We cannot afford to ignore compassion fatigue in animal rescue

Among workers in caretaking professions, the suicide rate in animal care workers is high and the turnover of employees is dangerously high. This is true for shelter workers from high income countries with the resources to care for animals, and in countries in which there is only extremely poor veterinary care, very little money and human resources for managing animals in shelters and no support from the community or government, this rate of compassion fatigue leading to extreme burnout and suicide is off the charts. While compassion fatigue is finally being better addressed in professions such as humanitarian aid, emergency medicine, disaster rescue, social workers, and nursing homes, the failure of the animal care sector from veterinary clinics to shelters has been devastating. The suicide rate in vets alone is higher than any other medical profession.

For those of us living in low resource countries seeing traumatic case after traumatic case and so often without the support of veterinarians, very little money, experienced staff, and supplies to address these cases, there is no way to escape this work without facing extreme burnout. Often this causes people to leave the sector entirely which ensures that those with the most case management experience are taking their lessons with them. Those who support rescue and do not work in the field tend to dismiss this entirely, preferring to canonize the “heroes” of animal work for their sacrifice and dedication but when we ask for a living wage and time off we are stealing from the animals and harming the mission. None of this is sustainable and the public needs to wake up to how detrimental this work is for mental health without any support, time off, and better living conditions for the professionals in the field. We cannot help the animals without having adequate resources to manage the extreme trauma we face in horrible conditions. You would not expect a manager of a refugee camp or rape crisis center to work solely on a volunteer basis without mental health support, a living wage, and time off. Why would you expect that from people who face the same in another species with even less resources?

My experience with compassion fatigue from working in animal rescue as the director of Vietnam Animal Aid since 2013 is not uncommon. I wish it were, but I have seen it again and again in my field and it has to stop. I have to be transparent about all of this because I hope this will help save others from ending up in my situation. Currently I am in the UK trying to raise the $2500 for the visa to go home to Vietnam, but I am not here because I just like it here. I don’t live in the US not only because it requires me to own a car and make about 10 times what I can in this job as director to just barely survive there, but because the time zone is a pain while working full time in Vietnam 12 hours away. I came to the UK for three reasons. As an American, I only have 90 days to stay in Schengen countries in Europe because I do not have a work permit or residency in any country outside the US. I usually have to go either East to Vietnam or even the Caucuses, or West to the UK to get out of Schengen. This time, I chose the UK since I still do not have the money to return to Vietnam. Also, I wanted to connect with our UK donors and do some face-to-face fundraising as I had planned when I came in March 2020. That has been much harder than I had hoped as it is just so damn expensive here to even exist on my useless salary, but in theory this was a good idea.

The main reason behind all of this was that I wanted to make sure that when I am committed to the mental hospital for another suicidal depression, everything would be in English. No one wants to hear that and I have learned over the years that no one really cares either, but that is the reality behind the life I lead in rescue. I dread waking up almost every single day because the news from Vietnam is never good. It is crisis after crisis. Death after death. Financial struggle, staffing issues, typhoons, banking snafus, and everything else but nothing good. My survival at all is always in question as we rarely have enough money to pay our onsite staff and me as the director for the past 9 years at the same time. To avoid living on the streets, I usually pet sit, but my last sit came with an uncomfortable dose of sexual harassment so I do not want to do this anymore in a situation in which I cannot afford to escape. I have no savings given my subsistence salary for nearly a decade and I have only an itty bitty credit card and no family or partner. There is not a soul on the planet I could ask to help me as I am tasked with ensuring that the rescues at home, any offsite new cases, and all our staff are taken care of long before my own needs are attended to. It is fair to say that this work is killing me slowly after having taken away every opportunity to have any kind of normal and stable existence. The constant trauma coupled with never even knowing if I will be out on the streets or starving is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. I do not hate anyone enough to give them my job, and in a career in which I deal nonstop with violence against the most vulnerable beings, I assure you I hate a few people.

Compassion fatigue has been my baseline for so many years, it is hard to imagine a life in which I could wake up and not be angry that I was allowed another day of this. No matter how much I love these animals and believe so much in the mission to spread veganism globally and insist on veterinary capacity building as a baseline for all rescue work, it is hard to think that it has been worth the hell I live in. My passion for this is literally the only thing keeping me alive, but I cannot say I do not look at every bus driving by and think, just step in front of it and you will not have to do this anymore. Knowing full well that not a soul on this planet would help the rescues at home in Hoi An is all that has kept my feet from taking that step. The only fucking thing that keeps me going is knowing no one else would give a fuck about my animals in Vietnam if I died. I cannot imagine this is how other people think of their jobs.

Full disclosure, I was diagnosed Bipolar I when I was 25, the more severe version of an already extremely disruptive and degenerative mood disorder. I was diagnosed ADHD when I was 28 which is a common comorbidity of bipolar disorder and an equally destructive one when left untreated as mine is since I have neither the income nor insurance to cover psychiatric care. I have always been open about this with my staff since it is highly likely they will encounter some manifestation of this in their time with me because I’m not always successful at keeping my extreme moods hidden. When we opened the clinic, I had just finished a Half Ironman triathlon while going through a particularly severe depressive episode that deteriorated quickly after the race was over. I was drowning in thoughts of suicide, often catatonic between feeding times at the shelter, and barely functioning while trying to run the shelter and clinic, the first nonprofit vet service in the country at the time. I had to commit myself to a hospital in Bangkok to get back on my medication and try to figure out a way to stop wanting to die all day long. Multiple times along the past decade of this work, I had boyfriends take my keys from me so I would not drive my motorbike headfirst into a truck. The time I was committed was by far not my first rodeo with episodes requiring hospitalization, but it was the one in which I finally had far too much to lose to allow it to take me down permanently.

