Animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate among American workers

I apologise if this is slightly depressing. I don’t want to add to the problem. I am keen to produce happy, upbeat stories about the domestic cat and wild cat species. However, I have to be realistic and present work I see before me in terms of news and informative articles.


Animal rescue worker. She looks typical: independent-minded. Photo: vcstar.com

At 5.3 cases per 1 million, people involved in animal rescue have the highest suicide rate amongst all American workers. It is the same rate as police officers and firefighters (American Journal of Preventative Medicine).

The average suicide rate for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million. It’s about compassion fatigue. Dealing with an endless supply of tragic animal welfare stories and situations. The ever present pressure of having to euthanise healthy animals must take its toll. One animal rescue worker, Glenda Easterling, says that her husband tells her that she can’t save them all. Every day she tells herself that she can only save the ones that she can. It’s her way of limiting the emotional pressures.

The executive director of the Montgomery Humane Society, Stephen Tears, says, “We battle it all the time”. He is referring to compassion fatigue which is emotional exhaustion caused by the stress of caring for traumatised or suffering animals or people.

The Montgomery Humane Society specifically deal with compassion fatigue by appointing consultants to help them through it. Compassion fatigue is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder”(STSD).

It can lead to depression and possible suicidal thoughts. Easterling refers to a dog that had to be euthanized. She was obviously attached to this dog because she says that she was a sweetie. The dog was at her shelter for a long time and contracted distemper and had to be euthanized.

Both Easterling and another animal rescue worker, Heather Hogan, agree that you have to focus on the positives and find a balance to your life. I suppose what they mean is there is a lot of difficulties in working in an animal shelter and you have to balance that with some positives and a more normal life outside of work.

I would like to make a point myself. The sort of people who work in animal rescue are going to be sensitive, decent and kind people. They are going to be the kind of people who care by which I mean genuinely care about the welfare of animals. They are ‘called’ to the work. It is a vocation. Therefore animal rescue workers can be particularly vulnerable to the potential unhappiness that the work can create. I also believe that life in general is tougher for people who care about animal welfare even if they are not working in animal rescue.

Tears says that workers in the animal rescue sector are not working for money. They are working to help save lives and it is therefore incredibly draining on emotions.

Another person in the animal rescue sector, Tonya Pitts, the animal care manager at the Montgomery Humane Society echoes what her colleagues have stated. She says that you have to stay focused and you can only do your best. My interpretation is that she is saying is that you can’t allow yourself to be put under too much pressure to try and do the impossible because if you do you will simply hurt yourself psychologically.

Symptoms of a person suffering from passion fatigue include, isolation from others, poor self-care in respect of appearance and hygiene, difficulty concentrating, being preoccupied, being in denial about problems, excessive blaming and bottling up emotions.

Here’s some numbers:

  • The statistics indicate that females suffer more than males. For example, 6.8% of males and 10.9% of females in the animal rescue sector suffer from serious psychological distress. This is in comparison to 3.5% and 4.4% of American male and female adults generally. Note: 86% of people in animal welfare-related professions are women with an average age of 35. On average they work 5.5 years in the profession (psychologytoday.com).
  • Within the veterinary profession, 24.5% of men and 36.7% of women have experienced periods of depression since leaving veterinary school. This is about 1.5 times the average rate amongst US adults.
  • Amongst veterinarians, considering suicide is three times the US national mean.
  • Attempted suicide amongst those working in the veterinary sector are at 1.1% for men and 1.4% for women.

The statistics are the result of an anonymous online survey from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Oberon University and the CDC. Source: The Montgomery Advertiser.

Burn out amongst animal rescue workers is discussed in an article I have just written:

Animal shelter workers who believe they are gifted and skilled burn out faster

Source: Montgomery Advertiser.

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Comments

Animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate among American workers — 10 Comments

  1. I’ve had bouts of compassion fatigue and yeah, it is too painful sometimes. I get that, but the directors’ name is “Tears”? I hate that.

    • Albert, in some ways I would love to work in the animal rescue sector but I’m not sure that I could do it because I’m too sensitive really to animal suffering. It hurts me too much. I think it can damage me psychologically. Just looking at some pictures on the Internet of animal suffering can cause problems because sometimes these images remain in my memory and they come forward and present themselves to me out of the blue.

  2. I no longer participate in animal rescue. Mentally I’m at the point where I’m going to just pick up a 2×4 and assault the abuser.
    I have seen too many things I simply cannot un-see.
    The rescue end is not the issue it’s what happens, or usually doesn’t happen when the abuse in the legal system. Even people with badges and legal authority see that little happens despite their best efforts.

  3. After 40 years, it’s left me with a genuine hatred and mistrust of the human race. While I acknowledge that most humans are decent and don’t knowingly inflict suffering on animals, the apathy and ignorance of many can be hard to bear.

    • Linda, I feel exactly the same way so you are not alone with your thoughts. In fact there are many people like us. Thanks for commenting.

    • There is a visible and distinct attitude when it comes to cats, stray cats and feral cats in public shelters as opposed to getting dogs adopted. Our local shelter will move heaven and earth to rehome a dog that has aggression issues either to humans or livestock but any cat that ‘seems’ feral will get the needle right away. In fact I can’t recall the last time our local shelter had a cat up for adoption.

    • I completely understand what you say, Linda. I think that we have so much tolerance within us and then you can take no more. You get to burnout. This is why older people retreat into their homes and become less adventurous and more like hermits. They become reclusive because they have had enough of the behaviour of humankind.

  4. The part of animal welfare that I find most stressful is the people aspect of animal welfare. I am a people person, I want to help everyone find the solution to their problem. When I have to tell people I can’t take their beloved animal into our rescue because I am full is what I find the hardest to deal with. That person comes to us because they know we care, they know we would not senselessly euthanize their loved pet. When that person comes to tears in our lobby or on the phone because they have no other option but to surrender their pet.

    Another thing I find stressful is people bashing other people. Being a resource to one another, rescuer or not, is most important.

    You can’t imagine how difficult it is to be the person to push the needle into an animal, suffering or not, aggressive or not, unless you have done it. Not all euthanasia is senseless, it is never easy even if it’s the best thing for the animal. But people attacking one another does not help. It is so much better to support and offer assistance in finding another way.

    I know I’m rambling. But. For instance I see people smack their dog for misbehaving pretty often. Some people would scold that owner, many people would yell at that owner. Instead of scolding I show the person a different method. ‘hold this treat in front of his nose and move him into the down position gently’ I would say.

    You can use the same method of ‘training’ the people who aren’t as progressive yet.

    Labeling people as killers is what breaks them down to the point that they can no longer see outside the box.

    Yes, we see a lot of heartbreaking things, but in most cases we have to remember that most abuse and most neglect is unintentional. Most people don’t seek out to hurt an animal.

    I have worked in animal welfare for the most part of 15 years. For those that know me I think I look younger then what I am! Last summer I took a break and drove for Uber, no animal stuff but my pets (for the most part)!

    My point is WE NEED TO SUPPORT EACH OTHER!

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