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A Good Man in a Hard Job

A career spent ensuring softer departures for animals, and helping animal welfare workers cope

After 40 years of teaching humane euthanasia, Douglas Fakkema is retiring from that part of his work. Mike Buscher/For The HSUS

by Carrie Allan

In 1971, the U.S. was still reeling from the Vietnam War and the shock of the material leaked in the Pentagon Papers. Janis Joplin was on the radio singing about Bobby McGee, and Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal were giving people terrible relationship advice—“love means never having to say you’re sorry”—in Love Story.

And in September of that year, Douglas Fakkema—having been granted conscientious objector status that meant he wouldn’t serve in Vietnam—walked into an animal shelter in the Pacific Northwest to fulfill his two-year alternative service requirement. He’d recently graduated from San Jose State with a degree in radio, television and film. And while a cousin of his later traced the family’s history all the way back to 1680 at one point and found that lots of family members had been involved with animal work in one way or another—“maybe I had a genetic predisposition,” he says—at the time Fakkema just knew that his own interest in animals ran pretty deep.

“I’ve always had a passionate connection with animals: I notice them, I pay attention to them, they mean something to me,” he says. “That was pretty obvious to me, so working at a humane society I thought would just be a perfect job, kissing puppies and hugging kittens all day.”

The honeymoon didn’t last long.

On his first day at the job, Fakkema showed up at 8 a.m., and the very first minute he was there, a shelter employee named Bob greeted him and told Fakkema to come with him. “So I followed him, we put a leash on a dog, and I walked behind him with this beautiful dog on a leash and went into this back room,” he recalls. “I didn’t get a tour, there was no orientation, there was no training. They had me pick this dog up and put the dog into this cage on wheels. So I did that, I shoved the cage into this weird-looking machine, and closed the door, latched it and hit a green button.”

That weird-looking machine was a decompression chamber, a means of euthanasia still widely in use at the beginning of the ’70s. It has long since been banned; in the 2007 edition of its euthanasia guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) notes several reasons: many chambers were designed to work at a much faster rate “than that recommended as optimum for animals, resulting in pain and distress attributable to expanding gases trapped in body cavities” and “Bleeding, vomiting, convulsions, urination, and defecation, which are aesthetically unpleasant, may develop in unconscious animals.”

None of that information about the chamber was understood at the time, and due to the huge intake numbers—that shelter alone was taking in around 35,000 annually—staff were killing dozens of animals with it every day.

Whatever Fakkema thought or felt about his first on-the-job task, he didn’t get much time to process it. “There was a 30-minute delay until the machine was done,” he recalls. “So Bob said ‘Follow me,’ and started me on cleaning kennels.”

A Long Arc of Change

That was 40-odd years ago, and over the decades since, Doug Fakkema has worked to ensure that the animals killed in shelters are given a better death than those he witnessed in his early days in the field. He worked in shelters until the 1990s—including stints as an executive director in Corvallis, Ore., and Santa Cruz, Calif.—but around the country, what most people know him for is a career of teaching other people about euthanasia and compassion fatigue.

He put together one of the first training workshops on euthanasia by injection (EBI), and has conducted it all over the world, racking up millions of miles flying to Latin America, the Middle East and countless cities all over the U.S. He’s helped write and revise several editions of The HSUS’s Euthanasia Reference Manual. While the field as a whole has largely focused on getting euthanasia numbers down, Fakkema has taken on the difficult burden of helping to ensure that when euthanasia has to be performed, shelter technicians have the training and resources to do it in a way that merits the Greek roots of the word—eu, meaning good, and thanatos, death.

It’s difficult to convey to those new to the animal welfare field—and those who’ve grown up in the age of the Internet—how isolated and lacking in resources shelter work could be in 1971. Spay/neuter was not yet widely known or practiced by the public; huge numbers of animals were left to breed, and as a result, some 20 million animals were dying in shelters every year, many in decompression or carbon monoxide chambers.

  • Fakkema has conducted workshops all over the world, helping animal welfare workers cope with the stresses of their jobs. Mike Buscher/For The HSUS

At that shelter, “we were averaging over 90 animals a day,” says Fakkema. “It’s hard to relate to 90 a day until you’ve actually seen it.”

