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
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.
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.
Obligation vs. Ability to Provide Adequate Care
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
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.
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 then results in:
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.
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.
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