The Human in Humane Animal Work

07 Mar

Mahatma Ghandi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its animals.”  Over the past decade, and especially in the past year I’ve come to see that the animal welfare movement can only be advanced by improving how it treats its humans.  

“Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with. The very thing that makes them so great at their work, their empathy and dedication and love for animals, makes them vulnerable,” Psychotherapist J. Eric Gentry tells the Sacramento Bee, as quoted in Barkpost. But spend 10 minutes on social media and you’ll see another pain-saturated truth. Human beings are fair game when it comes to criticism and name calling, especially if they’re doing the hardest work. The other rescues are doing it wrong, the no kill movement is naive, animal control (though required by a government entity) is inhumane, euthanizing (for any reason) is murder, allowing suffering is incompetence or apathy.  

Humans are the most overlooked and underappreciated species in Animal Welfare. The Animal Control Officers who see so many terrible things. The vets and vet techs who face down illness, or face the fact that they can’t because treating this one animal means 15 others can’t be treated. The people who perform euthanasia on the dog that mauled the child. The behavior specialist who is making progress with a dog only to come in on Monday to find he was euthanized due to illness or space. The director who is condemned by the community for not putting the animal down despite a court restriction on doing so. The daily caregivers who perform hard physical labor every day, scrubbing, sanitizing, lifting animals that are too scared to walk on leash, breaking up fights, aching in their bones and in muscles they didn’t used to know they had until they got this job. Not too long ago I saw a young kennel keeper on his break, head down on his arm across the table, sleeping hard. Others were talking, a meeting was happening on the side of the room (what shelter doesn’t have a shortage of meeting space?) and he didn’t move until it was time to go back to work and his friend woke him up. It was symbolic to me. I cherished that 10 minute nap for him. He's a good worker. He deserved it. 

There is enormous sympathy for most of the animals that need to find permanent homes. But there is precious little support given to the people who do this hard work. There is very little staff training in most shelters. Very little counselling when things get hard, other than when counselling is a euphemism for punishment. Very little, “Hey, can I help you with that? How ya’ doing today? Can I get your input on this?” Precious little respect, but plenty of information about everything that’s going wrong. Sure, many kinds of businesses operate this way, but few of their employees have to work next to great big helpings of watching animals suffer and condemnation from the community.   

I’m going to leave you with a few quotes from Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. The answers to a lot of problems in animal welfare are in these messages. It’s time they are put into action for the animals’ benefit... and for their caregivers.

“The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”

“If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.”

“Train employees well enough that they can leave. Treat them well enough that they don’t want to.”  

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.”

This may sound extreme, but I will even go as far as to say that even the animals do not come first. The people doing the work of their care come first. 

If you take care of the caregivers, they will take care of the animals.  

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