Written by Mindi Callison, the Founder and Executive Director of Bailing Out Benji based on her presentation regarding bullying and harassment.
©Bailing Out Benji 2019
Personal blogs are harder to write than almost anything. On a daily basis I channel all of my energy into educating about puppy mills, pet stores and the cloud of secrecy that follows every facet of the industry; but when it comes to opening up and writing about your personal experiences to the world, you feel as though your heart is exposed. But if you have ever been bullied or harassed in the animal welfare world, I hope that you continue reading this and will find comfort in the fact that you are not alone. As personal as this is for me, I have to share. Because this message needs to be heard.
Are you ready?
Do you want to hear the one sentence that will change everything?
It’s only three words…
DOGS NOT DRAMA.
That’s it. Right there. Mic drop.
If you are involved in animal rescue for the right reasons, then this phrase will ring true to you. We are here for the dogs. We educate for the dogs; we rescue for the dogs; we live and breathe for the animals that we save. Sadly, in this same industry, we have way too many people who create and feed on drama; the negative; the “bashers”. Those people are energy vampires and they literally suck the life out of you, but more on that later.
The big question is: How can you properly run an efficient organization when there is so much negativity within the industry?
I am no stranger to bullying and harassment within the animal rescue industry. I founded Bailing Out Benji 7.5 years ago when I was only 21. Some of the advocates who came before me were thrilled to have a young, passionate person to add more wind to their sails. I was protesting pet stores each weekend and exposing puppy mills and their connection to pet stores during the week- all while holding down a full time job. Many people praised the work that our team was doing and the energy we were bringing to a stagnant industry. But then there were the other people… The bullies. In my case, these bullies were the same 4-6 people who thought that there was no room for someone like me in this industry. They pointed out that other groups were around first, that I was “too young”, and that they “started animal rescue” here and I needed to learn my place. It wasn’t just their words though. These people actively tried to tear down my organization.
Minor things happened here and there, but in 2013 is when it really got bad. These people, who will never be named, had decided that I was the devil incarnate and could do nothing good. Ever. Prior to 2013, Bailing Out Benji was mainly a blog and protesting/educational group. We had just started to file the paperwork to become a nonprofit organization, but we mainly kept to ourselves and just wanted to make a difference for the puppy mill dogs. All of that changed when a local business wanted to host a fundraiser for us. This was the first time EVER we were going to do a fundraiser and I was thrilled! Our makeshift board had already decided we were going to get puppy mill awareness bus ads in our town, to educate the college students about the dangers of buying puppies in pet stores. This fundraising opportunity was the kickstart we needed to get our idea off of the ground! The grooming salon was going to offer dog baths and nail trims, while we also held a yard sale with some raffle items and snacks. It was going to be a low-key, fun event.
A week before our fundraiser is when the harassment really amped up. The ring leader of the bullies had several people call the doggie daycare owner and demand she cancel. After several days of angry calls, the owner decided to cancel our event due to harassment and threats to boycott her business. And that was that. Our first real fundraiser was cancelled, because a few people couldn’t see the greater good. Thankfully, an angel donor helped us pay for the bus ads in full, after I had to embarrassingly admit on social media how and why our fundraiser was cancelled. I am happy to say that our bus ad ran on two buses for 6.5 years, until there was no longer a pet store selling puppies in our town.
That is the moment when I realized that I was too wrapped up in the negativity of others to understand that what they were doing spoke volumes about THEM and nothing about me. Now I am a little older, a lot wiser and smart enough to know when to block people out of my life. Bailing Out Benji has grown from a small group in Iowa, to a national grassroots, nonprofit organization that has educated millions of people about the puppy mill industry. Yes, the same people still pop up from time to time, but they can no longer affect my peace and mental health.
It is because of them, that I wanted to reach out to all of you. Bullying runs rampant in the animal welfare world and it has got to stop. While my experiences are very specific, that doesn’t mean bullying amongst animal advocates doesn’t happen on the daily. Social Media can single handedly ruin lives, and that is something many of you have been the target of. But how do we fix it? How do we as an industry evolve to leave the drama behind? I don’t have the magic answer, but I do have some ways we can cut it down.
First- let’s talk about “Energy Vampires”.
