Shrinking animal work stress
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1999:
DENVER, Colo.––The last people
to get help are often the caregivers.
And that’s dangerous, agree psychologists
Kate Prevost Myers and
Caterina Spinarsis, who specialize
in helping animal caregivers.
Myers, a former animal
control officer in northern California
and past editor of the National
Animal Control Association magazine,
changed careers in midlife––
partly due to “burnout.”
After developing her new
career in psychology, however,
Myers returned to her original field
because that’s where she perceived
major untreated need.
Spinarsis describes herself
as “a naturalized citizen, of Greek
origin, raised in Egypt, educated in
England and Canada before landing
in the U.S.,” who has “always been
an animal lover. Growing up in
Egypt was very hard,” she says,
because of the abuses of dogs she
witnessed. “I turned vegetarian after
I read, of all things, a book by a
Christian author who turned vegan.
I read it during a time in my life
when I experienced severe emotional
abuse, and as a result, I totally
identified with the animals’ plight.
Further hard experiences down the
road caused me to withdraw from
people more and more on a personal
level, and to attach to animals
instead. Perhaps it was not the most
balanced approach,” she laughs,
“but it was the best I could muster at
the time. I ended up connecting
with dog and cat rescue groups here
in Denver, and the rest is history.”
Both Myers and Spinarsis
bring to their work professional
background in handling post-traumatic
“In my experience, covering
seven years and contact with at
least 5,000 people, about 75% of
animal welfare workers are experiencing
some degree of post-traumatic
stress syndrome,” Myers says.
Agrees Spinarsis, “The
cumulative impact [of animal care
and control work] on the empathic
psyche, exposed to prolonged ‘compassion
fatigue’ and horror, is real,
enduring, and irreversible, unless
one works hard at getting well. The
saddest thing is that in the animal
community post-traumatic stress
does not get recognized and
acknowledged. Thus, not much is
done toward countering or preventing
it. Yet if self-care does not
improve, workers will keep dropping
off like flies or becoming toxic
to others and themselves.”
Confirms Myers, “Setting
up ongoing mental fitness programs
for animal care and control agencies
should be a priority for humane
organizations. Animal care and control
is a high-trauma profession.
People need support and encouragement.
Healthy people make healthy
agencies, which in turn better
accomplish their mission.”
But Myers adds, “I have
found resistance in the mainstream
of animal welfare administration to
the idea that this is a high-trauma
profession, and that organizations
are morally obligated to provide
intervention programs. I believe this
is due to the habituation effect of
repetitive traumatic events,” she
theorizes. “Most administrators
have come up through the ranks,
and are invested in their participation
in the work.”
Post-traumatic stress syndrome
was first recognized, diagnosed,
and treated in combat veterans,
rape victims, and former
inmates of concentration camps.
But recent research indicates it is
even more common in people whose
routine work is emotionally stressful.
One investigator, Abigail
Zuger, found that post-traumatic
stress afflicts about 5% of the general
population, 20% to 30% of combat
veterans, and 67% of prostitutes.
“This bears out the
research that I have done into hightrauma
professions,” says Myers.
“Most post-traumatic research has
studied people who had traumatic
events inflicted on them. Police,
firefighters, emergency medical service
providers, and animal care and
control workers have in common
with prostitutes an element of
choice,” about risking trauma in
their selection of an occupation.
But the appearance of
choice may disguise a compulsion.
“The idea that people
choose work that mimics their family
experience is valid,” Myers
notes. “Even if the work stress is
bad, it’s familiar. Many people in
animal work come from abusive
backgrounds or addictive families.
I’m sure such a history influenced
my own choice of professions. I
needed to protect other innocent
beings, the way I wasn’t protected.”
One reflection of the role
of workplace as surrogate family,
Myers continues, is that, “Priorities
at many shelters are decided by
emotions,” even though the emotional
influence on the decisionmaking
may not be recognized.
“There is nothing wrong
with using emotions as a factor in
deciding where to put your
resources,” Myers adds, “but solely
using personal opinions and emotions
can be counterproductive.
Post-traumatic stress tends to narrow
people’s focus, making them base
their beliefs and thinking on limited
input. Thinking outside the box is
not easy for someone suffering from
post-traumatic stress. The person’s
primary concern is making the world
safe for himself or herself––a reasonable
reaction,” but tending to
Neither Myers nor Spinarsis
does individual therapy. Both
work with whole agencies at a time.
