Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Compassion Fatigue

I am fatigued this morning - not frustrated, disheartened or cynical, but fatigued. I am feeling that cyclical syndrome of compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue? The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project says:

Studies confirm that caregivers play host to a high level of compassion fatigue. Day in, day out, workers struggle to function in care giving environments that constantly present heart wrenching, emotional challenges. Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society's flagrant disregard for the safety and well being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full time employees to part time volunteers.

All of us in the animal welfare community, including program directors, volunteers and donors, experience this fatigue at some point. We question if what we do really matters. We wonder if we are really making a difference. And we feel like long-term change is all but impossible. It's not that we experience this fatigue that defines us, but how we respond to it.

All too often, I see people eliminate fatigue by eliminating the connection to the cause. Simply - they just walk away. They don't do any prevention or intervention steps. Instead, they just "take it" until they can't take it anymore. The animals lose an advocate, the organization loses a valued member, and the person loses a sense of connection to a greater purpose. Everyone loses when this is the response.

For all of you in the animal welfare movement, at all levels of engagement, I encourage you to take steps to feel less fatigued. We are experiencing an overwhelmingly devastating time in animal welfare - hundreds of pets are losing their homes as a result of the financial crisis. Families who love their pets dearly are faced with excruciating economic choices, and often the pets are the first expense to be eliminated. And sadly, many irresponsible pet owners seem to be using the economic crisis as a reason to dump their responsibilities on someone else. In the midst of declining donations and skyrocketing costs, animal welfare organizations are struggling just to keep the doors open at a time when the pets need us most. And many donors are struggling with how to keep up support when their own financial situations are tough. We are all tired.

But being tired doesn't have to mean being done. We all need to learn, remember and practice the 8 laws of healthy caregiving that the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project suggests:

The Eight Laws Governing Healthy Caregiving:

#1 Sustain Your Compassion
#2 Retain Healthy Skepticism
#3 Learn to Let Go
#4 Remain Optimistic
#5 Be the Solution
#6 Embrace Discernment
#7 Practice Sustainable Self Care
#8 Acknowledge Your Successes

Let's end with #8:

This is Rueben. Reuben was an AARF dog in 2006 (he was named Max when he was with us). He had been neglected by his owners, and was in awful shape. He was living on a 2 foot chain connected to a fence, and was fed regularly by an AARF volunteer. Eventually, she convinced the owners to "sell" Max to her for $50. He then spent the next several weeks undergoing heartworm treatment and learning to trust people and other dogs, as he had no reason to trust either until then.

Here's what his new mom has to say: His name, now Rueben, has been quite the lover in our family! He also has his own Dogbook page on Facebook. He graduated last year from his beginners and intermediate levels of obedience training and is amazing and super smart! He loves to be around people and loves pets, belly rubs, and a good walk. His favorite spots are the Silver Comet Trail, Chatahoochee Park, and there is a Polo Horse Park near our house where he goes and runs with all the horses. Although he doesn't smell too good when he comes home. I wanted to attach a picture of him from his birthday (Adoption Day Oct. 27th, 2008) to share with all your staff as he is an awesome advocate of AARF and we love what you do with other pets!

I encourage all of you to try steps 1-8 this week. You are engaged, if only because you are reading this blog. We need all of you to stay engaged. We need all of you to make a change. They, the dogs and cats we want so desperately to save, need us all. And they need us refreshed. Rest, and recover from fatigue this week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Commitment and Inconvenience

One of our dogs got out of our fence at 6:00 this morning. Luckily, I was standing at the door to the backyard and heard her escape. (It was too dark to SEE her escape.) I grabbed a leash and immediately ran out the front door. My first impulse was to run after her, screaming. In most times of panic and crisis, our first instincts are the exact wrong thing to do. Even though she has not been trained consistently enough to have a good instinct to "come," I have been trained well enough lately to resist the urge to run through the neighborhood, chasing her and screaming like a crazy woman. I did all of the things that I have learned in our recent training seminars - AND THEY WORKED!

I can't tell you how often I hear excuses from people about why they can't train their dogs. Most who think off training want to send their dog off to "boot camp" for a few weeks, and let someone else do all of the work. (Read this article about why dog "boot camps" don't work.) And 90% of the time, dogs end up in shelters or rescue groups, abandoned on the streets, or euthanized, as a result of very trainable, treatable behaviors. These same people who didn't have enough time or energy to train their dogs get so angry at us when we won't take over the responsibility for the problems they failed to address in the first place. If my dog this morning had been permanently lost, had been injured or had been hit by a car, it would have been my fault, not hers, for not making the commitment to her training. If I had taken the time to perfect the "come" command BEFORE the crisis occurred, the whole experience might have been quicker and less scary for me (of course, she wasn't scared - she was having fun).

