This is the first post of Sisco Miyagi so I’m a bit excited and a bit anxious about how this is all going to go. If you want to know more about me, or why this blog is named after a kelpie and a movie character, head to the ‘About Di and Sisco’ page to find out more. I don’t have any hard and fast rules in my mind for the blog. Mostly it will be sheltering and animal management content (coz that’s my thing!), with some ‘Sisco Miyagi’s Lessons for Life’ tossed in every now and again, and sometimes some posts for dog owners because dogs really are a unique and pretty fantastic species so why wouldn’t I talk about them a bit for the fun of it. I’m planning on making this a Friday gig, so will be popping up content at the end of each week (well, that’s the aim!).
To get myself started with The Teachings of Sisco Miyagi, I’ve re-jigged some previous work to give a little insight into why I’m such a die-hard advocate for not just the animals who find themselves in our companion management and welfare systems, but also the people within that system too. The first few posts are kind of long because they weren’t written for the blog, so if you aren’t the reading type, I promise to be less wordy in the future. This first post is one of my early attempts to articulate the importance of valuing our workforce enough to invest in proper training and support for the human end of the companion animal relationship. So here is the story of Betty and Charlie…
We start our story watching Betty as she stands at the front desk of her local shelter. Betty’s eyes are on the ground because she is unable to look at her little terrier, Charlie, as she is here to relinquish him. Betty struggles to make eye contact with the shelter receptionist and has a big lump in her throat, while she signs forms and nods to indicate that she understands the possible consequences of her decision. She does her best to maintain resolve and composure, under the hard stare of the staff member who comes to collect Charlie, and then she turns and leaves as quickly as she can so that no-one sees her distress and she can’t see Charlie’s confusion as she leaves him to his fate.
The two staff members manning the front desk are angry and frustrated that yet another old dog has been dumped at their busy shelter because they know that space is limited and there’s a good chance that Charlie won’t make it back out the front door. They exchange a few words about Betty’s lack of commitment to her dog, as evidenced by her unwillingness to talk to them while she filled out her forms, and the bitterness of their emotions is palpable; they don’t know that managing their shelter’s intake flow would mean they never have to worry about pets dying due to lack of space again.
During Charlie’s intake examination, the vet and nurse on duty make apprehensive eye contact over the top of Charlie’s head. He’s an older dog with cataracts, arthritis and hearing problems – and he’s a bundle of nerves. Both people contemplated the possibility that Charlie might not make it out of the shelter alive, and Charlie’s anxious expression as he walked off to his kennel reflected how they were both feeling; they don’t know that their community has a volunteer support service for owners like Betty, and a simple phone conversation with Betty before she made that trip would have prevented Charlie from entering the shelter at all.
When his foster-carer came to collect Charlie a week later, she found a frightened, shut-down bundle of fur and silently despaired that anyone would leave a dog like Charlie at a shelter to fend for himself; she didn’t know that Betty had just been diagnosed with dementia, and without anyone to support her and Charlie at home, she’d been forced to move in to a care facility that doesn’t allow pets.
Charlie eventually found a new home but being an older dog, he took a little while to adapt to his new life. His new family love him dearly and regularly send photos of Charlie asleep with his new ‘brother from another mother’ back to the shelter and his foster-carer. Seeing Charlie in a loving home gives everyone at the shelter a much-needed morale boost, and they feature Charlie’s story in their monthly newsletter as a great example of everyone working together to make Charlie’s outcome a success. Charlie’s story was counted as a win because he made it back out the front door alive.
Let’s examine this idea that Charlie’s story was really a win for everyone involved. Sure, Charlie got a new family who love him dearly. But, he was happy and healthy with Betty and his stay in the shelter, whilst short, was very stressful and left him with ongoing anxiety issues. The shelter staff got to see Charlie leave via the front door and his is not a face they will remember as his life slipped away from him. But, those feelings of frustration, anger, and anxious concern felt by everyone who came in to contact with Charlie during his stay added to the considerable emotional and psychological burden that each of them carries. The attendant who helped admit Charlie quit her job the following week because her burden simply got too heavy and she couldn’t carry it anymore. The vet that completed Charlie’s intake exam lost her best friend, another passionate shelter vet, to suicide just last month. She understands why with every fibre of her body. The rescuer is rightly proud that she saved Charlie from a prolonged stay in the shelter. However, she’s been fostering continuously for 2 years and although she dearly wants to visit family interstate this Christmas, she feels she can’t take a break because that would mean that a dog like Charlie would be stuck in the shelter over the holidays, or worse. She has misses her grandchildren and feels guilty that once again, she won’t be around to watch them open their presents. Betty returned home from the shelter that day to an empty house for the first time in over a decade and broke down crying with guilt and grief. Charlie was her best friend and her only reason to get out of bed in the morning, and she had left him alone to face an unknown fate because she didn’t know what else to do.