I told only a few people what I was actually doing in Bangkok and chose to electively have my tonsils taken out in order to have an excuse to tell donors. I did not want anyone to know what I was really there for because I was afraid we would lose financial support for our work and the animals would suffer. Due to not having any medical coverage for mental health as bipolar disorder is a pre-existing condition and exempt from insurance, I had to put the whole thing on my parents credit card which they reluctantly allowed. The day I decided to go, I had just rescued a dog from the dog catcher by pulling him over myself in a rage. That photo we use so often of me taking the dog out of the catchers cage was taken hours after I told my parents they had the choice of paying for the hospital or the repatriation of my remains because there was no way I was going to stay on this planet another day without medication. I was in the middle of writing my Master’s Thesis as well, so that had to be postponed while I tried to not kill myself.

This is what I look like when suicidal. Some people call this heroic, and I call it a death wish that the dog catcher didn’t have the balls to help me follow through on. The day after this photo was taken, I was on a plane to commit myself to a mental hospital in Bangkok.

What I have realized in the years since this occurred was that medication was not my problem, nor was being bipolar. My psychiatric labels were actually the key to my resilience, not my downfall. They are why I am good at this job, a gift that often looks and feels like a nightmare but gives me superpowers in times of extreme stress. The only logical reaction to what I was going through, the things I had to see and experience year after year was to want to die. There was nothing insane about any of it. I often regret that I did not go through with it now, thinking anything would be better than what I have gone through for the past years since. After 3 years of operating the clinic, all three of which I remained medicated on mood stabilizers and addicted to Xanex just to get any sleep at all, we lost most of our funding and I broke off my engagement with our head vet. The clinic was finally closed and things went from what was already a daily hell to much, much worse on my own with no vets or shelter staff.

When I finally acknowledged that I needed to get out of Vietnam to get my head together, I had a stomach ulcer and was experiencing heart palpitations and dizzy spells, all stress induced according to my cardiologist. In the months just before I left, I had faced an attempted sexual assault while running and had had our neighbor put a machete to my throat (admittedly after I pulled a butcher knife on him for throwing bricks at me). I had no vets within 700 kilometers and had shaved my head not long before while managing the shelter on my own with nearly 60 animals. Without having old shelter managers come to help take over, I do not think I would have been able to go another month as things were. When I landed in Paris on my birthday in April, I thought I was going to stay for two weeks and ended up staying in Europe for five months. I had severe panic attacks in public when police sirens went by and was experiencing shell shock from loud noises in general. I was not OK physically and definitely not mentally. My back was fucked, to put it mildly. I was broken, just a crumbled mess of a human who once ran mountain marathons and was a pioneer for so many things in Vietnamese animal advocacy. But this work wanted me dead and I was well on my way.

There is nothing special about my story. That’s the part that scares me most. The life of the leaders in this work and many of the workers on the ground is a living hell we cannot escape. We are passionate but this work breaks all of us. Passion does not pay our medical bills and certainly does not allow us days off. Passion has never paid for my therapy and there is no way it could afford another inpatient stay in a mental hospital, which if I am honest, is not really ever far away for me. I have had to acknowledge that I am alone in this in terms of receiving any sort of care or financial support, but hopefully that is not true for everyone working in my job around the world. There is a massive difference between people like me and people with families that support them and I find that to be true for any profession in which trauma, both physical and mental, is the baseline. There was a point in which I realized how long it would take people to even realize I was dead. When I was in the shelter alone with dozens of animals, people would at least hear the dogs barking when they were no longer being fed. The pigs would be quite angry as well. But now as I am away from the animals working remotely, the only people who would be really bothered by my absence would be the people at home in Vietnam who rely on me for their paychecks. This is what this job has brought to my life. What I realize after all these years is what compassion fatigue really means in the long term, totally separate from bipolar disorder. Being bipolar has been the key to how I managed to even have the passion and energy to start this work and it was vital to my resilience from PTSD that came from it. However, this work has taken my soul and made me unfit for normal human relationships. There is still no escape from it other than death. I have watched so many others in my position become like this and it breaks me to watch something so destructive to my life be so easily the next step for my fellow rescuers.

My goal is to ensure that this issue becomes public not for me because I am aware how little it means when a director of a small rescue in Vietnam isn’t well, but for those who come after me and for those who are thinking about entering the profession. We have not built sustainability into the animal care profession, and yes, it is a profession and not a hobby or a cute volunteer stint on a pretty beach somewhere. If we cannot support rescuers, we do not support rescue. If you care only for the animals and not the professionals who care for them you do not support rescue at all. You are delusional if you think that the humans in this field are unbreakable and that it does not matter anyway if we do break. Rescuers are no different than nurses and humanitarian workers. We see the worst of what humanity can do and we do it with so little support. Nothing about this work is noble. It is hell to do day in and day out in a situation in which we are so consistently helpless and unheard. We need to do better for all the animals, human included.

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Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist, pig snuggler, amateur vegan chef, and runner who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.

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Catherine Besch

Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist, pig snuggler, amateur vegan chef, and runner who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.

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