The Casualties of Compassion Fatigue

My heart filled with sadness and anger today when I learned that the animal welfare community lost Dr. Jian Zhicheng. According to reports, the veterinarian and director of a Taiwanese animal shelter recently took her own life after being cyber bullied because of her role as a euthanasia technician. Zhicheng, a vocal advocate for adoption, was reportedly already depressed and guilt-ridden over having to put animals down. She committed suicide by giving herself a lethal injection of the very same drug used to euthanize animals and died five days later (Williams, 2016). Veterinarians, shelter workers, and animal control officers are often charged with performing euthanasia. These animal welfare professionals devote their lives to helping sick, injured, homeless, abused, and neglected animals – but often pay a high price for doing so. Those who do have to put animals down are more prone to depression, inappropriate emotions, physical illness, substance abuse, unresolved grief, and suicide. In fact, an alarming one in six veterinarians in the US has thought about suicide (Larkin, 2015), and animal control officers have the highest suicide rate – along with police officers and firefighters – of all workers in the country (Tiesman et al., 2015). Given the constant dilemma of having to end the lives of the very creatures they strive to protect combined with the social stigma surrounding euthanasia (particularly in shelters), these professionals are faced with “moral stressors” on an almost daily basis. Euthanasia is one of the many contributors to compassion fatigue, which traumatologist Charles Figley (1995) likens to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Symptoms range from depression and feelings of apathy to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Compassion fatigue affects a myriad of helping professionals, including first responders, child protective workers, and mental health therapists. But unlike the aforementioned professionals, animal welfare workers typically aren’t hailed as heroes. They hear hurtful comments such as “I don’t know how you do it. I love animals too much.” As a former euthanasia technician, let me set the record straight. That’s precisely why we do it. We love animals to the point of exhaustion. We sign up for this incredibly painful job because we care. We’ve stared into the eyes of the unloved, the unwanted, and the throwaways. We feel their pain. And so yes, sometimes we have to end their lives. But we allow them to die with dignity. We allow them to take their last breath in the loving arms of overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid, and undervalued workers who are teetering on the edge of a breakdown – and who love them more than you can possibly comprehend.