Understanding Trauma In Animal Protection Work
Animal protection workers investigate illegal mistreatment of animals and enforce animal-related laws. Some of these professionals work for governments, while others work for nonprofit animal welfare organizations such as shelters. They often face emotionally challenging and traumatic situations. For example, they may encounter abused or neglected animals, remove animals from a living situation without their guardians’ consent, and provide support to guardians who are going through difficult times themselves.
Like people in other helping professions, animal protection workers may experience compassion fatigue and burnout. Compassion fatigue is the exhaustion that comes from repeatedly encountering and having to care for suffering beings. Burnout is a cluster of symptoms related to chronic workplace stress, including cynicism, detachment, exhaustion, a sense of inadequacy, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. There is also a range of stress-related issues that animal protection workers experience, such as anxiety and depression.
In this study, researchers in Canada interviewed eleven workers in animal protection and welfare who had at least six months’ experience with animal surrender and seizure, either directly or through working with organizational policy. (Surrender is an animal being removed with their guardian’s consent; seizure, without it.) The interviews lasted about ninety minutes and explored participants’ experiences in animal surrender and seizure, their work environment, and their experiences of compassion fatigue and burnout.
Two key themes emerged from the interviews. First, interviewees felt unprepared. They reported feeling shocked by the suffering of animals and their guardians. Training was minimal and hadn’t prepared them for the realities of the field, where workers had few resources with which to help. Guardians often faced serious issues of poverty, trauma, and oppression, which the interviewees could do little about. They worried that the situations they intervened in would simply repeat in the future. Because their workloads were overwhelming, interviewees felt like they were constantly reacting to crises and never able to prepare to respond well in the future. In addition, they reported experiencing verbal abuse, threats, and sometimes even violence from human guardians. They generally weren’t trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation skills, which would help them deal with these situations more appropriately.
Second, interviewees felt forced to be strong. When they experienced emotionally difficult situations, they were expected to “just deal with it” and to manage their emotions in a way that didn’t affect other people. Interviewees had to mask or shut off their feelings in the field, because revealing their emotions would be viewed as unprofessional or escalate an already tense situation. They also had to conceal their feelings at the workplace. Interviewees rarely felt able to discuss their emotions and trauma at work. Instead, they felt like they should push through stress. Many didn’t feel able to take time and resources to attend to self-care, in part because they were overworked. Some interviewees didn’t have mental health support at their workplaces, while others felt guilty when they took advantage of the support, because taking time off would burden others with more work. Some people felt alienated by the assumption among outsiders that their job was “all kittens and puppies.”
The researchers suggest that “trauma-informed practice” (TIP) may go a long way to supporting animal protection workers. TIP is an approach where organizations proactively incorporate trauma support into their policies, practices, and day-to-day operations to protect employees from compassion fatigue and burnout. Based on the suggestions provided by interviewees, organizations can teach animal protection workers to use trauma-informed conflict-resolution skills, such as collaboration, establishing emotional safety, and de-escalation. They can also teach people to recognize burnout and compassion fatigue while acting to destigmatize these conditions among all workers, including leadership. It is important for organizations to offer more resources and not put the entire burden of handling emotionally challenging experiences on the workers. Organizational practices such as offering regular check-ins, debriefing with peers, and providing access to safe spaces and mental health care can help animal protection workers feel more prepared for the realities of their job.