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Managing Stress and Avoiding Compassion Fatigue

What is compassion fatigue? The Humane Society University has an excellent summary:

"Compassion fatigue -- or secondary traumatic stress disorder -- is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people or animals (Figley 1993). This condition occurs when professionals who are exposed to trauma experienced by those in their care become so overwhelmed that they themselves experience feelings of fear, pain, and suffering. They may suffer from intrusive thoughts, nightmares, loss of energy, and perception of threats at home or at work."

Compassion fatigue can occur in humane advocacy professionals, especially those who must participate in euthanasia of animals. But you don't even have to handle animals or work everyday at a shelter to feel symptoms of compassion fatigue. Animal advocates experience countless first- and second-hand accounts of animal abuse and neglect."

In less formal circles, stress is sometimes defined as "That confusion created when one's mind overrides the body's desire to choke the living **** out of some ******* who desperately needs it."

All joking aside, avoiding compassion fatigue and burnout, and managing the stress that comes with the job are an important part of staying sane in animal control and humane law enforcement.

Are You an Optimistic ACO?

A seasoned animal control officer explains how he keeps a positive attitude in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges.
From the March-April 2000 Issue of Animal Sheltering
Magazine By Mark Kumpf

Like many people starting out in this field, I was somewhat clueless as to the actual extent of my job when I began working as an animal control officer. But I was enthusiastic and eager to learn.

Shortly before I completed my probation, something happened that made a lasting impression on me. It was during a cruelty call, when a veteran officer watched me creatively interpret the code to seize an animal from a less-than-sterling citizen. My new colleague told me that my "gung ho"attitude would soon wear off. "This job will burn you out,"he said. "Having to kill animals every day will make you numb."

Well, it's ten years later and the "gung ho"hasn't gone away. I still see each day as an opportunity to experience new challenges. I still have enough optimism to continually try to improve both my profession and myself. There is a secret to getting and keeping this attitude: Do not try to think "outside the box"—instead, erase the box entirely. By refusing to accept that there are any limitations, you can achieve goals far beyond those you would have realized under normal circumstances.

Such an approach will help you when you are in the field, where negative attitudes often come at you from all sides. "How do you do your job?"the public asks. "I love animals too much to do your job!"This is one of the most depressing comments I have ever encountered, and most animal care and control professionals have it repeated to them in some form almost every day. Instead of being discouraged or defensive, I usually respond, "I love animals too much not to."I never claim to be a perfect animal control officer—just a dedicated one.

This kind of patience can work wonders when dealing with irate citizens. If you remain calm and pleasant throughout your interaction, sometimes those citizens will even end up thanking you for the tickets you've issued them. Our job is 90 percent diplomacy and 10 percent enforcement. Most of us can (and do) talk our way into and then out of some hairy situations. But if you ever have an opportunity to attend a class that addresses how to handle and communicate with difficult people, do it. It will help reinforce all the things you're doing right.

Positive reinforcement is crucial to keeping our optimism alive—a feat in this often morbid line of duty. After all, what's your reaction when you come across another egregious animal cruelty case that defies explanation? Who do you share your pain and experiences with at the end of a shift? These are common difficulties for most of the animal control officers I know. But it's important to learn to accept that you can only do so much, and that you can't solve all the problems all the time.

By avoiding making negative comments and complaints to coworkers about your shared work conditions, you can build your self-esteem while also making your job more bearable. Instead of preaching to the choir about what's wrong, try to make positive suggestions about how to make things right and how to improve the process. Then strive to implement those suggestions.

Also, don't be afraid to undertake new projects. Ask to move into new areas. Anytime you ask to do something new, you may get three possible answers. The authority figures can say "Yes"or "No,"or they can say "No"and laugh at you. As long as you can handle the laughter, the questions are always worth asking. Always look at the positive outcomes you could achieve and set your goals as high as possible. But be willing to accept incremental progress.

At the end of the day, remember to leave your work at work. While your spouse or "significant other"may be genuinely interested in how your day was, avoid the specifics. Detailed descriptions of the morning's cruelty investigation and the latest "courtesy-impaired"person you dealt with in the afternoon are not the best dinner conversation topics.

While dedication to the job is essential, being on call for emergencies should have its limits. Make time for your personal activities, ensuring that your work does not intrude. If you live for work, it slowly begins to own you. Once it takes over, the support system of family and friends you count on will fade away. I don't know of any studies on the subject, but I would be willing to bet that divorce rates for animal control officers are nearly equal to those of other law enforcement officers.

Confronting the truth about this job is the best way to overcome the challenges it presents. Remember that even things that seem to be terrible at the time may yield some positive outcome. A cruelty case may turn your stomach, but it may also get the media involved or get a legislator interested in passing new state codes. There's an old cliche about taking a lemon and making it into lemonade; that's the embodiment of the optimistic attitude--and of an optimistic animal control officer.

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