Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Burnout: When Rescuers Need Rescuing

The dangers of rehabbers getting in over their heads

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


As the number of pets - especially exotic pets - increases, so too has the need for rescues: people or organizations who take in unwanted animals, get the sick and injured ones restored to health or, if necessary, humanely euthanized, and place the healthy ones in proper homes or facilities where they will be cared for properly for the rest of their lives. Along with the increase in number of people doing rescue, so has the incidence of rescuers burning out and, ultimately, providing less than adequate care to those they rescue.

Rescue vs. Refuge
To engage in proper and humane animal rescue, an individual or organization needs not only sufficient space to adequately house all the animals, but sufficient financial resources to pay for the animals' daily needs, equipment replacements, additional equipment as species or individuals with unusual needs are taken in, and to pay necessary veterinary expenses. In the case of individuals, the rescuer also needs adequate resources to pay for their own necessities: rent/mortgage, food, health care, etc.

Rescues, as a concept and in operation, need to be separated from refuges, which are entirely different. In rescues, the animals are removed or otherwise acquired from unsuitable situations, helped to recover if they are injured or ill, and then moved on to good homes where they will be cared for properly for the rest of their lives. While a person or organization doing rescue may have a core group of personal pets and/or animals who are regularly used in education programs, the rescued animals themselves are provided the necessary services, healed, stabilized with proper care and diet, perhaps tamed, and then placed in permanent homes.

Refuges, on the other hand, are the final stop for the majority of the animals they receive. Rather then move the animals on to permanent homes, they are kept, housed permanently at the refuge. Refuges are set up as such: they are usually nonprofit organizations with lots of land, paid staff, including a full or part-time veterinarian, or veterinarians who regularly donate their time and expertise to the care of the refuged animals, and a cadre of specially-trained, well-organized volunteer staff. Examples of refuges include Tippi Hedren's Shambala and Martine Collette's Wildlife Waystation.

Note: some refuges, due to taking in so many small cast-off exotics, have started adopting some of them out, such as Wildlife Waystation now adopting out green iguanas.

See the article Up for Discussion: Ethics and Resources on the problems increasingly encountered by wildlife rescues having to deal with exotic pets.

Sometimes, what starts out as a pet rescue slides inexorably into a refuge, without the resources of a proper refuge. This happens when the rescuer is unable to find good homes for the animals they've taken in and so the animal stay there...and stay there...and stay there. Because they too often find it difficult to say "no" when called, they keep taking animals in, while few if any leave.

Moral Obligation vs. Ability to Provide Adequate Care
One of the dangers with individuals who feel a deep moral obligation towards doing rescue is that, either by intent or lack of realization of what they are doing, they become a refuge, with increasing numbers of animals inhabiting a finite space, using up finite or otherwise limited financial and other resources. The care and concern that drove them into starting to take in a few animals that needed a good home warps into an almost obsessive compulsion to take in everything that comes to their attention - regardless of their ability to properly care for it.

The result is animals kept in small, poorly outfitted enclosures that are irregularly cleaned, with the animals living in their own wastes. As money gets tighter, proper food may be sacrificed for something that is less nutritious, or less regular. Proper care by a veterinarian is replaced by animals going without, or home surgeries done without proper training, surgical supplies, or even a clean place in which to perform the procedures. Since the necessary drugs are too expensive, the animals either do without or are treated with a hodgepodge of over-the-counter and homeopathic products. The stress of the situation adversely affects a number of these animals, ones who may not have been that sick to begin with or who would have recovered well if provided the necessary vet care, environment and diet. Instead of recovering and being adopted out to a good home, they languish in the overcrowded and less-than-appropriate conditions provided by this well-meaning rescuer, resulting in more animals dying than make it out alive.

Too often, a rescuer becomes overextended by taking in too many animals. As I know from personal experience, learning how to just say "no" when yet another personal calls and says "I have a [species] I can't keep any more" is one of the hardest things to do. This is especially difficult if one is the only or one of a very few people doing rescue in a geographical area. When a rescuer doesn't learn to say no, however, all the animals under that rescuer's care are put at risk.

When Intake Exceeds Placements
Another factor compounds the excessive intake of animals: fewer and fewer animals are adopted out. For one of a variety of reasons, most often known only to the individual themselves, these rescuers refuse to adopt out any or most of the rescues. Perhaps at some level they realize how poor - even inhumane - the conditions of care have become and they don't want anyone to see it. Perhaps they get too attached to the animals and think that no one can provide the care they require. With others, it is an acquisition or 'saint' mentality: see how I dedicate myself to these poor animals in need, sacrificing my own life and needs for them?

It is easy to get into the "none of the idiots out there can care for these animals properly" mode. It is also easy to fall back on "none of the other people doing rescue around here are as good/careful as I am." But the bottom line is, if a rescue doesn't make serious efforts to find good homes, they won't find them, and if they keep taking in animals without the physical or financial supports required to care for all of them properly, the rescue ultimately isn't any better than the people they've rescued the animals from. In essence, they become what they decry.