Having a pet requires a commitment. Pets are not really active toys or animated stuffed animals. We can't just fill up the food and water bowls and throw a few toys out, and expect that our dog will just "get it" and turn into that vision of a perfect family dog that we imagine in our heads. We can't just put a scratching pad on the floor and a litter box in the bathroom and expect to have a cat who immediately "knows" the rules of the house. When we adopt a dog or cat, we aren't just making a commitment to a certain amount of time, but we are promising that dog or cat, and ourselves, to provide the best possible life for our new companion, and that includes training, even when it's inconvenient. ESPECIALLY WHEN IT'S INCONVENIENT.

For training resources, visit:

AARF's Polite Pups Seminars
Association of Pet Dog Trainers
K9U Training and Behavior Modification
Paws-A-Tive Results Dog Training

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Good Days for Six AARF Pets!

It's been a few good days for some of the AARF pets! We have added three new kittens - Natalie, Norah and Chloe. This is a picture of Chloe, looking glamorous. I think there is nothing like the antics of a young kitten to make you smile and just feel good about life. I never, for one second, forget the enormity of the problem we are facing. But when I see the absolute joy that these kittens have for life, I am reminded why it is we do what we do. These little lives are so precious, and we do make a difference. We all make a difference, in whatever ways we are involved.

We also had a few adoptions this weekend. Our sweet Lily, who has been through so much since she joined AARF, finally found her forever home. From what we hear, she has already settled in as the center of attention with her new mom and dad. And two cats have moved in with their new families. Jane has joined a family with her new people and some kitty siblings. Her new home planned on spending the first night with Jane in the guest room, just to help her settle in. And Mr. Buddy, who has been waiting for almost 9 months for a new home, has joined the family of a previous AARF cat, Pearl. We hope that Pearl and Buddy hit it off - we love multiple AARFers!

Despite the frustration that often comes with all of the bad news and obstacles, we have small victories along the way. Chloe, Norah, Natalie, Lily, Jane and Buddy are six of the those victories.

Monday, September 8, 2008

creating a world where every pet matters

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we will never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. -- Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

I just finished reading a book about the connections among animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and humane education. The author, Frank Ascione, uses the quote from Beston above to introduce the emotional connections between children and animals before launching into the multitude of studies that explore these interconnected links of violence.

I finished this book on a weekend full of events and stories that reinforce Beston's claim of our errors in our perceptions of animals. Many of you are aware of, and are actively voicing your opinions about, the political tug-of-war regarding the veterinary contract at DeKalb County Animal Services. For some involved in the decision-making process, the animals are nothing but a footnote in the negotiations. Their care and well-being are of little concern when profit and convenience are considered. Others in the process, especially the DeKalb County Commissioners, are trying to put the animals in the shelter first, and are facing staunch resistance from those that fall into the errors that Benton talks about. As we struggle to create a world where every pet matters, including those homeless pets in the shelters, we must ask that our leaders lead the way rather than simply drag them along, literally and figuratively kicking and screaming. We teach our children to be kind to animals. Why don't we expect, even demand, at least as much from those we choose to lead us.?

I am also struck by the multiple news reports and articles touting Sarah Palin's love of hunting, and her great prowess at the sport.
My comments aren't an endorsement or critique of any particular candidate, but rather, a critique of our fascination with the art of killing. Regardless of our politics, party affiliation or candidate of choice, I think we, as a community of animal advocates, need to be concerned that we live in a society where expertise at killing animals is considered a qualification to lead our country. Now, I am not saying that hunting is and of itself is morally wrong. Many hunters actually eat what they kill, and have respect the animals and the environment in process. But I am so troubled by a media frenzy over Palin's hunting ability, implying that somehow her ability to kill a moose makes her a good back-up for commander-in-chief. The hunted animals in the stories are not considered conscious, sentient beings. Rather, they are simply props in the pictures; their deaths are proof of Palin's "toughness," her readiness to lead us. I would be much more moved by a picture of one of our candidates mourning the loss of a beloved pet than the pictures of a candidate proudly standing over a bloody, dead moose.

Animals are not props in our lives. Nor are they lesser beings at our whim and disposal. They are legitimate cohabitants in our space. And we have created a world where most pets, most animals, don't matter as much as money, convenience and property. We cannot be surprised when we read about stories of children who torture stray kittens or of soldiers who throw puppies off cliffs. We have taught them to do it, and we have taught them well.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Douglas and Amelia

Yesterday brought a mix of news. Douglas, our newest addition to the AARF family, is learning to live again. His foster mom emailed that she finally saw him wag his tail a few times. I wonder how long it's been since he was happy enough to wag his tail. I love to watch and hear about the transformations that happen with each new pet that we save. I have such high hopes that Douglas will start to relish life again, and will soon be ready to bring that special joy that only a pet can bring to a lucky new family.

