Dictionary.com offers this non-technical definition for compassion fatigue – Compassion Fatigue is fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others or from constant appeals from charities.
This image is making the rounds on social media. Perhaps you’ve seen this, or one very much like it?
The words in the white text box purportedly represent a prospective pet owner with “criteria” for what behavioral characteristics the dog are believed to be a good match for this person’s home. They are looking for a moderately active, non-vocal, female dog (10-15 lbs, up to 1 year old, good with small children, and house trained). This dog would ideally be crate trained and not prone to destructive chewing (there may be plenty of children’s toys on the floor and the parent wants the family dog to leave the kids’ toys alone).
The words in the blue text box could easily represent a sarcastic quip from any number of people involved in various aspects of animal welfare. Suggesting that someone should “getta Gund” or invest in a plush stuffed animal is a statement about the person’s maturity and readiness to handle the responsibility of caring for a less than perfect, sentient living being. Inherent in this attitude – the assumption that the inquirer (a prospective adopter – is not “worthy” to adopt. I have and continue to believe that this is an educable person!
I speak with people who have criteria for the dogs they bring home, all the time. Many people have very clear ideas about what is or isn’t likely to be a good fit within their homes. On the other hand, there are people who are a great deal more flexible and have few expressly verbalized guidelines. Some believe that those maintaining many “conditions” prior to bringing a pet dog home may indicate of a lack of awareness, extreme selfishness and a potential unwillingness to welcome and adapt to the foibles that any reasonable person would expect from a homeless pet of (possibly) unknown origin. In short, “If we place a dog in this person’s home, they may return the dog, dump it on the street, or hurt the dog should the dog has an “accident,” or chews on their child’s rubber duckie.”
Early in my career – the volunteers, staff, and board members of the shelter I worked with provided an exhaustively thorough indoctrination in their large animal welfare organization’s culture – compassion fatigue was rampant, although we just described the phenomenon as “burn out.” There were very few voices that I heard to counter the disregard and disrespect with which many people assaulted the public. Today, compassion fatigue is still common in the industry, but more people have embraced the notion that animal welfare organizations are community resources – there are interactions and transactions beyond surrender, restoration, adoptions and, especially important for the nonprofit sector – any passersby may be possible donors.
We continue our struggles with discrimination – appropriate v. inappropriate v. illegal, in animal welfare. The illegal discrimination in the field is a symptom of a greater societal issue – we’ll visit that, in another posting. We agree that it’s appropriate to discriminate between species (cat v. dog adoption), but do we all agree that it’s appropriate to discriminate based on the sex of the animal? There are differences between male and female dogs, but are many of the animal welfare professionals considering them? Humane workers from Generation Y and younger may not be aware of a time when most of the pet dogs were not neutered, as is the case in Northeast urban centers, today. It seems that many people are comfortable with a size bias. What about coat color and length? It seems okay to discriminate between breeds or broader categories of dogs? This last question speaks directly to an informed owner’s expectations of what they will be living with – living with Sporting breeds, like the Vizsla – a very different experience than living with a Mastiff. We want people to research and familiarize themselves with the types of dogs that they may live with, don’t we? There are many people who may have disability-related reasons to avoid dogs of a certain color or coat texture Compare Shar Pei to Xoloitzcuintli). How often do we consider that disability may have something to do with the choices our neighbors may make? It’s also possible that a stated preference for a particular color or other superficial characteristic might be related to a romantic remembrance or a family history with dogs or a certain type or hue. If we routinely discriminated against prospective adopters with romantic or other emotional bases for adoption, our shelter census numbers would skyrocket, leaving us with limited options, save an unpleasant, tragic option (destruction) for emptying the kennels.
There are many reasons why a person sets their criteria where they do – some reasons may seem more credible than others to the gatekeepers at animal welfare organizations. In another post, I discuss the first time an adopter I worked with returned a cat because the cat’s coat didn’t match the adopter’s furniture. I was not amused. The furniture was not new. She liked the cat and hoped that she would be able to adjust to the color conflict. Of course, she didn’t discuss this prior to adopting the cat. She likely assumed that I wouldn’t have agreed to the adoption. Had she disclosed her color criteria, even then, I would have happily worked with he to locate a cat that fit the bill. She returned the cat and wanted to adopt a different cat with the “appropriate” hair color. The supervisor approved it and she left with a cat, again. Since that day, I have helped many people with all sorts of requests – customized house training, dog training/rehabilitation combined with conflict coaching, pet services work, combined with spousal mediation, and of course, dog training and pet services, just to name a few of the ways that we co-create a customized pet parenting experience.
I really do believe it begins and ends with being in service to people.