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When Compassion Is in Crisis

A psychologist and a counselor pair up to offer a traveling workshop that addresses the phenomenon of compassion fatigue and burnout

A psychologist and a counselor pair up to offer a traveling workshop that addresses the phenomenon of compassion fatigue and burnout

Psychologist Carol Brothers, PhD, had always wanted to meld her life’s work with her love of animals. She had already trained her own beloved pets as four-legged psychotherapists, recruiting them to flash their puppy-dog eyes at the patients in her private practice and to be volunteer tail-waggers at a home for drug-addicted moms and their children.

But as a longtime supporter of animal shelters who had spent some time walking shelter dogs, Brothers wanted to lend her knowledge and skills more directly to the animal welfare community.

After meeting well-known dog trainer and shelter operator Sue Sternberg, the psychologist decided to attend a three-day animal behavior and assessment workshop at Sternberg’s Rondout Valley Kennels and Animals for Adoption in Accord, New York. It was during those sessions that Brothers had the idea to develop a workshop of her own—one designed not for the animals but for the people who care for them.

“I really love animals and I really love people, and I really hadn’t been sure what I wanted to do with all of that,” Brothers says. “So I went and learned ... and as I sat there during the three days, what became so apparent was all the pain in the room.”

While watching Sternberg train her sheltering colleagues in everything from creature comforts to temperament testing, Brothers was struck by how many people who had appeared hardened and tough at the beginning began to break down during difficult moments in the training. She spoke to Sternberg and other sheltering professionals about their frustrations, and they enthusiastically supported her idea for a new kind of traveling workshop that helps people recover from compassion fatigue.

“The public at large has no idea what it is like for these folks who work day in and day out in these shelters and in animal control—no idea of the intensity of the experience, the helplessness and hopelessness at times, the literal flood of animals that just keep coming and coming,” Brothers says.

It’s a phenomenon that leads not only to tremendous pain but also to a high turnover rate among shelter personnel. “We lose a lot of good people in this field...because of the despair,” says Brothers.

But through the workshops, Brothers hopes to do her part to help change that. Developed in partnership with counselor Connie Toverud, the workshops aim to help animal protection personnel restore their hope and enthusiasm by providing a safe environment for them to address their feelings of anger, pain, and burnout.

Both women are experts in the areas of grief, loss, and trauma, and both have trained with the staff of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a world-renowned authority on the subject of death and dying. Brothers has been in private practice for 23 years, while Toverud, a former high school counselor, has led workshops domestically and internationally; she traveled to South Africa and also to Oklahoma City, where she counseled families of the victims of the federal-building bombing.

Even with their extensive backgrounds, however, Brothers and Toverud have found in their first few workshops that animal protection workers are “a tough group” because coping mechanisms to survive in the field so often involve a denial or burial of feelings, says Brothers. “Having this tough group all in one room is a challenge to facilitators,” she says. “However, to our delight, people really got very engaged and very involved and did what they needed to do. I’m talking about toughened folks, men and women who are animal control officers who were kind of swaggering when they came in, [thinking], ‘This is like really ridiculous, and I don’t want to be here.’ With very few exceptions, everyone got engaged and involved, but we had to prove ourselves. They had to know that we respected and honored their work.”

People who don’t actually perform euthanasia or choose animals for euthanasia tend to deny their pain out of a fear of upsetting those who are charged with the job, or out of a sense of guilt that makes them believe their sadness is less valid. But whether it’s euthanasia, irresponsible pet owners, cruelty, or some other equally devastating issue, the daily goings-on in an animal shelter affect everyone who works there, regardless of their jobs. The emotional roller-coaster ride can be overwhelming, with the excitement of placing a dog one day sometimes replaced by disillusionment when a new adopter brings an animal back 24 hours later.

“One thing that we try to teach...is that there’s no need to apologize,” Brothers says. “In our culture, we do it so much. ...The result is very often getting to the phase where we’re just in tremendous pain. A lot of times we feel tremendous anger at the public, sometimes even at animals. That’s compassion fatigue.”

Everyone burns out at one time or another, but recovery is possible, Brothers says. The compassion fatigue workshops are designed to help people on their way back to a balanced life not only by validating their feelings and dissolving their sense of isolation but also by helping them focus on all the wonderful aspects of their jobs. “[We want to help] identify what does work for you, what you can feel proud of—some of the truth and the hope and the way that workers in this field do make a substantial contribution to animals and also to humanity,” Brothers says.

Brothers and Toverud prefer to have no more than 20 people in each one-day session. The workshop is free to shelters that cannot afford to pay, and prices are negotiable for other shelters. The only requirements are reimbursement for the cost of transportation, an on-site lunch and snacks for the group, and the provision of a private, comfortable setting. Some shelters that have already signed up for the workshop have recouped their costs by charging attendees from shelters in neighboring communities.

It’s a break-even situation, not a money-making venture, says Brothers, who has reduced her private practice to three days a week so she can devote time to the compassion fatigue workshops. In the future, Brothers and Toverud hope to get grants so they can expand the program; a lawyer is helping them investigate how to attain nonprofit status. “This is really a work of our hearts,” she says. “It’s a way that we felt that we can be part of the animal love/animal recovery/animal care community.”

To learn more about the workshops or to request one in your area, contact Carol Brothers at 410-956-9560 (office), 410-987-5164 (home), or carol_ab@juno.com; or contact Connie Toverud at 919-929-5374 or connietoverud@mindspring.com.

 

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