“An energy vampire is somebody who literally zaps your energy dry,” Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist on the University of California-Los Angeles Psychiatric Clinical Faculty, told NBC News. “What energy vampires all have in common is they “feed on” (or manipulate) people who will give them air space and open ears.” Unsurprisingly those most often targeted are the sensitive, compassionate, always-see-the-good-in-people types of people, Orloff says.
Energy Vampires are toxic, dramatic and draining. These are the people who never have a nice word to say about others; people that tear down friends and peers; and people who bring unnecessary drama into situations. I am here to tell you that you do not have to put up with them in your life. Your self worth, your mental health and your VALUE are more important than any relationship.
In my case, that “block” button on Facebook worked wonders. While I had already unfriended the bullies, they would still creep back up in my newsfeed because of mutual friends. I was finding myself getting quietly angry at those mutual friends because they were interacting with people who literally made my life hell and took my mental health to some very dangerous places. But once I gave myself the permission to block those people out of my life, the pressure in my chest was gone. I had finally taken my first step in making my mental health a priority. What happens next is almost magical.
This is when you find the time to be your best self. Once you have eliminated the vampires and bullies, you can focus on the truly important things. This was when Bailing Out Benji was able to grow to it’s truest form. I was able to forget the 5 angry voices and focus instead on the lives we were changing nationwide. I can tell you firsthand that it is impossible to see your potential and reach it, while you are firmly anchored to those that constantly drag you down.
If you follow Bailing Out Benji on any form of social media, you will see that we are constantly tagging other rescues, shelters and organizations that we have partnered with on some project or another. This is the sign of a great organization. Because great organizations see the importance of working together for a common goal. This does not mean you have to agree with everything that others do, but instead it is an acknowledgment that together you are making the world a better place for the animals and that is no place for micromanaging how others run their day to day.
Unfortunately, the very nature of our industry is competition. We are competing for adoptions, for donors, for volunteers, for grants. This is our biggest mountain to climb as advocates, but we can’t let it be our biggest sinkhole. The public wants to see organizations lifting each other up and that will end up generating more goodwill amongst your donors and supporters. They don’t want to see rescue leaders bashing others. Now, there is always a time and place to talk about issues- especially when the safety of animals are at stake- but by remembering to rise above the day-to-day drama, you will find that success is imminent.
I always say that the animal welfare industry is like Thanksgiving Dinner at your grandma’s house. Every single year, the same people will be sitting around the table. Local shelters, rescues and advocacy organizations are in this for the long haul and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. So, here we all are, sitting at the same Thanksgiving table year after year. Do you think we are all going to agree on everything? Absolutely not. Do you think that one person is going to talk more than everyone else? Absolutely yes. But that dinner is going to go a lot better and cause less stress if we treat each other with kindness, compassion and participate in HEALTHY discussion. If you can’t bring anything to the table this year, that is okay. Take a break, but remember the importance of friendships, alliances and coalitions.
DOGS. NOT. DRAMA
I coined this phrase a few years ago, when I was trying to seem stronger than I actually was. Of course, I care about all animals, but DND is catchy and a pretty fun hashtag. It was a phrase I repeated to myself daily and later it became my mantra.
I am a voice for the animals. I am here to make sure they have the exposure and protection they need. I am NOT here to be a sponge for drama, bullying and harassment in any form. If you are still reading, this needs to be YOUR mantra too. You are a strong advocate for the animals and you are here to make sure the animals have every chance they can get. It is up to you to keep the focus on the animals and the core values of your organization.
Dogs Not Drama is our daily reminder that, while it is easy to fall into the gossip train and talk about others, it isn’t conducive to who you are or what you want your organization to look like to the outside world. Imagine that every facebook message you send, every text, every sentence could wind up in the hands of a journalist. Is that how you want the entire world to view you? Likely not. Venting does have its place, but rise above the gossip and remember that you are here for the animals. You will be better off for it!
You are not alone
At the end of the day, it is so important to find your people, your cheerleaders. Look for the ones that have always had your back no matter what and thank them. Your core group will be the ones who help you get through anything, and will take up any extra slack that you need when taking time for yourself. I couldn’t have survived the summer of 2013 without my core people. I was ready to give up Bailing Out Benji and give up my life because I couldn’t see my own worth clearly enough through the constant bullying. As suffocatingly alone as it might feel, you are never truly alone. Rely on your board members, staff, volunteers and friends/family. They want to make sure you are successful, so the animals can succeed too.
