Compassion Fatigue is Breaking Us: Animal Rescuers’ Silent Killer

Catherine Besch
12 min readApr 7, 2023

Here’s the real story behind this photo, the ugly truth no one wants to hear.

Less than an hour before this photo was taken, I was begging my boyfriend to kill me.

After months of steeply declining mental health, I was crawling under the bed that morning trying to hide, sobbing uncontrollably, wanting to disappear from this planet, hoping to shed my toxic skin and the horrors of what I had seen. I was incensed that I couldn’t prevent my body from continuing to take breath after breath. More than anything in the world, I wanted to die.

We knew I needed help. I had been catatonically depressed off and on for months all while training for and competing in a half Ironman triathlon, opening Vietnam’s first nonprofit vet clinic, and working on my Master’s thesis. The organization was at its peak, I was madly in love, I was nearing completion of my graduate degree, and I was the fittest I’ve ever been, but I had seen things and experienced things in the role as director of my animal rescue organization that made me think death would be better than trying to survive one more fucking day of rescue and sheltering dozens of animals who needed me. My brain wanted out and it did everything in its power to shut me down so I wouldn’t have to see or feel any moreof this ever again.

From the outside, I was a highly functional rescuer of the forgotten and abused, and from the inside, I had failed thousands of animals and seen the darkest side of humanity that no one should see. I could cycle 90km at 6am, clean the shelter, care for dozens of animals, and still think slicing my toxic skin off with a rusty knife would hurt much less than waking up here in what everyone seemed to think was a dream job of rolling around in piles of kittens on beaches in Southeast Asia. I’d lay staring blankly on the floor tiles, sometimes sobbing, sometimes just disassociated from reality. I struggled to care for myself in any way. I needed my keys taken away from me to prevent me from driving into oncoming traffic. I had to have help to wash my hair and dry off from a bath. I felt like my skin was made of lead and everything about me was poisonous.

At the same time, an extremely degrading voice in my head constantly told me of ways to kill myself, I could gather incredible amounts of energy into bundles to perform all my job duties, make people think I was generally ok, and train to stay in top physical fitness. The performance of these normal daily activities was all just Oscar-winning bullshit with memorized lines and well-rehearsed staging. Within every breath exhaled was a hope I’d be granted the peace of not having to inhale and continue life like this. Every clumsy trip of my feet or near miss in the chaotic Vietnamese traffic was a sign I could still escape soon, a sign that Death wanted me as much as I wanted it.

An hour before this photo was taken, I had to call my parents and tell them they could either pay for flying my dead body back home or they could pay for me to be an inpatient at the Bangkok Hospital mental ward. Either bury my remains or pay for me to get medication and therapy at an inpatient facility that would keep me on suicide watch. For the animals in my care- the cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks the organization had at the time in the shelter- I had no choice but to see if I could stop despising the automatic process of my heart beating and my lungs taking in air that kept me unwillingly alive and continuously involved in watching horrific suffering I had so little power to prevent or alleviate. No one else would do this job if I killed myself. They would all die for sure, I thought, and all the work I put into building this nightmare of a job in a groundbreaking organization would be lost. I had to keep going even if it was the absolute last thing I wanted for myself.

Just before I met this dog catcher on the road, I was on the way to my organization’s brand-new vet clinic to settle things with staff before buying my Bangkok flight. My parents had reluctantly agreed to save my life instead of bury me, a shocking thing for parents who genuinely have no interest in my work or mental health. But they said yes so I felt like there was a light at the end of this dark and collapsing tunnel. That is, until I saw the dog meat man with a terrified, ginger dog in his basket around the corner on his motorbike, a frequent sight in the neighborhood, but one I wasn’t going to tolerate that day.

Coming around the turn I chased him up the street and pulled my bike in front of his, then pulled his keys out and threw them into the trees. I stole his metal tongs they use to grab the animals by the neck and shoved them down my shirt. The best thing about burnout and suicidal ideation is the total absence of risk assessment. I had no clue what this guy was going to do, but it didn’t matter. Luckily my boyfriend drove up behind me with our local vet intern which would have put off any potential physical conflict.

