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Compassion Fatigue: Reality of Working in Animal Welfare

Brennan with hair shoulder length hair smiles while holding a guinea pig in her hands and talks about compassion fatigue.

Brennan Renkin, the Humane Society of Utah’s Pet Retention and Resources Coordinator, began working for the Humane Society of Utah in November 2017 as an Admissions Specialist. During her four years at HSU, she’s held many different positions and helped innovate some of our processes, including creating a coordinated entry system to streamline appointments and admissions. 

In 2020, Brennan brought an innovative training to our staff to help them better deal with compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder that is commonly experienced in professionals caring for the well-being of homeless animals. It stems from not being able to remove themselves from their work long enough to recover and revive. Compassion fatigue can onset suddenly and lead to an extreme state of stress and tension, resulting in feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism, and overall disinterest.

Our Communications and Corporate Giving Manager, Shannon Egan, sat down with Brennan to interview her about the impact of compassion fatigue on our staff and the ongoing training she helped implement at our center. Here’s what she had to say: 

Shannon Egan (SE): Can you tell us more about compassion fatigue from your personal experience working with homeless pets over the years?

Brennan Renkin (BR): Caring for animals and pet guardians is very taxing. We have neglected animals coming into our shelter way too often to count. We have individuals that want to dump their pets in our parking lot without going through the proper admissions protocol, which is a crime. They get angry and yell at us for not taking the pet off their hands immediately. Or we are meeting with a domestic violence victim, and we can clearly see their pet is being abused, too. We deal with these types of situations daily, and so we constantly have to offer compassion and empathy. This is why the animal care industry has such a high level of compassion fatigue and burnout. There’s little downtime to recover from one heartbreaking situation to the next, so people leave because they can’t take it anymore. 

I’ve experienced this personally in my career over the years, so I understood its impact. I began researching compassion fatigue to support my health and well-being and found an online training course specifically for the animal welfare industry. I asked my supervisor if I could bring it to our staff, and they were very supportive. They saw the need and allowed me to provide the training several times a year for anyone who wanted to attend. 

SE: Can you tell us more about the training and how it helps alleviate compassion fatigue and burnout? 

The program I found is split into five modules and focuses primarily on emotional intelligence. It provides tools for noticing stressful reactions in the body and mind and finding space in these stressful situations to manage those reactions better. For example, we learn how to do a body scan or conduct breathing activities. We also learn to identify what’s within our circle of control and influence so we can reframe some of the hard things we are witnessing. These techniques empower individuals to ask themselves, “What can I take out of this that will positively impact me?” Ultimately, the training aims to enable individuals to take time out for themselves so they can recharge. It’s all about self-care and prioritizing your overall health and well-being while on the job. 

Do you think this training has had a positive impact on our staff? 

BR: Yes, because we work hard to use these tools daily and as a team. We make an extra effort to check in with each other during challenging moments and to remind each other that even on bad days, there is a lot of good. I mean, look how many pets went into loving homes today! We remind staff that while some of these pets come to us in dire straits, they wouldn’t have had a positive outcome without each of us. Our jobs are critical, and their efforts matter. But even if a staff member gets burned out and decides to leave, it’s okay. We understand. Dealing with compassion fatigue is a skill that takes time to learn and master. We don’t want staff to become numb to the trauma of the job. We want them to be well and do what’s best for them. 

Since this interview, Brennan has moved to Philadelphia with her husband. She’s now working on getting a master’s degree in psychology. Eventually, Brennan wants to develop her own compassion fatigue training and take it into pet resource centers and shelters across the nation. She feels learning these techniques is critical for all animal care workers, and it’s her goal to make it accessible to everyone who needs it.

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