Charlie’s tale is the story of an expensive consolation prize, not a win.
While my characters are all fictional, stories like theirs are repeated daily in pounds and shelters across Australia. We have a workforce containing some of the most dedicated and passionate people I have ever met; people who, with the right training and support, could and would keep dogs like Charlie out of shelters. Yet, we celebrate expensive consolation prizes as wins because when we get down to the crux of it, the system is a set up to pay for the low input in training and staff support with the personal costs borne by those who care for our animals. Society, and more importantly, those people in positions to drive positive change, see animal welfare as ‘low skilled work’ and therefore not requiring or deserving of good quality training and education – why invest time and money to train someone when they will leave within the year and you’ll have to train a replacement? Over the last decade, we’ve made huge leaps forward in the value we place on companion animals – pets are not disposable and animal lives matter so much that whole organisations are torn to pieces and rebuilt, sometimes several times over, because our society quite rightly no longer accepts the killing of pets as a population management tool. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the workforce in our sector.
We don’t yet have good data on the extent of job-related stress disorders, including Compassion Fatigue, within the Australian animal welfare and management workforce – we don’t even have a good idea of how many people work or volunteer in roles within our sector. However, research out of the United States has identified at least six unique job-related stressors faced by those in animal welfare, in addition to the 11 shared with other caring occupations (Roberts, 2015) – these stressors apply regardless of whether a person is paid for their work and in most cases, irrespective of their direct exposure to euthanasia. As we demand better outcomes of animals and start to more fully embrace the intrinsic link between animal and human welfare, the people on the front line of our sector are facing challenges far beyond what they are trained and equipped to deal with. If we want our workforce to be able to embrace the changes and opportunities that we are facing during this period of growth, we need to start treating the emotional, mental and physical costs of the work we ask them to do, as the finite resources that they are. We need to stop just counting the animals that don’t die in our shelters and find ways to count the human-pet bonds that were never broken because of the great work our welfare sector does. We need to count the people who ‘fall out of’ welfare work under the weight of their burden and then find ways to drive that number down just like we have done for animal euthanasia rates. We need to create more opportunities for true wins to celebrate and help make the consolation prizes less expensive.
The great news is that, thanks to our friends from the US, we already know a bit about how to do these things and the central theme is always ‘education and communication’. An education system built for animal welfare and management work and a healthy organisational culture that actively manages the personal costs of this work through open communication, creates workers with an increased sense of control over their work, increased job satisfaction, increased resiliency to stress and a more balanced perspective on how each individual and organisation fits within the broader animal management and welfare sector. This means they are more effective at their jobs, more able to adapt to changes in the workplace, and much less likely to succumb to the effects of job-related stress – in short, if you invest in people, they don’t burn out and leave. The even better news is that we have people with the skills and ability to provide that education and facilitate that communication right here in Australia.
To the managers, employers and co-ordinators that are driving culture within our sector, it’s time to have a group rethink about how we see ourselves, our work forces, and our culture around education and training. Chances are high that you climbed the ranks of the welfare world from cleaning kennels to where you are while driving the clunky old flatbed truck that is our current norm for on-the-job training in our sector. You might recognise that it’s not great, but think it’s too expensive to replace, or maybe you feel safe in it because it’s familiar… thing is, it costs a fortune to run because it guzzles fuel, it’s unreliable, the parts are obsolete (and expensive!) and the ride is so bad that you are regularly losing people off the back. I can assure you that I’ve never met a researcher or educator in this field who didn’t love to talk about their area of expertise, or wasn’t willing to try and find a way to improve outcomes for everyone involved – we love wins too, that’s why we do what we do! So, I invite you to strike up a conversation with your local ‘truck dealership’ today and see what options are available – you might be pleasantly surprised.
To the shelter and pound staff, vets and nurses, AMOs and the army of volunteers who care for companion animals in our society, I want to ask you a favour. I know there’s not a lot of time or mental energy left for learning when you have spent your day cleaning, conversing, advocating and keeping your emotions in-check in situations that would make most normal people tear up or punch a wall, but, the alternative to learning how to do things differently is staying where you are. I’m yet to meet a caring and compassionate person in this sector who is happy with our status quo, so we both know that is not why you started in this work and it’s not sustainable. So, my request to you is that as often as you can (and it needs to be regular!) reach out and make a connection with someone you can learn from. It can’t be a person in your circle because finding new people who care enough to invest in you is half the benefit of the exercise, so be brave, start small (join a FB group or send an email to a sheltering person you admire) and remember that you are too important to fall off the back of the truck.