During my time at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, one of the things that surprised me most was the internalization of the trials and tribulations of many patients within the Center. While working with wildlife, it is our job to vouch for the patients and decide what course of action is in the best interest of each individual animal – a job that should be taken very seriously! Plenty of times I found myself anxious and riddled with guilt, having many sleepless nights while thinking about all our patients and the struggles they were going through.
This feeling is commonly referred to as compassion fatigue, also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), and can be seen as the emotional cost of caring for others. What can almost be categorized as “caring too much,” the individual internalizes the struggles and pains of the patient. Side effects during this process can include sleepless nights, anxiety, sadness, anger, and exhaustion. This can further develop into a decrease in empathy, which is referred to as burnout. Fortunately for me, I never reached this point due to the coping tools and support I gathered. During my research, I quickly learned that compassion fatigue is a normal and healthy reaction, and there are plenty of tips and tricks that exist to help individuals in many occupations combat the effects of compassion fatigue.
Occurring in professions ranging from lawyers to health care workers, it is especially relevant within the context of what we do at the Center, because compassion fatigue is more prevalent in the animal care field than any other industry. A few other facts: females tend to have slightly higher levels of compassion fatigue than males, it is only minimally related to rates of euthanasia, and there are absolutely no correlations to age or experience in the field.
If affected, there is no need to avoid feelings of sadness or anger. These emotions are valid and need to be acknowledged, not denied or hidden. Talking with colleagues who are having the same experiences can be of great help. Luckily at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, we have a dedicated team of rehabilitators, veterinarians, educators, volunteers, and students who all support one another during tough times. Caretakers also need to realize that by taking care of ourselves we are in turn able to give more to our patients who need it. Having personal hobbies, eating healthy foods, and getting ample sleep can make a big difference in the amount of care we can give back, and also prevent burnout.
One of the best ways to combat compassion fatigue is to accept that we cannot save every animal that comes through our doors. Sadly, not every animal that we care for has the strength to pull through, and the truth is that many of them do not make it. However, in the wildlife and animal care industry, we need to remember we are working as an active part of the solution. While one of these many animals may only be a small part of our daily life, when we are able to help them in their time of need, for that brief moment we become their whole life. From the heartbreaking death of a baby mouse to the glorious release of a rehabilitated Bald Eagle, I feel fortunate to have experienced every aspect of this field of work and am proud to have been a part of the dedicated team at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
WCV Class of 2015