At the time, there were no available books on shelter medicine, no educational websites where a few quick keystrokes would bring up good information about disease control or dog behavior or how to convert your shelter to more humane euthanasia methods. There was no Animal Care Expo bringing people together to learn from experts the best and most effective and humane ways to do their jobs. Shelter Sense, the newsletter that would eventually evolve into Animal Sheltering magazine, didn’t exist until 1978. The National Animal Control Association wouldn’t form for another five years.

Fakkema did that first shelter job for nine months—cleaning kennels, euthanizing animals, stuffing away his feelings about the decompression chamber. But when he was hired as the executive director of another Oregon shelter, he found out about EBI from a veterinarian on the board of the new shelter. It quickly became clear to him that this method was a huge improvement for both animals and people.

His conviction about the more humane nature of EBI and his unease about the chamber went against the conventional thinking of the era. It’s hard to believe now, he says, but “there was this bedrock belief that those chamber methods were better, not only for the person putting the animal in but also for the animal.”

Plotting a Course

Fakkema started doing EBI at his new shelter, but he wanted to help others move away from outdated methods as well. Still, given the general thinking that chamber methods were easier and cheaper, how could he convince people to take a different road?

There was no training available to do euthanasia a different way. The only training Fakkema himself ever got was from that veterinarian, who took half an hour to explain the process. Still, he says, “I didn’t know anything about the drug. I didn’t even know the name of the drug, so for the next two years I did a huge amount of self-study. I spent a whole bunch of time finding out what the drug was—and this is the days before Internet so I just had to ask people, call people, look it up in encyclopedias, talked to a lot of veterinarians about it.”

Eventually, Fakkema and a veterinarian friend put together a two-day course to teach people how to do euthanasia by injection properly and gently. It was one of the first in the country. He and other advocates worked to get a law passed to require those who would be performing EBI to get certified; Oregon was one of the first states in the country to require that certification for euthanasia technicians.

Gradually, word began to get out, and Fakkema began getting calls and requests for help from other shelters that wanted to make the switch.

For those in the field at the time, his help was often critical. It was through one of those calls back in the 1970s that Fakkema first became friends with Rick Johnson, now CEO of the Sacramento SPCA. At the time, Johnson was at another Oregon shelter, and was looking for guidance about how it might transition away from the chamber and get staff trained in euthanasia by injection.

These days, Johnson says, “all kinds of materials are readily available now, whereas then you had to wait for days for them to arrive by mail, if you could even find someone who had materials that could help.” Fakkema’s advice, he says, helped hugely.

Penny Cistaro, now the executive director of the Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii, had already been performing EBI for eight years when she took Fakkema’s workshop in 1983. Her official “training” up till that point had been much like Fakkema’s: “I was literally shown ‘Here’s how you stick a needle in the vein, and here’s how you hit the heart.’ And that’s all I was shown."

She had been teaching others to do it, but until taking Fakkema’s class, she didn’t always have the full information to explain to staff what was going on with the animal, an element she says he was able to bring to the table.

“Doug explained the anatomy side, the physiology side, what the animal was going through,” Cistaro says. “What he was able to do in his workshops was answer the questions everyone had and explain why the animal wasn’t experiencing pain. I’d been doing it for eight years and never had that training.”

Understanding the Human Element

With all the changes that Fakkema was able to inspire, all the education he was able to provide, much of his work still boiled down to killing animals. That work has taken a toll over the years.

The term “compassion fatigue” was still in its infancy in Fakkema’s early years in the field, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that people began to apply the term to those in animal welfare. By that time, Fakkema was feeling pretty worn out and was exhibiting—he now realizes—many of the characteristics and symptoms of compassion fatigue. He thought he was going crazy at first, but once he started hearing about the new research on compassion fatigue and recognized it in himself, he began dealing with his stress and grief—which, he says, came not only from euthanizing thousands of animals, but also the leftover, unprocessed trauma of using the decompression chamber.

