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Check yourself before you wreck yourself (and your work)

At 2015's Animal Care Expo, shelter directors went in for therapy—for a purpose

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2015

Stephanie Shain of Washington Humane Society unburdens her soul to “analyst” Jason Schipkowski at a special session of Animal Care Expo in New Orleans.We’re still an enforcement agency, said Todd Stosuy, explaining his agency’s more people-friendly approach. “We do throw people in jail—but not very frequently because we’ve learned a different way of working with our community.”If he were to tell the assembled crowd all pit bulls are bad, said Carmine DiCenso, he probably wouldn’t leave the room alive. But if he said “people just stink,” he’d likely get high-fives and fist-bumps.

Mama said there’ll be days like this, warned the Shirelles. And for those in animal welfare, those days can seem endless, settling in your gut to make a seething ball of anxiety and Bad Stuff, brought on by the abusers and neglecters who’ve made your work so difficult, so relentless and so necessary.

When you have enough of those days, and you’re surrounded by people who are equally disgusted and all too willing to reinforce your feelings, you aren’t that great to be around. You’re impatient with your spouse. You may snap at your kids. You even catch yourself dragging the dog on his walk—“hurry up, hurry UP dammit, I have to get back and help the animals.” (Irony alert.)

You hope your kids aren’t texting their friends about your bad moments. You hope your partner knows you well enough to know that’s not the real you. And you really hope your neighbor, who knows where you work and thinks you’re a hero, isn’t watching you drag your poor schnauzer away from his favorite patch of azaleas.

You are only human, and your experiences can impact your judgment and behavior. Like the moment you see, coming through the front door of the shelter, a woman with three squirming kids in tow, one of whom will not stop punching her sister, and the woman says the kids will not stop bugging her about a rabbit and no, they don’t have their landlord’s permission, because “are you kidding? Permission? For a rabbit?

It’s moments like this—when you fill your lungs to respond with an insulting dismissal that will be epically satisfying to utter—when you wish you could afford a therapist. Someone who might sympathize with you, hear about your struggles and then gently point out that, as rough as your week has been, maybe the woman in front of you (who appears to have both twigs and a clump of Nutella in her hair) may actually be having a worse one.

Some time on the couch with a kind (if not exactly credentialed) therapist was exactly what Carmine DiCenso, Stephanie Shain and Todd Stosuy got at Animal Care Expo in April. In a thought-provoking session called “The Human Animal” (which featured patient-therapist skits), the three shared stories of their own past experiences with “shrink” Jason Schipkowski before addressing the crowd to delve into their own struggles with judgment as a means of getting people in the field to look more closely at themselves.

DiCenso, executive director of the Providence Animal Rescue League in Rhode Island, kicked it off, leaning back on the couch to describe a typical scenario: a long, hard day at the shelter, lots of cleaning, he was tired.

“Sounds like a pretty routine day, from what you’ve told me about your job,” therapist Schipkowski (actually a mentorship and training coordinator with The HSUS Pets for Life program) offered.

“Look, nothing’s routine about shelters,” DiCenso said, affecting a snap that everyone in the field has probably heard in their own voices when talking to uncomprehending friends and family about the difficulties of the job.

DiCenso went on to explain what had him riled up: A man had come in to adopt a cat, but after 15 minutes, he wanted to take out a big mastiff mix instead. DiCenso let him—“and he couldn’t even control the dog. It was pulling him everywhere, just out of control. So we go inside and he says he wants to adopt the dog and I’m like, ‘Look, I thought you were here for a cat, I’m really confused.’ He got loud, I got loud, it kind of got ugly … and he left.”

“So,” asked Doc Schipkowski, “is there any way you might have handled the situation differently? … I mean the guy was there at the shelter, he was ready to adopt, his intentions must have been good, right? It seems like a missed opportunity for you, the guy and the pet.”

DiCenso took over at this point, breaking the illusion of the therapy couch to explain how he regretted that true moment from earlier in his career, and how he’d come into the field hoping to help both people and animals. “Can we show people the same level of compassion, care and professionalism that we show animals?” he asked the crowd. “And what would animal welfare look like if we take that approach?”

He wanted to make it clear: “We’re not talking about customer service,” he said. Being polite, smiling at people, these things are the basics—they should be a given. What we’re talking about, he said, is challenging a part of the animal welfare movement that is anti-people.

Pointing to the prevalence of the “I like animals a whole lot better than I like people” statements common in the field, the negative tone in many social media posts and the general misanthropy that sometimes permeates our work culture, he made a startling comparison: “If I were to say a statement like ‘Hey, that pit bull bit someone, so that means all pit bulls are bad,’ I probably would not leave this room alive.” And yet, he said, if he told you about someone who surrendered their 8-year-old cat and said, you know, people just stink, “you’d probably fist-bump me on my way out of the room.”

If we so easily roll out with negative thoughts about people, he asked, does it affect how we treat them? Reflecting on his real encounter with the adopter who switched from cat to mastiff, he pointed out how his stress affected that encounter, and how he needed to develop coping skills that would have enabled him to handle such a moment differently.

