The Compassionate Anzo, Dealing with the Pitfalls of Empathy

The Compassionate Anzo, Dealing with the Pitfalls of Empathy

Recently, a close friend of mine revealed to me that the greatest reason she never pursued a career with animals was that she felt she could not do enough good to erase all the bad in the world. She told me that she had felt so overwhelmed by the many heartbreaks she experienced working short-term in a vet’s office, she could no longer do the job. For each life she helped save, she felt as though two would slip through her fingers. She left the job, burnt-out and feeling like an absolute failure. Compassion has many pitfalls and in a field such as anthrozoology, it is a subject we all must face if we are to get through our everyday studies and other labors.

Compassion fatigue is a whole body tragedy that extends out into the world as we interact with it. It can impact how we relate with others, the degree to which we can work, and in many ways, our personal and global health. As a passionate person in the field of anthrozoology, I have been angry. It has filled me with absolute contempt as I have seen the atrocities humans inflict upon nonhuman animals for minimal, needless gain. I have been disheartened. Sadness has washed over me as I have borne witness to perhaps the worst of all offenses: apathy. I have not become numb and perhaps this is slowly eating away at me, eating away at all of us at least a little. But what is an anzo to do? It seems in the very nature of this field to hold compassion dearest above all else. Compassion fatigue can bring about severe physical and mental exhaustion, causing us to waver in our efforts as we decline in health. After all, who can possibly work at their fullest potential to do good in the world if they feel as though they are struggling upstream?

Perhaps this is why so many people pick and choose those for whom we reserve our compassion. Do we all shed tears over the demise (and potential suffering) of the fleas that we eradicate from our dogs or cats? I, myself, think very little of feeding my sugar gliders mealworms, intentionally ignoring the violent manner in which my pets choose to eat them. Simply put, it is easier for me to accept the act if I allow myself to be mindless for a few moments. It is undoubtedly much easier for us all to bear the weight of compassion if we can ignore some of it and focus only on personal “favorites”. The bigger picture of compassion requires a much greater amount of skill, however.

Can we take a vacation from compassion? Mother Theresa was said to have suggested that her nuns take an entire year off from their duties every 4-5 years in order to recover from the weight of their care-giving work. Is this a plausible solution? For many, our endeavors in compassion are also our livelihoods and taking a year off from a job is simply not an option. More to the point, speaking with many anzos has led me to the conclusion that this compassion is not simply something we turn on when we go to work in a shelter or teach humane education; it is woven into the fibers of our very being. Can we shut off this part of ourselves, even if we truly need to do so? It seems impossible to me to simply abandon compassion for even a short length of time.

Can we heal as we go? Personally, I find this to be the most feasible way to avoid compassion fatigue. To be a successful, healthy professional in the field of anthrozoology, it may be necessary to take many steps to heal as we go about our days. We each must make a promise to ourselves to care for our own hearts and souls, just as we care for our non-human counterparts. Compassion must be extended both outward and inward as we find our own personal balances, knowing our own limits and finding ways to respect them. This could mean taking the time to go for a walk, listen to music, talk it out, or anything else that could lessen the load. We must allow ourselves to focus on our goals and enjoy the small victories more than anything. In my conversation with my disheartened friend, I reminded her that she had rescued a dog who was a stray living in the incredible heat of a Houston golf course. At the time she had been picked up, the dog (now named Kiba) was underweight, flea-bitten, and scared. Now, she has a safe home with a soft bed, a full belly, and an owner who loves her more than anything. While my friend alone cannot change the world, she did change Kiba’s world forever, which is a wonderful victory in my opinion.
I would love to hear more from fellow anzos to see how we all cope with the pitfalls of compassion! I would also like to add that in addition to caring for ourselves, we anzos must all stick together and help each other to bear the burdens as well. Alone we are strong, but together, we are unstoppable! 

“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” –Eleanor Brownn

“It’s all really very simple. You don’t have to choose between being kind to yourself and others. It’s one and the same” -Piero Ferrucci