When you want nothing more than to die, you’re always happy to be the psycho in the room and risk your life for anything. To do so for a dog made good sense in the moment. There was nothing heroic about it. I was looking for a hopefully bloody battle because the best way to manage my own self-hating demons was to take them out on anyone who intended to harm a vulnerable being. This often looked like pulling a knife on abusers of both humans and animals, shouting obscenities at abusers in the name of public shaming which can be very effective in Asia, and generally being a violent and terrifying white lady making a scene when I determined a vulnerable being of any species was threatened.

Neighbors immediately crowded around the scene I was making with the dog catcher and I told them he was breaking the law by transporting a dog over provincial lines without a rabies certificate. This was only partially true, but it got the attention of the police who then had me drive with them and the dog catcher to the station all while I had these huge metal tongs shoved in my sports bra which I refused to give back. Upon arrival, the police were clearly pretty upset I had stopped their day-long cigarette and coffee break and insisted the man was doing nothing wrong. I was told I needed to pay him 2 million Vietnamese Dong, nearly $100, if I intended to take the dog from him.

Vietnamese police and I are not friends. They’re nobody’s friends really, but especially not mine. They’re corrupt, lazy, and completely useless in all instances in which you need them to not be pieces of shit. We paid, I took the dog, and we brought her to the clinic to quarantine. We also had to immediately shut down all media for the organization and clinic for months after the incident. This was in order to prevent further investigation from the police and potential arbitrary confiscation and/or killing of our animals at the rescue just because we distracted them from sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with their thumbs up their asses.

With the dog safely quarantined, fed, and treated for blood parasites, the next day I went to Bangkok where I checked myself into the psych ward. The only people who knew about the reason for my trip worked for the organization. My fear was that if we let anyone know that the director of the organization was desperate to die from the horrors of this work, we’d lose support and the entire rescue sector would look bad. I was terrified that people interested in this field would be totally turned off from rescue and vet work if I were to add to the long list of suicidal rescuers. I refused to be open about the reality that watching preventable suffering and death for a living with no breaks and no living wage for years on end was detrimental to one’s mental health. I was still selling the flaming bullshit prevalent in the animal advocacy sector that rescues should run exclusively on volunteer hard labor and that passion was enough to run any mission. Now I deeply regret that I was not more open at the time.

In order to ensure my absence wasn’t questioned, I elected to have my tonsils removed at the same time I was in the hospital for psychiatric reasons. Instead of admitting that I had compassion fatigue, or even worse, compassion fatigue on top of a major depressive episode related to my Bipolar I disorder for which I refused to be medicated for several years, I chose to remove an organ from my throat which wasn’t medically necessary. I had had tonsillitis before, but it hadn’t been an issue in years. Still, losing face would have cost too much to the legitimacy of the work of the organization and so I hid my voluntary commitment to the psych ward for suicidal depression. Hiding the fact that my untreated bipolar disorder is simultaneously a superpower and crippling handicap that kept this whole ship running was part of an elaborate rouse as well, one that was vital for public relations but was personally suffocating. As you can see, I’m no longer participating in that PR stunt.

The price we pay

I think often of others with my job title. I think of how they struggle, how they survive it, and how we all still keep waking up knowing the world we live in is so full of incredible cruelty and callousness that we can do so little about. In their struggles as in mine, is there ever an end, and if not, why the should we bother? We each know why we put ourselves through this when we’re with those we’ve saved, but at what cost? We’re in an industry that canonizes the unsustainable sacrifices of those of us professionally working in rescue full-time while simultaneously berating those who take vital breaks. We’re heroes until we’re human and break like anyone else who would see the shit we’re faced with in the absence of resources we need to solve the problem. Hero worship is detrimental to those in this line of work.

During my first degree in international relations, and again in my Master’s of disaster management, I was sure I’d end up in refugee camps, conflict zones, and mass casualty events. That’s what I studied and that’s always where I knew I belonged. I’ve always planned on seeing the worst of humanity and trying to clean up the mess. What I didn’t expect was doing it with animals and doing it without adequate rest, health care, emotional support, the opportunity for a social life or hobbies, and a living wage. International humanitarian relief work for humans isn’t extremely lucrative, but you can afford a car and mortgage rather than living hand-to-mouth and having to skip meals and basic survival needs as I have for a decade. You get therapy after work placements in traumatic situations plus paid leave, healthcare, and a social life not related to your job is expected. Animal work long-term outside of the big welfare organizations with proper salaries is a field that generally requires you to have a supportive family and/or spouse, ideally a trust fund, too. If not, as in my case as a single, forty-something woman with no family or partner support, it is extremely risky, and ultimately cannot go on permanently without some measure of human or even just financial support, something we’ve failed to provide our staff even after a decade on the ground here.