“Briefly,” says Myers,
“my approach is to normalize traumatic
response, provide education
about what is happening, and provide
intervention solutions. I do a
package program called S t a y i n g
Sane in Animal Welfare, which is a
one-day workshop with half a day of
team leader training. I also work
with four agencies a year to provide
a year-long program of consulting
Says Spinarsis, “I deal
almost exclusively with volunteers.
I also do consultation about every
two months at a humane society.
Last year I did a seminar on understanding
vicarious traumatization of
animal workers and dealing with it.
We had volunteers, shelter personnel,
and animal control officers .”
Learning how animal care
work stresses cut across professional
lines, Spinarsis is now writing a
mental health care how-to for animal
care workers and administrators.
“My experience has been
that volunteers and to a somewhat
lesser degree shelter personnel often
have psychological trauma histories,”
Spinarsis observes. “They are
low in people skills, and often have
what shrinks call ‘borderline personality
disorder,’ which is more often
than not related to a background of
abuse, neglect, and invalidation.”
But Spinarsis also sees
that many personnel, especially volunteers,
bring problems such as
depression and bipolar disorder to
animal work; the problems don’t
necessarily develop from the work.
However, Spinarsis adds,
the nature of animal work tends to
bring old problems back.
Although Myer says that
in her experience more animal care
workers acknowledge stress from
dealing with the public than from
having to kill animals, she sees the
traditional stoic attitude toward shelter
killing as a major contributing
factor to many stress disorders.
“When I went through
euthanasia training,” Myers remembers,
“there was a woman who
fainted every time an animal was
killed. She also cried a lot and
talked a lot. The instructor ridiculed
this woman and ultimately she left
the program. The rest of us took our
cue from the instructor, and were
tight-lipped and clinical. Except that
I cried every night and had vivid
dreams about dead animals. When I
got into animal control, I began to
harden my external responses. I no
longer cried, toughed out emotional
situations, and swallowed my feelings.
Later I learned that such
response may be why many animal
care workers develop eating disorders.
People mistake mental toughness
for mental fitness.”
“Hurrying to put animals down who
could otherwise be saved,” a common
volunteer complaint about veteran
shelter professionals, “to me is
a symptom of vicarious traumatization.
People,” including individual
rescuers, “end up wanting the whole
problem to just go away, and they
know there are more animals waiting.
Administering death becomes a
way to stop the drain. I’ve caught
myself at times thinking that way,”
Spinarsis confesses, “so I’m speaking
from personal experience.”
Explains Myers, “The
first step in counseling is accepting
that a strong reaction to a distressing
situation is normal. Reactions
i n c l u d e acting out, by expressing
unfocused hostility, or engaging in
substance abuse and other addictive
behavior, and acting in, feeling
depression, isolation, and disassociation.
Nightmares, an increased
startle response, a feeling of hopelessness,
physical illness, and suicidal
thoughts can all be part of the
reaction. Journaling, recording a
tape, drawing, or painting,” often
prescribed by counselors, “are all
ways of getting it out.
“It is important to share
released feelings with another person
or people in a thereapeutic environment,”
Myers continues. “Just
talking about them with co-workers
can actually make a problem worse,
as the event, not the feelings,
becomes the focus of attention.
Very bad cases can take on mythic
proportions within an agency, without
resolution or healing.”
Prevention, Myers and
Spinarsis agree once again, is more
effective than seeking a cure.
“Physical exercise, natural
beauty, talking about feelings,
and having loving relationships are
all major helps,” Spinarsis says.
“The major factor in maintaining
mental health seems to be
actively living a balanced life,”
Myers emphasizes. “Grief lives in
the body. It is especially important
to get regular aerobic exercise. Also
pay attention to what you eat. Stress
depletes many essential nutrients
and affects your brain chemistry.
Get some nutritional counseling,”
for any evident eating disorder.
“Massage, relaxation therapy,
acupuncture, and other alternative
therapies are important to
physical healing after a traumatic
event,” Myers continues.
Work for change
Myers also recommends
“engaging in some activity that
changes the situation or gives support
for the next event,” such as
“working to change laws, educating
police and social service professionals
about the importance of reporting
animal abuse, or setting up support
groups. People become animal care
workers in order to make a difference.
This fulfills that need.”
Spinarsis again concurs.
Her own current projects include
lobbying against a Colorado bill to
exempt laboratories from the state
Freedom of Information law, donating
books and videos about factory
farming and vegetarianism to
schools and libraries, and opposing
prairie dog exterminations.
“Learning to let go of what
you can’t change quickly––like the
nasty side of human nature––may be
all the humane worker can do, after
the dust settles,” Myers concludes.
“Heal. Then get up and fight the
next battle.” –