Asking the crowd to join him in repeating the mantra, “People are good,” DiCenso initially didn’t get the full-throated response he wanted to hear. The next slide he showed, though, provided a real point of reflection: A quote from Anne Frank, the young girl who hid in an attic for years before dying in a concentration camp, and yet wrote in her diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

“I know that everyone in this room has seen bad things that people do. We’ve all experienced it. Those few things cannot shape the way we feel about people as a whole,” DiCenso argued.

Next on the couch was Stephanie Shain, chief operating officer of Washington Humane Society (WHS) in D.C., doing her best impression of a Very Angry Shelter Person. Shain described to Schipkowski her anger at people who surrender animals. “Today we have this family come in and they have a cat and her leg is broken. And they’re bringing the cat in because they can’t afford to fix the leg. And, I mean, why get a cat if you can’t afford to take care of it? … So they come in with their kids, four freaking kids—maybe if they stopped having so many kids, they could pay their vet bill?”

At least, Shain concludes, she got it together enough to educate them about what it means to be a responsible pet owner, so maybe those kids will know better in the future. “And then right before I left, this guy [comes in] who wants to reclaim an animal he’d already given up. … Who leaves their dog in a shelter for a week?”

“What did he say when you asked him about all that?” asked the doctor.

“I didn’t ask! He went on to throw a hissy fit in the lobby, and no way am I sending a dog home with that kind of temper, and now I know why his wife is leaving him.”

“Did you consider approaching the situation more gently?” the faux therapist asked. Maybe giving up the animal was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. “I just wonder what it’s like to be in their shoes tonight.”

Shain went on to reveal to the audience that Very Angry Shelter Person was her, 25 years earlier. She asked the audience to recollect a time when they felt judged by someone, and to recall the physical sensation of shame and embarrassment. “Think about the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Were you at your best? Communicating clearly? Listening well?”

Shain pinpointed one of the great paradoxes of shelter work, talking about how many shelters—WHS included—promote themselves as places of hope and welcome. She read from an old WHS brochure about how the shelter “has provided kindness, love, warmth, help, protection, humane guidance and education in every part of the city.”

“Longer than I’ve been alive, we’ve been telling people ‘We’re amazing!’—and then we’re mad when they show up and ask for help.”

Our policies should reflect us at our best, she said—when we’re most happy and refreshed and dealing with people from that space.

“I’m driving around and I see this dog with a chain around its neck. … Why does someone get a pet that they put in the backyard, leave it alone, and they don’t care for it? I just knew I had to get that pet to the shelter.”

That was Todd Stosuy on the couch, describing his former approach to animal control work, in which his department would usually issue a citation or seize an animal rather than trying to figure out how they might best improve the situation for the person and pet involved.

When he took the podium, Stosuy—now field services manager with the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter—explained the new way: “We are a law enforcement agency, we do arrest people, we do throw people in jail—but not very frequently because we’ve learned a different way of working with our community.”

It took a long time for animal control to leave its “dogcatcher past” behind and be treated as real law enforcement, Stosuy explained; this community-minded approach is not a retreat, but a way forward.

Animal control officers are on the street everywhere, and “we really can make positive shifts in our communities by providing information and a different approach.” That means something other than issuing endless citations, notices to comply and seizing and impounding.

Once upon a time, he said, ACOs would see a dog running “and we grab it and take it.” But that’s shifted—now they’re more focused on trying to get those animals home. If they can return the animal to his home, they can do a fence-check and figure out a permanent solution.

“The problem with citations is they don’t fix the problem,” Stosuy said. “I give the person a citation for not having a doghouse, they still don’t have a doghouse. … And the biggest problem when you start handing out citations everywhere is you have a giant mistrust of the animal shelter.” All your other services will be ignored because the community has come to think of your officers only as enforcers.

At the end of the session, Schipkowski took off his therapist hat and took the podium to tell a heartbreaking story of how a series of judgments and mishandlings led to the loss of a beloved pet who was truly cherished by her people—an example of “why we always need to lead with empathy first.”

His story was about Cliff, a man who was visited by a utility worker who had arrived to shut off his power. While there, the utility worker went into the backyard and found Jewel, Cliff’s dog, barking at him. He threatened to kick her, and Cliff threatened him back.

The conflict escalated, and the police were called. The way the situation disintegrated, and the heavy-handed approach that was taken, led to the dog’s seizure and euthanasia. And as it turned out, the entire situation was an error: The utility worker had been at the wrong address.

Cliff, it turned out, had a medical disability, and the dog had been his rock and support throughout his recovery. He told Schipkowski later that he was so brokenhearted because Jewel had saved him, but he couldn’t save her.

These are the moments, the snap judgments, that we have to work to avoid—when anger or fear gets the advantage of people in power and leads to terrible outcomes. “This really could have been avoided if the situation had been handled with empathy, with humanity, patience, compassion … ” said Schipkowski. “We have the opportunity, our field, to really shine a light on this, to lead with the innate compassion we have for animals and transfer that to people as well.”

These anecdotes capture only a small part of this fascinating presentation. Watch the full session of “The Human Animal.”

About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?