I know a lot of this is easier said than done, and it absolutely takes practice. I am by no means following my own advice 100% of the time. But remember, the biggest change starts with you. Sit down and find out what is truly important in your life, what are those core values that will follow you throughout your life and throughout your organization. For Bailing Out Benji, we were founded on the basis of kindness and compassion. That is how I live my life and how I lead my volunteers. When you lead by example, the right people will follow you.
My tips for surviving in an “on demand” world
Burnout is extremely high in the animal rescue, shelter and advocacy world. When you are engulfed in the industry, it is hard to remember to take care of yourself. For the sake of the animals and the cause, please remember the importance of rest.
- Unplug- Being on demand 24/7 is impossible and is the biggest reasons for compassion fatigue. I am still guilty of this. You need to make sure you have time for yourself and your family. Vow to turn your phone off by a certain time each night (and follow through). I also suggest making sure you at least have one full day off each week, I would say two full days but, let’s be real, the animal welfare world doesn’t work that way.
- Give yourself permission to not respond right away. When I first started Bailing Out Benji, I answered every message, text and email within a few minutes. I wanted to ensure that we were always helping/educating/working to keep our reputation up. After growing from a small team of 5 protesters, to a national nonprofit with hundreds of volunteers, this wasn’t sustainable. You have to give yourself permission to prioritize your time and respond to things accordingly. Set hours for yourself to respond; decide what is urgent and what can wait; and don’t forget to…..
- Delegate, delegate, delegate. If you know me personally, you know this is my biggest flaw. I take on so many tasks and literally bury myself in them until they are complete; often neglecting my own family and mental health. When applicable, delegate. Have someone answer emails or calls as they come in; find someone to help you run the social media pages for your organization; find new volunteers to help with shelter cleaning; or find someone to file that paperwork for you. Your time is just as important as everyone else’s and if you need help… ASK!
- Find what works for you to relax. For some people, talking to a professional will help with their depression or anxiety; others rely on journaling or another outlet to express themselves; and some take it to the mats and relax with yoga. Find whatever works for you in order to help your mental health and stick with it.
- NEVER READ THE COMMENTS. Did your rescue or shelter make the news? Did you get recognition for your work? Don’t read the comments on public pages. Just don’t. Internet trolls are a real thing and you will only remember the hateful comments from people who aren’t worth your time. Trust me on this one.
- Take a Vacation, Staycation or just a really long nap. In order to be the best person you can be, you HAVE to take care of #1. Look at your schedule and find those special moments that you can breathe and take a break. Unapologetically. Take. The. Break.
- Celebrate the wins. All of them. More times than I can count, I have been told I can’t be proud of the organization that I have built…. Let me tell you right now, that is a load of BS. While ego should be minimized in the rescue world, you are 100% able to celebrate the good that is going on around your organization. Celebrate yourself, celebrate the organization, the volunteers and ALL of your combined successes. In an increasingly negative world, we have to see the positive or you will lose your mind.
- Don’t compare your organization to others. We all have different opinions, perspectives and connections that help dictate everything we do; including fundraisers, animals saved, opportunities, etc. By constantly looking to the side to see what everyone else is doing, it is impossible to look ahead to ensure that your organization is on the right track. Don’t underestimate the power of writing your organization’s goals down, creating a plan for the next year or five years and get to work!
- Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. The suicide rate among veterinarians and shelter/rescue workers are extremely high. Reaching out for help is NOT a sign of weakness and you should absolutely talk to professionals if you are feeling like harming yourself.
For more tips and advice on how to handle compassion fatigue, please click here. For those that are having thoughts of self harm, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 .
For all of you out there reading this who feel like they just can’t take it anymore: I see you; I hear you; because I am you. Take a break, take a deep breath and remember, the animals need you in this world.
– Mindi Callison
Executive Director, Founder of Bailing Out Benji
To contact Mindi regarding this article or to inquire about her coming to you to speak to your organization about “Dogs not Drama” or her work in fighting puppy mills, fill out the form below.