Editorials: When more pets don’t help

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:

It’s no secret that loneliness ranks among our biggest social problems. Those who
are lonely won’t need convincing, but the available statistics are still staggering. Twelve
Americans out of every 100 over age 15 live alone, including nearly a third of those who
are 65 or older, 41% of women age 65 and older, and more than half of women age 75 and
over. Certainly some people choose to live alone, but among both sexes at all ages over
25, the numbers who are alone closely correlate with the number who are widowed or
divorced. More than half of all women will be widowed or divorced by age 65.
The impact of loneliness on many people appears in further statistics. Single peo-
ple suffer more accidents, poverty, terminal disease, alcoholism, and drug dependen-
cy––and commit suicide more often. Men commit suicide three times as often as women;
the leading reason for male suicide is loss of a spouse.
Just as otherwise healthy but unloved infants may die from acute depression,
called by doctors “failure to thrive,” most of the rest of us need to be loved to feel well.
As almost all of us who have ever been alone can testify, we were born to be social ani-
mals; our social needs don’t end with our relationships.

Nor is loneliness restricted to those who are physically alone. The Bureau of the
Census doesn’t ask how many people feel isolated within unsuccessful marriages, or would
like to have friends and confidants other than their spouses, but the numbers would be high.
Indeed, psychologists have long identified the need for a same-sex best friend as primary
among women, and perhaps strongly latent among men.
Loneliness is of course one of the leading reasons why people adopt pets. People
with pets, especially singles, suffer markedly less from depression and alienation––and
according to one clinical study, live 3% longer.
As far back as 1860, pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale remarked upon the
importance of pets to the isolated and infirm, urging caregivers to keep people and their
animals together as long as possible. During the past decade countless pet therapy pro-
grams have emerged, giving thousands of shelter animals a welcome place in hospitals,
nursing homes, prisons, and mental institutions.
The momentum has carried over to helping emotionally needy individuals to keep
pets at home. In 1987, Ralston Purina committed $1 million to helping place 10,000 dogs
and cats from the 90 largest shelters in 70 cities with people age 60 and over. The company
paid for vaccinations and neutering. That program continues, albeit with a low profile, on
a smaller scale. The Denver Dumb Friends League, for instance, has averaged 254 place-
ments with seniors a year during the past six years with Ralston Purina assistance. Ralston
Purina has undone much of the goodwill the senior placement program earned in the
humane community by promoting field trials of coonhunting dogs. But local initiatives
such as the Lifelong Friends program of Sangre de Cristo Animal Protection in New
Mexico have extended the idea of facilitating placements with seniors, and the North Shore
Animal League’s new Seniors for Seniors program rivals the Ralston Purina project in scope
and scale. (Both Seniors for Seniors and Lifelong Friends were profiled in ANIMAL
PEOPLE last May.)
Also worthy of note are the efforts of the Pet Owners With AIDS Resource
Service in New York City and the Pets Are Wonderful Support Network in Los Angeles,
each of which helps hundreds of AIDS patients to keep pets into the last stages of the
inevitably fatal illness, then seeks new homes for the animals when the victims die.
But who is helping the helpers? At the recent American Humane Association
annual conference in Baltimore, ANIMAL PEOPLE discovered loneliness is also an acute
and largely unaddressed problem among animal care and control staff. The very people
who dedicate their lives to assisting animals and to uniting lonely people with appropriate
animal companions tend to suffer from emotional isolation––usually in silence––to such a
degree that when asked why they came to the conference the overwhelming majority cited
not the many informative lectures and workshops, nor the opportunity to get away from the
often stressful shelter environment, but rather the need to talk meaningfully with nonjudge-
mental peers. The conference occupied four days. Almost every waking hour of those four
days, someone told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “This is the only chance I have to talk with any-
one about what I’m really feeling all year.” Or, “This is the only gathering where I can be
myself.” Or, “This is the only place where people understand.”
There are a disproportionate number of single people in animal care and control
work because the pay scale isn’t conducive to supporting a family. Animal shelter directors
make on average only 89% of the U.S. median family income; assistants make less. The
only other fulltime employees at most humane societies and animal control agencies are
enforcement officers. Police officers earn only 87% of the U.S. median family income, but
cruelty investigators and animal control officers do equally stressful and risky work on a
mere 50% of the U.S. median family income. In fact, cruelty investigation and animal con-
trol work may be even riskier and more stressful, because almost every case involves both a
victim and a perpetrator. There are no interludes of directing traffic. And the animal vic-
tims can be just as dangerous as the humans who abuse them. While most cruelty investiga-
tors and animal control officers who carry sidearms say they do so mainly to protect them-
selves from two-legged animals, very few get through a year without having to dispatch on
site an unusually aggressive dog, an apparently rabid cat, or an injured and thrashing deer
with hooves like knives.
Paid shelter adoption clerks and technicians don’t even earn a poverty level
income. Adoption clerks and technicians, however, tend to be either near the beginning of
their working lives or the second wage-earners in their families. Shelter directors and
enforcement officers are almost always experienced people for whom animal work is a seri-
