Animal care workers at animal shelters need support to deal with grief due to their losses

“The loss of such a sacred relationship can be devastating. Owners of companion animals facing the loss of a companion animal often experience numbness, disbelief, ruminations about the death experience….”

Shelter worker with cat

Shelter worker with cat. Photo: Pinterest.

Working as an animal care worker (ACW), specifically an animal shelter worker, leads to close bonds with the animals in their care. The conditions under which the workers work, and many are volunteers, can be challenging because of the nature of these places; where life and death decisions are made daily. And they are places where the animals are often under stress themselves. This can often make the human-animal bond stronger and more intense.

Under these circumstances ACWs can suffer the loss of their animal-human bond due to (a) animal euthanasia (b) animal adoption (c) leaving the job or being sacked (d) transferring out of a department where there is interaction with animals (e) leaving the animals unsupervised at night and (f) animals leaving the shelter to enter foster care.

This can lead to ACWs suffering distress and grief. Other feelings are: anger, depression, disbelief, numbness, anxiety and self-reproach. Clearly some ACWs are self-critical perhaps due to high personal standards. Perhaps they ask themselves whether they could have done more to help and save a life.

And we must remind ourselves that ACWs at animal shelters are often highly committed individuals with a love of animals and a passionate or zealous approach to animal welfare. It is a vocation. This must expose these people to a greater risk of negative feelings when the bond between them and their animals are broken.

In some animal shelters, the grief and feelings of loss are not sufficiently dealt with or at all. This is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ by the people who conducted a research study into ACWs, Benjamin Martin, Teresa Kilbane and Holly Nelson-Becker. It was published online on 18th Jan 2019 and titled: Exploring the loss and disenfranchised grief of animal care workers. In this article I am not referring exclusively to the study but also to my own thoughts.

The opportunity for ACW grief due to the death of an animal is high because around one third of the 7.6 million of animals in US shelters are euthanised.

There is a strong argument that more support is needed for ACWs ‘to process their loss without judgement’.

This might be effected by support groups for ACWs in general or for specific roles. The suicide rate of people working in animal rescue is one of the highest in the USA. This squares up with what has been written here. I have also written about shelter worker compassion fatigue.

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