“There’s an old line: If the treatment works, you probably have the disease. I started taking better care of myself, started doing the kind of treatments recommended for compassion fatigue, and I started to feel better.” That doesn’t mean, he notes, that it doesn't always hurt to euthanize an animal—but that pain can be handled better when technicians know how to take care of themselves physically and emotionally.

He stopped working directly for shelters in the 1990s, and began serving as a consultant, continuing to travel to teach workshops on compassion fatigue and self-care along with EBI. His essay on “The Four Phases” that animal welfare advocates go through when they get into the field was widely read and circulated among people who recognized themselves in its descriptions of initial "We can change the world" enthusiasm souring into depression and anger.

Fakkema, Cistaro says, was instrumental in keeping her on her own career course. Shelter staff often feel enormous guilt about their work and take lots of criticism from the public about it, she notes. “It’s not right in society that animals have to die in shelters. But it’s not the shelter employee that’s the root of the problem. And it’s getting them to a point where they can accept their role and the choices that they can make. And through compassion fatigue classes and even the euthanasia workshop itself, Doug has the ability to connect with the staff in a way that, unless you’ve been in the euthanasia room, you can’t connect.”

It’s partly that kind of feedback that has kept him in the field. “Just yesterday someone emailed me that she’d taken the class 12 years ago, and it had made a huge difference in her life,” Fakkema says. “I hear from people who I taught 20, 25 years ago who are still in the business who say that without that training they would not have stuck it out and still be helping animals.”

In the compassion fatigue class he teaches, Fakkema says, one of the quotes they talk about is something supposedly said by Abraham Lincoln: Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. “And so I make up my mind to be happy.”

Work Left to Do

While the past 40 years have seen astounding progress in reducing the number of animals euthanized across the country, even now, the arguments about euthanasia methods aren’t over. Decompression chambers have disappeared and, one by one, most states have phased out the carbon monoxide chamber. But there are pockets of the country where the debate is still going on.

The HSUS and many other animal welfare advocates have been fighting to ban the gas chamber. The AVMA has a 14-point checklist for evaluating methods of euthanasia for their overall humaneness, safety and efficacy, and of all possible methods, EBI—when done correctly—meets the greatest number of those criteria, says Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for The HSUS.

Part of what’s kept the debate alive, says Fricke, is that question of training. Recent news about some agencies that have been performing EBI incorrectly—doing heart-sticks on conscious animals, for example—have been picked up by opponents as a way to argue that carbon monoxide chambers are a better option.

  • Back home in Charleston, S.C., Fakkema and his dog Casey enjoy some much-deserved R & R. Richard Ellis/For The HSUS

“The fact is that EBI is, just like anything else, a tool … it’s about how the tool is applied and implemented,” says Fricke. “Even though it’s the best method we have and the most humane alternative, it’s critically dependent on the individuals who are using it.” Without people doing that difficult work to ensure widespread training on how to perform EBI correctly, some agencies may try to slide back into less humane but technically “easier” methods. “And that’s where Doug has played such a vital role in this field—because he’s trained people right,” says Fricke.

In September 2013, after training thousands of people over the past decades, Fakkema finally retired from teaching euthanasia by injection.

He’ll still teach some of his other workshops, but with EBI, he says, “I’ve had enough,” he says. “I have a tendency to measure my own level of compassion fatigue, and it was starting to go through the roof.”

He felt certain that he had euthanized his last animal.

As it happened, though, there ended up being one more animal who needed his help to go out gently, and one more human trainee he was able to help along the way. It happened while he was monitoring a student so she could get certified, and she ran into trouble finding a vein in an obese, sickly cat.

“That was the reason the cat was being euthanized,” he says, noting with gratitude and amazement how far the field has come from the days when scores of healthy adoptable pets were euthanized simply for space. “And she asked me if I could glove in, and in I went. And it went just fine.”

The death of that cat was peaceful, 40 years and a career away from that first traumatic day on the job back in Oregon. He still thinks about the cat, remembering her as clearly and distinctly as that first dog all those years ago. “It was a big old brownish cat,” he says, his voice warming in remembrance. “And that was the last one.”

We look forward to the years ahead, when more of those who’ve carried this burden will be able to say the same.

Read Fakkema’s essay on the four phases of animal protection work.


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