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When the Wick is Short

Many years ago, I attended an HSUS workshop on burnout presented by Bill Hurt Smith, the director of The HSUS’s now defunct animal control academy. The workshop was called “Burning Bright without Burning Out.” I was still working on a relatively “long wick” at the time, so I listened attentively but probably not as intensively as I should have. Bill was giving great suggestions on how to work in our field without carrying the burden of all the stories with unhappily-ever-after endings throughout the day. I was still young and fresh at the time and didn’t think I really needed the advice. Ah, the advantages of being a new, long candle. We think we’ll burn bright forever.

My wick is shorter than it was when I attended that workshop. And in the years since that talk, I have witnessed many of our colleagues, even some who are still relatively young or new to the animal protection field, burn out. Some go in a flash: a quick or irrational decision or an error in judgment leads to a terrible mistake being made, resulting in headlines in the paper and on TV and then a resignation or termination. Others flicker and sputter, their light dimming and growing smaller until both they and their agency become almost invisible within the community.

Yet just as many of our colleagues, some who have been in this line of work longer than I...and yes, there are some of those...are still burning bright. Not only are sparks of new ideas for solving old challenges emerging from these old-timers, they seem to also be fueled by the energy and ideas of others. They help to fuel the fires of those who may have become discouraged by challenging them to come up with innovative new ideas. Or they help to temper the impatience of newcomers who often think we longtoothed folk have done nothing to help animals—by giving them the opportunity to visit a shelter in a remote or low-income area and see the enormous progress that elbow grease has brought about.

Burnout in our field is an enormous problem. Without innovative programs and strategies, we can find our shelter short- or poorly staffed with untrained or unmotivated individuals. Burnout can even happen to volunteers, board members, and donors. When all these individuals hear from your agency is bad news—the puppy who was burned to death, the disaster that left hundreds of animals homeless, the lack of funding to start a new program—you risk depleting caring individuals’ fuel tanks.

In this issue of Animal Sheltering, we asked our National Companion Animals Advisory Group to weigh in on what they do to prevent burnout among their staff. I think you’ll find some really fun and innovative ways to keep staff feeling engaged, motivated, and supported in their work.

I have a few ideas on how to lengthen my own wick so I can continue to burn. Let’s see...there’s the two-month sabbatical in Mala Mala Game Preserve in South Africa. (No one has offered to fund this yet!) Or there’s the six-week course at a culinary school to master cooking low-calorie but delicious meals. A month at a fat farm? But seriously, I have decided that one way I can reduce my potential for burnout is to learn to use a simple two-letter word, a simple word that every child knows but that often seems like a foreign language to us insanely busy adults: NO! Thank you, but no!

So this is my last regular column for Animal Sheltering. With the coming redesigned January/February issue, you’ll see bright new ideas and many great changes. And don’t think you’ve heard the last of me! Southerners love to run off at the mouth and always—always—have an opinion they are willing to share. Between my occasional ramblings, you’ll hear from other HSUS staffers about the work they and so many other brightly burning candles of our field are doing. I’ll be refueling.

Martha C. Armstrong
HSUS Senior Vice President for
Companion Animals and Equine Protection


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