“Like Norm, I too am a passionate believer that every person who works within our sector has a unique and potentially very powerful opportunity to change our world for the better. Through experience, I’m also acutely aware of the challenges and stresses inherent to jobs in our sector, and how those challenges can sometimes stop us from seeing how special our own actions can really be, or even hinder us from being effective in reaching our goals.
Sadly for you all, my talk probably won’t be quite as funny and entertaining as that of Norm Hewitt, but I hope that by the end of it you will all share in my firm belief that while it’s impossible for a single person to change the entire system all by themselves, the system can only change for the better if those working within it remember the power of influence we hold in every daily interaction we have with companion animals and their people.”
That’s part of a graduation speech I wrote and presented to the GOTAFE 2013 graduating cohort of animal studies and nursing students. Talking to strangers about how I came to do what I do was a fulfilling but raw experience, as up until that point I’d not really shared the more painful parts of my journey in animal welfare with anyone other than my closest friends. I took a leap of faith and did so that night in the hope that the students listening would remember that they were absolutely not alone, if they ever found themselves in a similar position.
Nine years on from that night and closer to 19 years on from my first foray into the shelter world as undergraduate work placement student, I still remember the supportive warmth of the audience response to that speech. I also know that few, if any, of those students will still be working in our sector despite the immense promise and passion they all showed at their graduation.
You see, none of us get into this work fully understanding what we are signing up for. We just can’t, because our imaginations aren’t that good and naivety breeds optimism.
Back then, while I was living the slow slide into professional burnout, I honestly had no idea of what I was feeling and why – I was just incredibly tired and angry. It was well after I had quit my job and simply by chance that I came across Doug Fakkema’s article ‘The Four Phases’ and realised that my experience was sadly common. That article set me on a path to learning all about how very non-unique and entirely preventable my experience actually was.
Now, without the benefit of naivety, I still wholeheartedly believe that animal welfare and management work is as uniquely rewarding as it is challenging. I’ve seen lots of people come and go, and sometimes come back again like I did myself when I stepped back into the field from the relative safety of academia. While we have daily opportunities to change the world for good on both a tiny and a large scale, our work also has a reputation for bringing even the most passionate and committed of us to our knees in sadness, frustration, and exhaustion.
Coming back with more experienced eyes though, I’m acutely aware that we are desperately short on healthy role models and far too many of us have become comfortable with ‘toxic workplace culture‘ in the guise of having the strength of character to deal with the demands of our work.
Ours in the only sector I know of that still openly and proudly uses a lack of training and support for ‘newbies’ as a test of their ability ‘to make it’. Then we wonder why we have so much trouble retaining talent and lack healthy role models…Some might even say that companion animal welfare culture celebrates the symptomology of chronic moral distress and burnout as proof of our dedication to the cause.
There’s an undeniable wisdom in openly acknowledging that, perhaps sometimes, we are our own worst enemies in the fight to improve how companion animal management and welfare is done. It’s hard to get into a ‘learning and collaboration’ headspace when we’re stuck in survival mode.
So what do we do about it?
When we eventually come to realise that we’re all far too comfortable with the symptoms of psychological trauma and burnout in ourselves and those around us, how we choose to respond matters. Our choices matter not just to us, but to the bright new faces in our shelters and AMO teams, and those already working in our field who are feeling the strain and looking around for someone to point them back towards their lost motivation.
- Do we look for a way out and leave behind the field we were once passionate about in order to save ourselves?
- Do we just accept it and dig deeper into the culture that took us to this point? Maybe find a better target for our anger and silently hope to ourselves that we’re able to just keep going if we stay angry?
- Do challenge our culture by reaching out and trying to connect beyond our own organisational walls in the hopes of finding an answer? Look for people who can help us learn how to be healthier, more effective, and more sustainable? Then, once we’ve gotten past the discomfort that it took for us to break ranks and reach out, do we have enough left in our tank to keep growing and relight the fire motivating us to learn more and do better?
The difference between these choices is not how ‘good’ we are as people, although it’s much easier to make hard choices with support of those we respect. The difference is what can see beyond the choices – what we imagine life looks like when we take that path – because they are all just coping strategies. Choices people make when the challenges they face are beyond what they can realistically process and reconcile at the time.
While many of the most challenging aspects of our work are beyond our control and sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is recognise when we need to leave, we each have the power of influence on our side and can choose at an individual level to challenge culture and effect change in our own circles.
We can show people that we won’t celebrate their suffering as proof that they ‘care enough’ and that there is a future for them in our sector.
We can expect and demand that every person who comes to our field will be well trained and equipped to do their job, mentored by healthy role models, and afforded the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe, supportive environment.
We can stop focusing on and judging people’s individual ‘coping’ choices and start addressing the factors that force them to make the choice in the first place.
Most of all, we need to learn how to talk to each other respectfully, openly share knowledge, and support beyond the walls of our own organisations because none of us know and can do everything.
Just like Phil in Groundhog Day, we need to look beyond ourselves and work together if we want to change the script on how we do things.
This is another section of that graduation speech, that I hope might help you to see what I see and understand why I am so persistently noisy about us moving beyond the old ‘companion animal welfare VS advocacy VS management’ paradigm. I spoke about an undergraduate class I designed and taught at my university, in which students learned about companion animal issues and were challenged with a problem to solve:
The case study was a hit and over the four years that I ran it, I had over a dozen different industry leaders and representatives come in and speak with our students – researchers studying human-animal interactions, a fabulous AMO (Animal Management Officer), representatives from BAW (Bureau of Animal Welfare) and the DPI (Department of Primary Industries), shelter managers, private rescue people, and representatives from the purebred dog and cat worlds.
I was lucky enough to chat all of these people before and after class. They all had the same basic message for me: that community education is really important, but the first and most vital step in making forward progress is being a positive catalyst for attitude change. More importantly, they taught us all that the public expect us to lead them, so the most effective way of achieving the attitude change we want, is to be a part of an inclusive network of professionals from different areas, who believe in the same goal and utilise each other’s strengths to provide great service and bring the community on board with our journey.
The system can absolutely work to achieve the outcomes we want, we just have to pull together respectfully and get behind the same goal in order to make it happen.
P.S. I hope I’m starting to find my writing groove again after a long hiatus. I also hope you’re still here in the sector and if not, that you are happy, healthy and surrounded by loved ones.
Today’s picture is a ‘tailor made’ cat portal. That narrow ring of PVC joining two cages represents so much: the generosity of the company who donated the material, the hard work of all the staff who put in effort to make them possible, the fun that myself and my (now very much missed) co-workers and volunteers had learning and applying all the practical skills we needed to make it happen, and most of all, the significant improvement in the quality of life and outcomes for all the cats who have lived in these cages since. We can’t change the world on our own, but we can achieve some pretty impressive things together.