The Starfish– Author Unknown
One day a man was taking a sunrise walk along a beach. In the distance he caught sight of a young woman who seemed to be dancing along the waves. As he got closer he saw that the young woman was actually not dancing, but picking up starfish from the sand and tossing them gently back into the ocean.
“What are you doing?” the man asked.
“The sun is coming up and the tide is going out; if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
“But young woman, there are miles and miles of beach with starfish all along it–you can’t possibly make a difference.”
The young woman bent down, picked up another starfish, and placed it lovingly back into the ocean, past the breaking waves.
“It made a difference for that one,” she replied.
Animal rescue is a tough business. I hear it everyday from my friends, and from my facebook newsfeed. You have one second to be thankful for an animal that has found its forever home and then it is time to find a new home for the pet that just filled its spot. If you are one of those people that devotes your life and energy to help the animals (professionally or as a volunteer,) you know this story. You live it. You know the pull of compassion; you know that constant need to help. And you know the pain of seeing how many more there are, and the heartbreak when you realize that you can’t save them all. Yet you continue to do this. Day after day, because of those success tails! The adoption stories that somehow make everything right for that brief moment!
It is the happy stories that fulfill our own healthy need to help, to give, and to love these animals that have been discarded. Even though the rewards are so gratifying, there is that deep heartbreak we experience when an animal is lost. Constant exposure to these stories of cruelty, ignorance and apathy toward animals, can burn any one out. Seeing the suffering on my news feed that is sprinkled with the lack of compassion from everyday people does it for me… It makes me so angry and I feel almost hopeless at times. Whatever your role, wherever you work– I know you feel the same way. You are reading this post for a reason… Most of us are in the animal saving business (whatever that entails)–this work requires more love and patience than any other field. It’s hard work that requires strength (both emotionally and physically) as it is draining on every other aspect of your life. You find your free time is spent on animals, your money is going to these causes, and many of your tears .
When devoting ourselves to a cause- whichever cause that may be- we can lose ourselves completely. We are so immersed in what we are doing that we don’t have any time for anything else. This is my biggest problem. Separating myself from my animal welfare cause. I know what you are thinking and NO… We are NOT crazy!
We are suffering from compassion fatigue (yes, it is a real thing). You know that you are suffering from compassion fatigue when your sense of responsibility for others is way out of balance and you are caring more about others than you care about your own self. This is not a bad thing, but it can be very unhealthy if you let it consume your life.
“Compassion Fatigue is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering animals.” (Figley 1993)
So how does compassion fatigue affect us?
You find yourself crying about animals that you see stories of, you find yourself thinking about animal cruelty during your daily life, animal welfare starts to affect your work and sleep habits. The list goes on… This line of work has a way of eating into every other part of your life. I find myself giving up the things that I love the most: reading, rough housing with my own dogs, seeing my friends, and spending time with my loved ones. I am so concerned with the animals that I am seeing on facebook that I forget about my real life.
This work is so emotionally trying and morally challenging that it is bound to take its toll on those involved. Please remember, this is just a term NOT A disease. Thankfully, there are many ways to cope with this:
* First and foremost, you have to remember that you cannot save them all. As much as we hate to admit it- not every animal will find a home. Not every animal will be treated fairly (until there are laws protecting them). And not every animal will die knowing that they were loved.
*Be kind to yourself. It is true that we are always our toughest critic, and it is even more true when you are dealing with animals. It is so easy for us to expect more of ourselves. “I should have fostered him”…” I have room for one more”… “I can donate a little more”… These phrases can be our downfall.
*Know your limits. Know them and stick to them! If you don’t set boundaries, you will get in over your head and you will exhaust yourself so quickly.
* Understand that those close to you may not understand what you are going through (ESPECIALLY YOUR HUSBAND!!) Don’t take it out on them when they are unable “fix” you. Unless you know what they can do to help, don’t get mad for them not helping. Explain your needs.
*Don’t let the naysayers and “energy vampires” get you down. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.’ And that couldn’t be more true in this world. There will always be someone who tells you that you aren’t doing enough, or you aren’t doing things the right way– but if you are truly doing things for the animals, don’t sweat it. “Those” people will go away.
*Talk it out with people who do understand… Let your animal loving friends know how depressed you are about these things and have them help you.
*Look at what you have done RIGHT! Look at the animals that you have saved, the ones in your house or the ones adopted out! They will keep you going. If you have the time, create a photo album or scrapbook of those perfect moments in your life that will remind you to stay on this path.
*My most honest piece of advice is… TURN OFF FACEBOOK for a few days… That is what I had to do… Those pictures, those stories- they got to me. I had to stop checking facebook and my BOB account because I was always crying. There were so many animals that needed help… So many terrible people out there that don’t deserve to be alive for the things that they are doing to animals…I just had to take a break from life for a while. Thankfully it helped.
To answer my question… When is enough finally enough??
NEVER. Just step back, take a breath and then jump back in. As animal lovers- our work is never truly over. We are blessed (cursed?) with being some of the most empathetic people on the Earth. As much as it hurts us, it is something that we will never be able to change.