Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.
The Reality of Welfare Work
My 'dream' job was to work with animals and make a difference. When I was offered a position at the regional SPCA, I didn't hesitate. However, I left two years later. I was broken, disillusioned and starkly aware of the fact that introverts may be the right people for the job, but that the job could destroy you if you don't walk in there with the right emotional armor.
The Trauma Level Is High
A long time ago, the idea of welfare work put stars into my eyes. It seemed like a good way to change the world and spend my time. Eventually, one mystery cleared up. I always wondered why, when there are billions of humans, does only a fraction of the population do any charitable work? The truth is that it's hard.
At one point you realize that you're not going to save the world. You're not going to change the thing you want to change. I was so naive, I thought I was going to find thousands of pets their forever homes. I was lucky when I made ten adoptions a month.
For this reason, those who stick to their passion anyway often suffer burnout. Some say that animal welfare causes PTSD on par with that of doctors, soldiers, and first responders. Few people take this statement seriously. No grenades are being lobbed at shelter staff. We don't lose a human being under the scalpel. We don't arrive in an ambulance at a violent scene and lose a gunshot victim despite our best efforts as a medic.
But as sensitive individuals and introverts, the trauma of animal welfare hits hard. The sickness, death, horrific abuse, euthanasia; they all cut a person to ribbons. The emotional destruction is very real and it's made worse by the fact that nobody outside of this field truly acknowledges the suffering of welfare workers.
1. Educate Yourself
Welfare work is a worthwhile endeavor. Never let the negative side of the business scare you off when this is your passion. You can do some reading beforehand to understand the reality of shelters, what effects the experience might have on your emotions and how to prepare for them.
2. Value Your Personal Lessons
Welfare work comes with opportunities for personal growth. You'll meet the side of yourself that can handle emergencies, comfort a creature and tend to wounds that you never thought you could. Enjoy learning the ropes of this new field. As an animal lover, it's exciting to turn capable and being able to help a pet in need.
3. Rescue a Pet
I turned into a serial adopter. By the time I fell in love with the sixth scruffy and brought her home, I had to stop. My garden was getting too small. The temptation to walk away with a basket full of puppies will cross your path as well. Adoption is not always possible and that's fine. It's already great when somebody volunteers their time and love. However, there is a lasting sense of achievement in knowing that you homed one or several pets yourself.
One of the dogs I adopted was a male collie mix. He's constantly by my side. I cannot imagine my life without his closeness and naughty brown eyes. PTSD, being what it is, brings a lot of guilt and regrets. There are things I wish I did better or didn't do at all, during my time in animal welfare. Seven years after I left the field, the scars and mistakes remain painful but just looking at the collie and the other dogs scattered around my furniture, they remind me that I did something right.
4. Consider Secondary Involvement
Secondary involvement is simply assisting a shelter without actually spending time there. Instead of volunteering to work in the office or kennels, you can donate financially or give products like food and blankets. Many volunteers also never set foot inside the shelter's property but excel at doing fundraising events. For those who cannot bear direct contact with the kennels, this is often the best way to help their charity.
5. Keep Your Mind at Home
When you go home, put the day behind you. Introverts often struggle with over-thinking, which could trigger worries or anxiety. Building a wall between one's involvement in welfare and the home isn't easy. This is a learned skill so don't feel bad if you struggle with separating the two.
With practice, anyone can learn to switch off the moment they arrive home. Once mastered, this ability offers peace and the chance to reboot. This is critical. The main reason why welfare workers flame out is that they get no rest or positive stimulation. Which brings us to our next point.
6. Keep Your Fun Things Close
Looking back, I wish I had nurtured my fun things throughout the hard times. For some reason, I felt guilty about experiencing moments of joyful flow, doing what I loved, when my work was so serious. Ironically, putting them on the shelf only helped with the downward spiral. Leaving my personal joys behind didn't bring better focus and dedication to the shelter as I had hoped.
The bottom line is that fun moments refresh and revitalize anyone—even serial adopters with PTSD. When you disappear into a hobby, a book or the thing you love, there comes a time when you resurface and realize that the heaviness is no longer there.
Know When to Walk Away
When you gave animal welfare your best shot but feel overwhelmed, there are choices. Take a break for a few weeks and clear your head. You can also withdraw from the shelter as a direct volunteer and do secondary work as mentioned above.
However, if you work for a salary (like I did), then the choice is more difficult. Understandably, there's a financial angle to consider but your mental health isn't worth sacrificing when one can switch jobs and stay involved in a secondary capacity.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jana Louise Smit