The good news about Douglas was followed by more troubling news about Amelia, one of our Silver Paws dogs. She has been fighting an infection for a few weeks, and her vets are concerned it's something more serious. You can read more about the surgery and contribute toward the costs below.

I am proud of all of the programs that AARF has, but if I was forced to pick a favorite program, I would have to pick the Silver Paws Program. My heart breaks for the senior pets at shelters. Most of the time, it seems like they just already know they don't have a chance to getting out of there alive. Often, when we meet them at the shelters, they seem to have already given up on life. But almost instantly, they seem to come alive again once they are out of the shelter and in a new home. The love and companionship that both the Silver Paws pets and the Silver Paws fosters get from each other is so clear and so visible. I don't cry often anymore over what we do and how we do it. But EVERY time we are able to save a senior pet through our Silver Paws Program, I get choked up. Reading the updates that we receive from the Silver Paws fosters reminds me why we do what we do. I hope you will all take some time to look at the stories on our Silver Paws page. They will give you some hope for the day.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Meet Douglas!

This is Douglas, our first new addition to AARF's rescue/adoption program since we lifted our freeze. Like every pet that comes to AARF, Douglas has a story...

Douglas and his canine sibling were turned in by their owners to Paulding County Animal Control. The reason - they were moving. This is one of the most common reasons why people give up their pets, and, one of the most difficult reasons to understand. Rarely does anyone decide on a Tuesday to move, pack up on Wednesday, and drive way on Thursday. Usually, there are months, or at least weeks, of planning. And often, people just don't include their pets as part of the planning. I understand that sometimes circumstances do require that moves happen quickly and pets can't be included, but those situations are rare, and definitely not the case with Douglas.

Anyway, he and his canine sibling were dropped off to face the uncertain future of a pet at animal control. Many of the shelters are so full right now that owner surrenders are often euthanized on the same day. Fortunately, for Douglas, he was given a short reprieve at the shelter, which is staffed with incredibly caring and dedicated folks. Douglas' owners told indicated on the shelter paperwork that he was heartworm positive and they had known about it since November 2007 and had done nothing to treat it. I don't know how the shelter workers keep their cool in situations like this - it would be hard not to just lose my temper on a daily basis.

Douglas' sibling was adopted within a few days after someone read a post about them on Craig's List. But, since Douglas was heartworm positive, no one came for him. The shelter volunteers reported that he just sat in his kennel and cried when his companion left. I wonder if his owners think about what he went through - losing the only home he's known, entering a shelter with a companion, only to lose her and be left alone, struggling with a preventable illness and the inevitable fear he must have felt. Do you think it keeps them awake at night, thinking about Douglas?

Douglas' story touched one of our volunteers who has experience helping dogs recover from heartworm treatment. Douglas began his heartworm treatment on 9/2, and has a long recovery ahead. We know he has been heartworm positive for at least a year, and probably even longer. But his body will be easier to heal than his spirit. Douglas' foster mom tells us that he is a very sad boy, showing no real engagement with the life that is going on around him. But, he does want to be with his new foster family, and that's a good sign. He is in a loving foster family, and they will work as hard to heal his soul as they do to heal his body.

Do his previous owners think about him? I think about them.

Douglas' wish list: a new dog bed, soft toys, chew toys, flea medication. To support Douglas in his physical and mental recovery, stop by one of our favorite pet supply stores (Park Pet Supply and Mom and Pups) to get something from his wish list or visit our donate page.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rescue/Adoption Program Relaunch

Yesterday was the first official day of our rescue/adoption program relaunch. Because of increasing costs and severely declining donations and fundraising, we had to suspend our animal intake in May. Deciding to stop rescuing animals was the hardest decision I ever had to make as a director, but we literally had no other choice. In order for our organization to survive, we had to stop our finances from spinning out of control.

Throughout the summer, I forced myself to look at every email that I received from area shelters with pictures of pets on their euthanasia lists. I knew we couldn't do anything to save them, and I often teared up by the end of each email. But, although we had placed a freeze on our intake, I did not want to allow myself to pretend that the dying ended during our freeze. From May 16 to September 1, our rescue and adoption program was on hold. During that time, over 23,000 animals died in metro area shelters.

I have no illusions that we can save anywhere near that number. But every one of those lives matters. Every one of those dogs and cats could feel pain and fear at the end of their lives. And every one of them could also feel the compassion of the hands that held them for a humane death at one of the shelters that actually euthanizes in a humane way.

I often wonder how we created a society where we claim to be the most advanced beings on the planet, yet we routinely kill each other and kill other sentient beings. I know of no other species that routinely engages in genocide against its own species or another species just for the sake of greed, irresponsibility or convenience. And the rest of us just turn our heads and pretend not to see.