The higher an animal shelter’s live release rate the higher the rates of burnout in shelter staff?

Animal shelter
Animal shelter. Image by Daga_Roszkowska from Pixabay
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

There is a study online published on Jan 17th 2020 which, as I understand it, essentially looks at the mental health of animal shelter employees under two opposing circumstances, namely when animals are euthanized and when the live release rate is high by which I mean the shelter is successful in that they are able to release animals to new homes.

They seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. When a shelter has to euthanize an animal, it appears to an outsider to be a failure but when they are able to release them to a new home it is a success. How do these two circumstances impact on the mental health of the workers at the shelter? That’s my interpretation of what this study was looking at.

Very surprisingly they concluded that burnout is more likely to be correlated with live release rate (LRR). This seems to be saying that when a shelter has a good live release rate the staff are more likely to be burnt out than when they have to euthanize lots of animals. It’s a conclusion which Nathan Winograd, who is the expert on no-kill animal shelters and animal shelters in general, strongly disagrees with (see below).

The study also stated that ‘compassion satisfaction’, ‘secondary traumatic stress’ and ‘moral injury’ were positively correlated with LRR. Compassion satisfaction must mean that compassionate people become satisfied when they are able to release a shelter animal to a new home. That makes good sense. The term “secondary traumatic stress” appears to mean stress in a person who has been told by another person about their work. And “moral injury” means a person loses their way in terms of moral judgements over a period of time because of the work they do.

Animal shelterASSOCIATED PAGE: Shelter Workers, PTSD, and Compassion Fatigue

In other words, this study says that people can lose their ability to judge morality accurately in a shelter where there is a good release rate. That doesn’t make sense to me. And neither does the secondary traumatic stress makes sense. If a shelter is successful the staff are making correct moral judgements on euthanasia and on how to maximise animal survival in the shelter. They can be places where animals deteriorate and have to be killed.

ASSOCIATED: Animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate among American workers

To me, it would seem that the exact opposite is logical namely that if a compassionate person is forced to euthanise healthy animals day in and day out at a rate of about 50 per day then they are going to suffer traumatic stress, lose their moral compass and suffer burnout. Does that make sense to you?

Perhaps I am failing to understand the more nuanced processes involved. Perhaps when shelter workers have to keep the dogs and cats alive and become connected to them over that period and then have to euthanise them the stress of the process of keeping them alive can cause burnout. This is because they have to make decisions on daily or weekly basis to protect them from euthanasia. And perhaps if the animal goes downhill because of their long stay in a shelter this is a reminder of the failure of the shelter which may also cause burnout and moral injury as it is described. I’m just trying to think this through.

I must say that I’m confused by this study which you can read yourself (the abstract or summary) by clicking on the following link:

Perhaps the problem is that I am only able to read the summary but this should be enough to understand the conclusion.

In an email to me, and other subscribers, Nathan Winograd said the following about an article published by Austin Pets Alive which contains a reference to the study.

Defending the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats Austin Pets Alive released a breathtaking article called “The Human Face of Shelter Euthanasia” that resurrected debunked arguments dating back to the 1970s, including the canard that killing healthy animals is a kindness performed by kind people. Pretending the success of the No Kill movement never happened, APA claimed that pound directors who have failed to innovate are doing the best they can and asking them to do more is unfair to employees of those pounds: “the higher an animal shelter’s ‘live release rate’ — the more animals they keep alive — the higher the rates of burnout and compassion fatigue for the people who work there.” Of course, you don’t need studies to know that the exact opposite is true to a tragic degree for the animals themselves. They die.


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