An intentional rescue-turned-refuge might be something like the following situation. Joe A. loves turtles. Through the years of keeping turtles, he has become fairly knowledgeable about the care and keeping of healthy turtles, and has learned a little about caring for sick ones. As he became known in the general community, he started getting invited to give talks to small groups. His name was given out to people who had turtles needing homes and to those looking for turtles to adopt. For whatever reason, Joe, who passed himself off as "great friends" with the other reptile rescue people in the community, decided that he didn't really want to deal with sick animals any more. Instead, he would refuse them when people contacted him, referring them to the other reptile rescues in the area. He would only take in healthy animals. Occasionally he would call the other turtle rescuers in the area to see if he could trade the sick ones he did end up with for healthy ones the rescuers had. In time, he stopped adopting turtles out, just acquired more and more. He claimed to be a refuge, but no one was ever allowed in to see his place. Unlike places like Casa de Tortuga and Shambala in southern California, refuges who regularly open their doors to the public for fundraising and educational purposes, this refuge just seems to be a collection of as many turtles as Joe can get.

An unintentional refuge is something most of us have read about occasionally in the newspaper or heard brief sound bytes on the television news. A friend of mine, who was an animal control officer, recounted the time she and her partner responded to a complaint by neighbors of an elderly woman who had, according to the neighbors, too many cats. When the officers finally gained admittance into the house, they found the floor inches deep in dried cat feces, hundreds of cats in every room, nook and cranny, litters of kittens (and mice) in closets, drawers and torn mattresses, bowls of dried cat food all over the place, the air thick with the stench of feces, rotting cat food, floating cat hair, dust...and worse. Did this elderly lady start out with the intention to mistreat cats by keeping them in filthy, overcrowded conditions? No. She started out by feeding neighborhood strays, then taking strays in, one by one, until a few became dozens, and dozens became hundreds, as her failing health and limited finances took her toll on being able to care for them. Why don't people in this situation call in for some help? Place the animals? Get help cleaning? It's difficult to say. In this case, it was an elderly woman, and so there may have been some decline in mental faculties. But cases like this have been reported where the person was much younger and supposedly mentally competent. In fact, there was a recent case in Sonoma County, involving a woman who lived and work elsewhere in the bay area, whose house for cats was finally entered by animal shelter officers who found over 200 cats.

Reptile rescues don't have the funding resources that mammals and birds rescues do, just by virtue of the fact that far fewer people deem reptiles "worth" spending millions of dollars on to save. Thus, most reptile rescuers, even if they are able to get donations end up funding a great deal of the expenses out of their own pocket.

Burnout results from a number of factors:

  • The time and funds spent on caring for all the animals

  • Lack of help from others in providing care

  • Dealing with the public calling to get rid of their animals

  • Getting overly attached to rescues to the point where they remain rather than adopted out, adding to the overall burden of daily care and overall cost

  • Being unprepared for the physical and emotional demands of rescue

Burnout then results in:

  • Less care given to the animals as the effort becomes too overwhelming

  • Animals getting sicker because of the declining conditions

  • Declining conditions leading to less likelihood of asking others for help in caring for the animals

  • Declining ability to make decisions in the best interests of the animals

Refugers and rescuers who can't learn to say "no" have the highest rate of burnout.

As a former rescuer myself, I can't tell you the number of times I've had volunteers who never showed, or who ended up spending time playing or chatting instead of doing what they supposedly came to do. I've had a lot of parents "offer" their kids, but you can't safely leave kids unsupervised, and if you have to be there, overseeing their every step, it's ultimately double the work, not less. Then there's the little matter of liability insurance, etc. if someone gets bitten or otherwise injured in the course of being on the premises. So, ultimately, the responsibility for getting everything - cleaning, feeding, diet preparation, medication schedules developed and administered, medical care needs attended to, vet trips, taming and socializing, behavioral enrichment, etc., falls squarely on the individual refuger or rescuer.

In the case of mammal and bird refuges, some may be large enough to have paid (albeit very poorly) staff, including some live-in personnel. But they, too, are faced with finite space and constant fundraising efforts to provide for the animals and any paid staff and veterinarian.

My animal control officer friends would tell their stories of going on calls to homes like the ones described above. Many of the these people started out with the best of intentions...but never learned to say no, to draw the line. I've had this niggling fear deep in my hind brain that someday I, too, would end up something like that if I didn't finally force the words, "No, I have no more room" out of my mouth.

A friend of mine found herself overwhelmed with turtles and tortoises before she finally started saying no. We are both deeply concerned about the welfare of animals, both involved in education, and both had to come to grips with the fact that we aren't the pet trade's or the public's garbage can. As much as we morally feel a responsibility towards every animal in need, we simply cannot in good conscience take in more animals than we can physically and financially support. To keep taking them in and not be able to provide the care they require ultimately is as cruel and inhumane to the animals as some of the homes we have rescued them from.

It's just one little word, but one that can make such a difference in the health and well-being of the animals and the human: No.

Related Articles

Up for Discussion: Ethics vs. Resources

Starting a Reptile Rescue

Pugsley: An example of what can happen when a rescuer is overwhelmed

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