ous vocation. Though women make up about 80% of the animal shelter workforce, men
still hold the majority of the upper-level positions; but for both men and women, the typical
career path begins with part-time service or volunteer work. While the majority of shelter
workers remain part-timers or volunteers, in part because of family obligations and the need
to make more money, people pursuing animal care and control careers typically take their
first fulltime jobs in the field after the loss of a better-paying job in another occupation or a
divorce from a spouse with fulltime employment. Either way, economic need is a factor,
but a smaller factor than the desire to help animals.
Shelter work does attract many young volunteers and part-timers, but those with
career goals more often hope to become veterinarians than enforcement officers or adminis-
trators––and small wonder, given the low remuneration and lack of social status typically
assigned to “dogcatchers.” (The growing number of veterinarians with backgrounds in shel-
ter work may be a major reason why more than 10% of all small-animal vets now provide
their services to discount neutering programs, and why the veterinary community as a
whole has become markedly more concerned about pet overpopulation.)
People who remain in animal care and control work usually find that advancement
requires relocation, typically serving with two or three different shelters in different parts of
the country before becoming a director. Advancing to directing larger shelters capable of
sustaining more ambitious programs may involve further relocation. Each relocation further
fractures the individual’s social support network, which may already have been damaged by
the job transition or divorce that made fulltime shelter work possible in the first place.
In consequence, many healthy, outgoing, caring and attractive shelter personnel
who intended to couple and enjoy family life instead reach middle age alone. Not that
they’ve ever had time to acknowledge loneliness: every day is a rush of caring for animals,
dealing with the public, talking to children in schools, and then there’s the inevitable over-
time, filling in for part-timers and volunteers who burn out and quit on short notice, or sim-
ply aren’t available over weekends and holidays. There are always plenty of purrs and wag-
ging tails, and except when it comes time to perform euthanasia, or when one must read a
letter to the local newspaper likening the shelter to a death camp, there isn’t the opportunity
to even allow oneself to feel grief.
The stress of euthanasia
Performing euthanasia isolates animal care and control people even more than the
long hours and relocations. Like war victims and veterans, shelter personnel don’t like to
talk about what they go through in connection with euthanasia, especially not with those
who haven’t been there. Yet, also like war victims and veterans, they need to talk about it,
most especially with those who haven’t been there, who need to understand and can most
help by listening. The combination of loving animals with the necessity of often killing
them variously produces denial, distancing, and sometimes even the “Arsenic and Old Lace
Syndrome,” the attitude that euthanasia is a positive sacrament, preferable to almost any
alternative. Again like war survivors, some people who do euthanasia may resort to alcohol
and drug abuse, or at least chain smoking. To the credit of animal care and control people,
substance abuse, suicide, and other extreme consequences of stress among those of experi-
ence appear to be rare. Much more common is emotional withdrawal, because even if the
animals don’t harshly judge the person who does euthanasia and even if the public doesn’t,
he or she tends to harshly judge himself or herself, imposing a sentence of exile.
Twenty years ago, the ANIMAL PEOPLE editor helped facilitate informal peer
counseling among a group of shellshocked Vietnam veterans plus one seemingly out-of-
place euthanasia technician––who was one of the two other primary facilitators, and as the
gentlest man in the group, was the consoler. In the interim, through the outreach efforts of
articulate veterans, the public has come to understand “post-Vietnam stress syndrome.”
Men and women who went to war when barely out of childhood––or had war descend upon
them in childhood––eventually remembered how to cry, and though frequently troubled to
this day, got help. The euthanasia technician remains alone. Wars end, but until unwanted
healthy animals need no longer be euthanized, shelter euthanasia goes on, and as many
shelter directors have told us, in tears as often as not, “Better we should do this, and do it
gently, and be hurt by doing it, than someone should do it who doesn’t care.”
Books have been written on euthanasia, including upon how it affects those who
do it. The books have quantified and expressed the moral dilemma, but they are not read by
the public. They do not help people who are rightly concerned about animal suffering to
treat with sympathy rather than outrage those who must address suffering not only with
kindness but also with the needle or sometimes the gun. Images of euthanasia have shocked
much of the public into addressing pet overpopulation at last, but the psychic price paid by
shelter staff who hear themselves called murderers and worse is high. Those images must be
balanced by more photos like the one by Dave Gatley, published on the front page of The
Los Angeles Times on Sunday, September 19. Cucamonga Rancho State Park rangers Laura
Itogawa and Earl Jones wept with their shotguns in their hands as they dispatched a starving
puma, perhaps a former pet, who had attacked a 10-year-old girl. Instead of sensationaliz-
ing the attack and the killing, reporter Tony Perry sensitively quoted them.
“This is the part of the job I hate,” Itogawa said.
Added Jones, “This goes against everything I believe.”
Animal care and control people go through that every day. We need to face it,
talk about it, and realize that people who care deserve to be loved, including those who are
alone, suffering with the realities of death and isolation.
Then we need to reach out.
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