Being a wildlife rescue volunteer is an incredibly rewarding experience. Having the skills and capability to help a sick, injured, orphaned or displaced animal can often provide an outlet for meaning and purpose in our lives. It allows us to make a difference in the community and the environment.
However, it can also come with significant mental strain.
It is important that you are aware of your limits. Your emotional bucket is finite – there’s only so much it can hold before it spills over. And if it spills over, you can’t take any more, putting yourself, your family and animals at risk.
Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout and can be equivalent to secondary traumatic stress – resulting from helping suffering people or animals. Volunteers in wildlife rescue are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue due to repeated or prolonged exposure to animal suffering, neglect, and abuse. Rescuers report high levels of guilt, sadness, anger, and exhaustion from their activities.
Signs of Compassion Fatigue
How can you recognise if you or someone else may be experiencing compassion fatigue? There are many ways compassion fatigue may present. These could include things such as
- feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
- reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity
- feeling overwhelmed and exhausted
- feeling detached, numb, or emotionally disconnected
- loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- increased anxiety, sadness, anger, and irritability
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- difficulty sleeping or sleep disturbances like nightmares
- physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, upset stomach, and dizziness
- increased conflict in personal relationships
- neglect of your own self-care
- withdrawal and self-isolation
- an increase in substance use as a form of self-medication
Reducing the Likelihood of Fatigue
It’s not easy to identify it in ourselves. Having an opportunity to debrief with friends, family, colleagues is an important step for mental stability. Whether it’s over the phone, in person or via messenger services – any chance to voice your feelings is therapeutic. Your close contacts will notice changes in you and may guide you to support. There are other tools and services you can use to help you maintain your emotional bucket:
- Take regular breaks from rescues.
- Have scheduled family / friend times where you can disconnect from rescue and spend time with people you love.
- Turn Slack on Do Not Disturb for a while. Removing the notifications means the cases are not on your mind.
- Mute the Slack channels that you don’t need instant notifications on. Do you really need to receive notifications from #carers if you’re not a carer or #attending?
- Advise public to call organisations for help rather than individuals like yourself – even if you do the above you may still not be able to fully disconnect if you are getting personal calls for wildlife rescue.
- Contact counselling and support services (see below) any time, you don’t even need to be feeling the signs of burnout to seek these services.
Remember: you own your way. Never ever feel guilty about not being able to assist an animal if you are not physically able to or in the right mind space to. No one can force you to. Simply let us know and we can get additional support for you.
Support Services Available
Professional support services are available for wildlife rescue volunteers:
WildTalk provides counselling services to wildlife rescuers and carers. All WildTalk counsellors have experience working with wildlife, so understand the language and situations presented without having to have them explained to them. You can access up to six free sessions per year. Call 1300 307 111.