The photo lies

What I remember from that day I saved the dog from being a meal was that what I went through in a photo that made me look like a hero was among the worst days of my life and I was heralded for that achievement by the unknowing followers of our media for years. We use this photo often because it gets attention that feed the algorithm, but the reality behind that day and the months of suffocating darkness leading up to it are never discussed because no one wants to hear that this job sucks and many, many days in it are much worse than death. People want to believe there’s some intoxicatingly rewarding experience that comes to those who save lives of any species, ignoring that to save a life means you’ve had to be inside an environment in which life was being threatened, and in animal rescue that means trauma after trauma after trauma. Again and again meeting the worst possible humans, seeing the worst possible pain. To expect this to NOT kill any sane person is frankly, delusional. Rescuers are expected to wake up to endless crises day after day, year after year, and be able to magically manage the unwilling personal sacrifices due to the rubbish pay, hours, and lifestyle by reading social media comments from strangers who call us angels and use too many emojis. But then we’re chided for being open about wanting a life we can survive with decent hours, pay, benefits, and breaks. We can’t be both heroes saving lives and also robots who don’t need food, health care, and therapy for the things we see.

Compassion fatigue is no joke, and while large and well-funded organizations (predominantly welfarist pet/wild animal-focused organizations rather than unapologetically abolitionist vegan, animal rights organizations like mine) may have the resources to address it better, they are statistically the minority globally. For us little guys battling it out in the trenches, particularly in the Global South, we often don’t have the resources to pay facility rent, vet bills, or our tiny salaries on time much less the money and human resources to provide adequate paid time off. We are on the fast track to burnout. We are raising suicidal rescuers, vet staff, and animal advocates who started out as hopeful, empathetic people who just wanted to do some good for animals. The culture around being open about the reality of this field has to change both from within organizations and from donors and supporters of animal organizations.

Passing the baton

For me to tell this story as openly as I do is a testament to how ready I am to move on from this work as well as to protect those who are still in it from ever going through the mental health crises I’ve experienced repeatedly for a decade in rescue Vietnam. Most recently in November 2022, I suffered from another crippling suicidal depression that has been the wake-up call I needed to end this work permanently and pass the baton to someone who sees less preventable suffering and death when they close their eyes at night. No one should wish death over their work, so it’s time for a change. At some point that fall I had to acknowledge that sobbing on the floor of my shower most mornings trying to decide which knife would prevent me from having to ever go through another day of this job was probably indicative of an unhealthy work situation that I needed to work very hard to end without bloodshed. It’s ok to know when to move on. Sadly, even

Opening the dialogue to address compassion fatigue

I don’t ever want my staff or rescuers in other organizations to ever feel like I do, but if they do, I want them to be able to tell their stories openly. If that’s all that comes from my honesty, then it’s better than keeping my mouth shut. This sector of animal rescue has a mental health crisis that needs far more attention to alleviate. We all have a part to play in ensuring sustainable human resources practices. This will involve addressing the trauma of this field that workers encounter and how that, coupled with the abysmally poor work conditions and lack of basic survival needs organizations provide, results in the most experienced and valuable workers in rescue, veterinary medicine, and animal advocacy to leave the field behind permanently.

Whether through suicide or quitting, the effects of compassion fatigue are crippling to the vital work of preventing the suffering and death of the most vulnerable beings. We have to do better for the animals by first doing better for the people in the field. There remains a deafening silence about compassion fatigue and the hero worship culture that feeds it while the humans who are part of the animal rights movement lack a sustainable career choice in saving animals. It’s about time we stop shooting ourselves in the foot and ensure we are addressing the effects of trauma for both animals and humans.

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Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist and pig, chicken, dog, and cat mom who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.