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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Combating Compassion Fatigue at the Shelter

Dec 03, 2014 12:49AM ● By Lee Bucyk

The compassion of animal caregivers knows no bounds, but compassion fatigue strikes hard during the holiday season, especially for those in animal rescue. Whether working in a municipal shelter, animal control or even a no-kill shelter, the work takes a tremendous toll on  physical and psychological health.

For those that spend eight to 10 hours each day rescuing abandoned, unloved or injured animals, being quick-tempered, apathetic or tired, overeating or having difficulty focusing might seem to be the norm. These symptoms are part of what’s known as compassion fatigue, a well-documented stress disorder that affects individuals working in the animal welfare profession. It is more than emotional exhaustion or burnout however, and results from caring for animals (or humans) that are traumatized or suffering.

Many factors contribute to compassion fatigue. In animal rescue work, key contributors are a steady stream of occurrences that accumulate day after day until we wake up one day and can’t seem to get out of bed. For example, drop off or surrender situations that include abandoned or injured animals or people that are leaving their home and simply won’t take their animals with them are very common.

There is also the struggle of dealing with a hostile or ungrateful public. There are people that drop off animals and refuse to pay an intake fee or make a donation and state they’ll “drown the cat,” or “toss the puppy into the desert.” To a shelter worker, that’s an abysmal answer to the ongoing question of, “What’s a life worth?” Remember, most animal rescue workers work for nonprofit organizations and it’s solely their compassion that keeps them employed, not the salary or perks. 

The key to combating compassion fatigue is to mindfully practice self-care and strive for inner peace. Eating well, exercising daily and finding balance between work and personal life are all good steps to cultivating inner peace. Like human caregivers, animal caregivers can benefit greatly from the support of those in the healing profession. A massage therapist, naturopath, acupuncturist or energy healer might consider donating their time to an animal shelter or rescue worker as a way to give back. Animals are sentient beings, and benefit greatly from holistic healing, as well.

The human-animal bond is strong, and as we stretch to become a more awakened humanity, let us not forget to hold our intentions for animal caregivers and shelter animals in love, respect and compassion. 

Lee Bucyk is the executive director of the nonprofit Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter and Sanctuary. For more information, call 520-571-7839 or visit