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Working With Animals - A Blessing Or A Curse?

*** I was recently contacted by a uni student who wanted more insight into what it's like to run a rescue for a project she was working on. Having written up an answer, I thought it was worth sharing to show what really goes on inside an animal charity. ***

For me, like many others in the industry, working with animals was a calling that began in childhood. My ever-growing number of four-legged companions were the only company I sought and, despite the expectations of my parents, this is certainly something I never grew out of. But now, having managed an animal rescue for just a mere few years, I am beginning to become accustomed to the lifestyle it comes with and the difficulties one must face to pursue a career in animal welfare.

One of the first points I should make clear is that, for me, running the rescue is a passion – not a job. It is a lifestyle choice requiring the sacrifice of holidays, free-time and good pay for the long hours, emotional stress and physical work it takes to care for animals day-in, day-out. Working with animals is absolutely incredible; no two days are the same and seeing the animals gain health, happiness and confidence is extremely rewarding. Yet, animal rescue work is famous for being an exceptionally stressful activity with a high rate of staff and volunteers suffering compassion fatigue and burnout.

When I first started the rescue, I was full of huge ideas and enthusiasm and I was ready to face the world! It became my dream, my life and my full-time hobby. I couldn’t think of anything else – possibly to the point of obsession. As everyone with animals must know, they require care seven days a week. Hence, I threw myself into the work and soon found I was working a long-hour, seven day week not only to care for the animals but to support the volunteers, man the phones and ensure everything was under control. It didn’t take long before I felt irreplaceable – as if no one else could manage the role, meaning days off weren’t an option.

Working seven days a week is not sustainable – especially in such a tiring, stressful role. Every day gives a wide range of emotions and you may begin the day with a “difficult” animal finding their forever home, but end it at the vet with one of your chronically-unwell animals needing urgent treatment. Even when home at the end of the day, the emotional stress doesn’t end. Loving animals is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they are therefore on your mind constantly – especially when unwell. You end up not eating or sleeping due to the relentless worry. This then leads to a potential reluctance to take care of one’s self at the expense of the mission of the charity.

Despite what many may think about work at an animal rescue, it is not all just cuddly bunnies and happy-ever-afters. In fact, it's managing a never-ending, challenging combination of scarce resources – both in terms of human power and financially – with a lack of regular time off to unwind, but all whilst ensuring you keep a cheerful, smiling face in front of visitors, adopters and volunteers.

One of the most prominent emotions I feel daily is guilt. I feel guilty when someone donates financially and I can do nothing more but thank them. I feel guilty when the animal they have donated towards doesn’t survive the treatment and passes away. I feel guilty that I have let that animal down after they came to me seeking help. Every time an animal passes away in my care, I feel responsible. It’s the relentless feeling of wishing I had done more or running through things I could have done but didn’t. With the number of animals entering the rescue, having a few pass away every now and then is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt; it doesn’t mean I don’t cry each and every time one dies. Making life-changing decisions happens on an almost-daily basis and no – they never get easier.

One of the only things as dreadful as losing an animal is seeing one come in from a severe neglect or welfare case. This is when it becomes tough to remain professional and all you want to do is scream at the person responsible. Yet, the polite phone manner must continue to ensure the animal reaches safety. These phone calls are the worst and, each day, I am fearful to even pick up the phone in case of another. I don’t think I have ever yet said “no” to one of these requests. I have, nonetheless, come to a realisation that not every animal can be saved. I understand that I can’t take in every animal from every situation, but this doesn’t mean I will turn away an emergency. Even when the rescue is bursting with animals, I have never been able to turn away an animal in urgent need. Perhaps this is my greatest weakness. I am frequently told “you don’t have space” or “just say no”, but the emotional aspects weigh heavily on me and I end up caving to the opportunity to save another life.

Learning to have a thick skin and ignore the people who belittle my efforts is one of the hardest things I have learnt to face in my time running the rescue – possibly because I am a perfectionist and care a lot about what others think. Even though I do what I can and work my hardest, I have quickly learnt that there is no way to please everyone. There is always an outsider or two (usually people who have no idea of the never-ending welfare cases we are faced with) who think they are above me and like to make things difficult. These people will tell me I’m not good enough because my animals don’t have mansion-style set-ups or brand new toys on a daily basis. They will tell me I shouldn’t be taking in animals if I can’t offer them a luxury lifestyle. But, when an animal is malnourished, unwell, suffering or simply coming into the rescue because there is no other option, what they need is love and care. We pay their vet bills and we nurse them back to health. The life of luxury comes later when they find their forever homes.

We all work in rescue for one reason – to make a positive difference for animals – and we all have a strong desire to prevent suffering. However, it is no wonder the turnover of staff and volunteers in animal rescues is so high. Those suffering from compassion fatigue (also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder) and burnout often leave the industry with severe exhaustion and loss of enthusiasm.

It is so easy to focus on the negatives when you are faced with such turmoil daily and when the negatives are so emotionally draining. Yet, there are positives too. I never get tired of the fantastic, rewarding feeling every time an animal recovers from a health problem or finds a new home. The sadness of seeing the animal leave the rescue after many, many hours of care is soon replaced by the joy of them finding a forever family of their own. Receiving updates from these families never fails to bring a smile to my face and reminds me of the lives we have saved and the incredible journeys these animals have been on.

When entering the world of animal welfare and starting the rescue, I could not even have dreamt of finding the amazing, dedicated, kind team of volunteers I have gained over the years. Seeing the young volunteers grow up learning about the animals and working hard alongside everyone to face whatever financial struggle comes next – it is such a pleasure to meet and know these people. There are days when we cry from the loss of an animal or the pain we feel when an animal comes in from unimaginable conditions, but there are also days of fun and laughter as we connect over our mutual passion for animals. I am sure not many other rescues are lucky enough to have such a fantastic team of willing volunteers and this is something that will always keep me strong – knowing I never have to face anything alone.

Over the course of my years running the rescue, I have grown as a person. I may be young and I may have dropped out of education earlier than expected, yet I believe I have learnt more than any educational facility could have taught me. It will always be an adventure and a challenge running the rescue and, while it is something I could easily give up at times, it is what I love. Every animal that comes into the rescue has a place in my heart and I could never forget a single one. I consider myself lucky to have shared time with all of these animals, whether they have left to go to forever homes, sadly succumbed to their illness or remain with me for long-term care and treatment.

Until there are no more animals needing me, I will be here.

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