Animal shelter workers cope with ‘compassion fatigue’

Registered veterinary technician Brittany LeCompte examines a dog with respiratory problems at the SPCA facility in Sacramento on Thursday. At 23, LeCompte has been volunteering or working in shelters for eight years.
Registered veterinary technician Brittany LeCompte examines a dog with respiratory problems at the SPCA facility in Sacramento on Thursday. At 23, LeCompte has been volunteering or working in shelters for eight years. rbenton@sacbee.com

Brittany LeCompte, quiet in her black Converse sneakers, walked past kennels holding yapping Chihuahuas and shivering shepherds, new admissions to the Sacramento SPCA’s shelter on Florin Perkins Road.

Cards attached to their cages told their sad stories: Owner moving. Couldn’t afford vet bills. Owner died.

LeCompte, a veterinary technician who specializes in shelter animals, stopped in front of an elderly cocker spaniel mix with soulful eyes and a stumpy tail that wagged warily. “No time for animal,” read his identification card.

“This is one of the roughest parts of the job,” LeCompte said, stroking the dog’s head. “It’s very sad to see an animal this age put out of the only home he probably has ever known. He looks like he was well loved. What happened?”

In the coming days, LeCompte would help decide the fate of the dog, named Ricky. Based on his health and behavior, he could be a candidate for adoption. Or he could be slated for euthanasia.

Such tasks can weigh heavily on people who work on the front lines in animal shelters, rescue groups and veterinary offices. Day after day, along with the joy of seeing abandoned animals find new homes or lost pets reunited with their owners, they confront the painful realities of abuse, neglect and loss. Many of them put to death a steady stream of animals that are unloved and unwanted, sick or aggressive.

The stress can take its toll, according to experts, in the form of “compassion fatigue.” The phrase – more typically used to describe a condition common among nurses and doctors who treat trauma patients – increasingly is being applied to people who care for animals.

“Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with,” said J. Eric Gentry, a Florida psychotherapist and leader in the study of traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. “The very thing that makes them great at their work – their empathy and dedication and love for animals – makes them vulnerable.”

At the request of an agency staffer concerned about the level of stress among Sacramento area animal care workers, the Humane Society of the United States recently sent an expert in compassion fatigue to the capital for a two-day workshop. Sixty people, including managers and technicians, rescue workers and animal control officers from agencies across the region, took part.

Hilary Anne Hager, a Humane Society specialist, described symptoms of the condition, including sleeplessness, disturbing dreams, alcohol or drug abuse, emotional “numbing,” depression and nagging guilt, that many in the audience recognized. She also offered strategies for managing the syndrome.

“I think everyone who works in this field suffers from it to one extent or another,” said Gina Knepp, who manages the city of Sacramento’s Front Street shelter. “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 can result, in part, from “secondary traumatic stress,” the emotional wear that comes from regular exposure to animals that have been abused or neglected 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.

“When I tell people what I do, I sometimes get, ‘Oh, that’s depressing,’” said LeCompte. “They don’t think about the spaying and neutering, the medical care, the foster care, all of the things we do. They think that all we do is euthanize animals. They don’t get it, and they don’t want to talk about it.”

Sacramento area animal shelters have made strides in recent years in reducing euthanasia rates and increasing adoptions. The city shelter no longer kills healthy animals unless they are aggressive. Still, Knepp said, she lies awake at night thinking about how she could do better.

“It wears on you, having to make decisions about whether an animal lives or dies,” she said. “I have staff members who can tell you the exact number of animals they have euthanized in their careers. Who wants to come to work and put a life down, even if it’s appropriate? You know it’s the right thing to do, but it hurts your heart. The drive to save more and more becomes an obsession.”

Patty Letawsky, who for years regularly visited shelters to pluck dogs that might otherwise be sent to the death chamber, understands that obsession.

“You’re pulling an animal, and you know that you’re helping that one,” she said. “But you try not to look at the next cage, knowing that there are very deserving animals that are not going to leave that shelter. Whatever you’re doing is never enough. There are always more waiting.”

After years of rescuing animals, Letawsky’s life was out of balance, she said. She found herself spending most of her free time fostering and training animals, taking them for veterinary care, posting adoption appeals and attending events to promote them. Her rescue mission began to trump romance, friendships and her work as an independent contractor.

“I finally hit a wall,” she said. “I just got tired of being tired, and of being sad, of the bill-juggling and the sleeplessness. I had to step away.”

While Letawsky still “keeps a pulse” on animal rescue work, she now spends most of her free time with her two pet dogs in Wilton. Her New Year’s resolution is “to have more fun” with friends and family, she said.

“My stress level is dramatically reduced,” she said. “I don’t think I can go back to the way things were before.”

At 23, LeCompte has been volunteering or working in shelters for eight years. She said she has days when the weight of her work is overwhelming. At those times, “I take a step back, breathe,” and, at the first opportunity, “go home and play with my own dog,” she said.

Gentry, the Florida psychotherapist, has contributed to research showing that animal care workers who use certain “intervention techniques” such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing to reduce tension had fewer symptoms associated with compassion fatigue over time.

He encouraged shelter workers to talk to someone they trust about their stress. “If you stuff it down for two or three years, the hopper will become full and things will come up in your dreams and your waking consciousness,” Gentry said. He recommended “taking control over the things that you have power over,” including adopting a healthy diet and regular exercise.

When the job gets difficult, Hager advised the Sacramento group, “think about something you’re grateful for,” including family and pets. She told them it was OK to opt out of putting to death animals with whom they have developed strong bonds. On days when they euthanize animals, she said, “make sure you have the time and place to do it in the best way you possibly could have done it,” ideally in a quiet room with soft lighting.

“Honor that moment,” Hager said. “Be there for that animal. Afterward, take a few minutes to do some breathing and process what has just happened. Then move on.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

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