was a downer. It’s just a part of the cycle, I guess.


  15. OH BOY did I need to read this today! Thank you. I have a great bunch of friends that aren’t in rescue so I can hang with them. Big problem this time of year is I don’t see them much…..maybe I need to brave the cold. I find I work horrible hours and just wear myself down to the point of tears…..that’s where I am right now, which stinks because I just got back from a week off! CF explains a lot because I have a hard time stepping back. Thanks for this article and the links….

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Up until I had foot surgery a couple of months ago, I worked in a high-kill shelter in S. C. We had a day long seminar on this subject. Bottom line, at the end of the day, animal care workers are the only profession where we have to decide who lives or dies. It is way much more than I could handle.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. so well said and so needed. I am lucky in that I have a group of friends who all are or were are one point in animal rescue. It helps to be able to talk to people who have been there and “get it”. We just had to promise each other not to wear down all at the same time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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