Author’s Note: All of the dogs featured in this blog have been adopted, with the exception of Lizzy, the first photograph.
I read an article awhile ago about compassion fatigue in animal welfare, and though the article was geared toward shelter workers, it struck a chord with me as well.
I often find ways to discount my feelings. I’m an expert at building emotional barriers to distance myself from traumas in my life, of which I’ve had an unfortunate number, but recently, the distance that I thought I was building is starting to cave in on me. As Joe put it, “You’ve been putting all that in the back of your mind and now the back of your mind is full and it’s got nowhere to go.”
The nightmares started about three months ago. I’ve suffered with night terrors all my life and I go through phases when they are sometimes worse than others. But these ones were different, these ones centered around shelter work. I remember one very vividly that still haunts me. A dog was being surrendered by his owner, and he was grabbing onto his owner’s leg with his front paws like a child clinging to a parent’s pants. He was yelping in terror, and a shelter staff member was pulling on his back legs to drag him into the kennel area. I was crying behind the camera while I tried to take frantic pictures of the dog. The owner walking away with the dog clinging on and the shelter staffer pulling on the dog’s rear ripped the dog in half. I woke up screaming, sweating, shaking.
Obviously, this kind of thing does not go on in any shelter I know of, least of all the one I volunteer with, but the macabre had begun to seep into my psyche.
I stopped sleeping a couple months ago. I have been averaging between 2-4 hours of sleep a night, and none of it restful. Joe wakes me up many times a night, telling me I sound like I’m possessed, screaming and tossing. Shelby curls up close to me and when she can’t wake me with her kisses, she scratches my face with her paws.
The panic attacks began a little less than a month ago. I would wake up from another nightmare, my heart racing, my whole body soaked in sweat, burning up. I had trouble controlling my breathing. It felt like my heart was going to explode. Most times, I run to the bathroom and throw up from the nausea. I lay in the tub with no water letting the cool porcelain calm me. I curl up in a ball and rock until I can calm my breathing. When I am calm enough, I stand up and many times, just the motion of my body causes me to begin again.
I do not volunteer at a “high kill” shelter like so many across the country. It is open access and while dogs do get euthanized, it’s rare for a dog I’ve photographed to be put down. I’m not there every day like the shelter staff. I don’t see the worst of it, I’m sure. I don’t spend hours each week walking dogs or cuddling with kitties like some of the other volunteers. But I do spend hours upon hours in my studio (really our spare bedroom that Joe converted to an office for me) editing photos of dogs, never really knowing which one may be that rare one that doesn’t make it out.
I used to feel like I didn’t have the right to have these issues. I guess in some ways, I still do. I feel guilty that I’m complaining when so many others who suffer more are so silent. But then I read this, which is posted on the Petfinder website of all places. The thing that stuck with me was that the public needs to know. For those of us who work or volunteer in shelter/rescue, it seems shocking that the world of animal rescue is actually a very secret place, but it is.
We live in a society where it’s “okay” to dump a dog at a shelter with no questions asked. Those of us in the rescue/shelter community see it time and time again, day in and day out. There are too many days I’ve been at the shelter where I’ve seen more dogs and cats coming in than going out. Sometimes it seems like we’re the only ones who really care, so it’s hard for us to say to someone who doesn’t immerse themselves in this environment, “I’m so saddened by this.” We’re afraid. We’re afraid that person is going to turn around and look at us and say, “It’s just a dog, cat, rabbit, bird, horse, etc.” We’re afraid that they’re going to say, “So just quit.” We’re afraid that they won’t understand. Because a lot of them won’t.
That’s why it’s so important to actually voice this, because we aren’t alone, and we aren’t the only ones who care, and it’s not normal for us to suffer in silence because we’re afraid other people will think less of our suffering because they’re “just” animals.
I wrote a post on my photography website last night entitled, “Lighting Candles” where I described a ritual I have to help ease the pain, which I subsequently deleted because I voiced it and then decided to let it go, like the candles I light. There are other ways to help as well, but the most important thing is that we need to take care of ourselves, which many of us don’t do because we’re so focused on saving the lives of the animals in our charge. We can’t save them if our souls have gone into hiding. I for one, know that I need to start making more time for myself away from Facebook, away from mini feeds full of drama and hate and blame. I need to make time for Joe and my dogs.
I find this especially difficult as an artist. The more I suffer, the more beautiful my work becomes. Suffering can become addictive for an artist, because you can quickly learn that it is only in the dark that you can pull out the light. But I know I need to start finding healthier ways to remove myself from the dark, to learn some emotional controls and boundaries. It’s a work in progress, like all things.
What I really want to say though is this – compassion fatigue is real, and it’s living and breathing in our shelters and rescues every day. If you’re an animal welfare person, take care of yourself. If you’re not, help take care of someone who works in animal welfare, because even if you believe it is “just” a dog, that person is still a person who is very seriously suffering.