Emotional and mental exhaustion. Isolation. Reduced sense of meaning in work.

They’re all symptoms of compassion fatigue, a condition of emotional exhaustion that sometimes occurs with caregivers.

Just like with human caregivers, those who care for stray and unwanted animals can feel the same devastation and heartache. The suicide rate in animal rescue workers is comparable to that of firefighters and police officers, according to a study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. In 2015, the study found that 5.3 per 1,000,000 protective service workers, including animal control, had committed suicide in the workplace.

Keeping emotions in check

Animals come into Onslow County’s animal shelter for any number of reasons. The shelter is a melting pot of sorts, with animals, mostly cats and dogs, coming from different kinds of backgrounds.

“It’s not an easy job in this career,” Howard Martin, Animal Services director, said. “You’ll see they do it because that’s what they like to do.”

While Animal Services employees and volunteers spend time caring for and getting to know each animal that comes through their shelter, they also see abuse and neglect cases and sometimes the animals have to be euthanized.

It can be hard on them as caregivers, but Martin said they feel a sense of duty and call to care for the animals.

“A lot of times I think my personal emotions might come out at home versus here,” Rachel Conklin, shelter manager, said. Conklin, who started at the shelter as a volunteer, said her methods of coping have changed as her role at the shelter has changed.

Above all, she’s found it important to stay calm and keep her emotions in check at work.

“Animals read off of people’s emotions all the time, so you kind of want to give them the feeling you want them to have,” she said.

Richard Gabbert, animal control manager, said he’s able to talk to his professional and personal friends, along with his wife, who he said is understanding when he gets home from work and wants to talk.

Like Conklin, Martin emphasized the importance of keeping emotions in check while on the job.

“You think about it when you get home, but you don’t think about it when you’re in the fold because if you do then you’re going to get hurt or hurt another animal in the process of doing it, so you do that at night,” he said.

It takes a special person with a switch to be in their line of work, Martin said, because they sometimes have to make difficult decisions.

“Some people are not geared out for it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not a good employee.”

As a former law enforcement officer and former nurse, Martin understands the importance of flipping that switch in order to put someone’s — or something’s needs — above your own.

“You can’t become attached to it. You can like it (and) you can love it, but you’re not attached to it,” he said. “Just because you’re not attached to it, doesn’t mean you don’t love the animal or you don’t have respect for the animal, don’t want the best for it while you’re in possession of the animal.”

At the same time, he said, you don’t want to see the animal suffer.

Sometimes the most humane decision, Conklin said, is euthanizing, which are some of the hardest cases she’s gone through.

“You know, some of the hard ones for me are some of the ones that have the severe injury or the ones hit by a car and so forth. While you know on one hand you’re doing the best thing for them, it’s hard to see them sitting in that pain before they get to the shelter and before that decision is able to be made,” she said. “You feel good that you’re there and doing the best you can to comfort them and take care of them in the end, but … you wish their mom or dad were there with them instead, which is hard.”

Taking care of yourself

Both managers, along with other shelter personnel, have gone through compassion fatigue courses.

Sometimes in order to take care of the animals, they have to take care of themselves first.

“There’s that phrase — compassion fatigue — and you do have to make sure you take care of yourself because if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to take care of the animals the best that you can either,” Conklin said. “So we get refreshers on compassion fatigue, and a lot of it is learning your coworkers and talking with them.”

Even though some of them have someone at home to talk to, Conklin said there are some job-specific things that are difficult to relate to, so it’s helpful to reach out to a co-worker — and to also keep an eye on them.

As shelter manager, Conklin said she doesn’t spend as much time hands-on with the animals as other members of her staff do.

“For a lot of our staff, that’s their job,” she said. “They intimately know the ins and outs of the different animals that are in our care; but at that point, a lot of it is talking to each other.”

That’s one thing that the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project recommends those suffering from compassion fatigue do, along with educating yourself, clarifying personal boundaries, expressing needs verbally and accepting where you are on your path.

Catherine Gneiting, of CG Counseling and Consulting in Jacksonville, said that compassion fatigue comes “when someone who works in a profession such as caregiving, mental health therapy, or anything in healthcare is burnt out from helping and giving all their emotional and mental energy to other people.”

All their energy, she said, is spent on their clients or patients.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project’s website, most people never take the time to understand how their jobs can affect them emotionally. They recommended committing to self-care with exercises, healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, developing a healthy support system, and using natural healing products to care for and heal the body.

Gneiting recommended a daily form of exercise, spending some time out in the sun and breathing fresh air, sleep, healthy eating and cutting out caffeine.

Conklin said she encourages her shelter employees to talk to her when they’re feeling these symptoms.

“Hopefully they take comfort in knowing that we try to use it as a last resort and make sure that it is in the best interest that it happens,” she said.

Making a difference

In 2015, the Onslow County Animal Shelter housed 5,266 animals from all over Onslow County.

These animals may be brought in for any number of reasons, from their owners giving them up to abuse or neglect to being injured from being hit by a car. Sometimes that means shelter personnel have to make difficult decisions, like putting the animals down.

“There have been a few times where you end up going home at the end of the night and shedding a few tears over it, if it was a particular circumstance, not because you ever feel like you’ve done something wrong, but just because it’s sad just like when you take your own personal animal to the vet if they need to be euthanized,” Conklin said.

Knowing that the decision to put an animal down is something that Conklin said she takes comfort in.

“It’s always made with lots of thought,” she said. “And I know no matter how long the animal has been with us, that the staff has done the best they can by the animal.”

Gabbart said he takes comfort in the understanding that the state of North Carolina authorizes euthanasia for injury and aggressive behavior. It also comforts him knowing it’s the best thing for that animal instead of letting it suffer, he said.

A lot of people, Martin said, think that the reason they have to euthanize is because of capacity, but in the six months since he took the job as director, it hasn’t been the case with dogs.

“When you start looking at numbers, let me tell you something. These guys have really built a brand here as far as turning these animals out by returning them back to their owners, especially adoptions,” he said. “We exhaust every means there is.”

Welcome: Welcome: Your first project
Create bar charts In 2015, the Onslow County Animal Shelter saw 37.7 percent, or 1,986 animals adopted — a 29.4 percent increase from the previous year. Rescues took in 194 animals from the shelter in 2015 and 487 animals were returned to their owners. Since 2013, the number of adoptions from the shelter have steadily increased, which the director and shelter manager attribute to their revamped adoption and foster programs, and the number of animals euthanized has decreased.

When Conklin first started at the shelter as a volunteer, she said they didn’t have a foster program.

“It was just staff here and they would take an animal home and foster it when they can, but now, the foster program is a resource, so when it becomes kitten season or puppy season and we have puppies come in that are three to four weeks old and need a mom and they came in with no mom, now instead of having nowhere for them to go, we have fosters that are willing to bottle feed,” she said.

According to Riley Eversull, Onslow County public information officer, the shelter’s foster program grew substantially in 2015 with more than 140 foster families. They also launched a Return to Owner in the field program, which allows animal control officers to scan microchips in the field.

They also hired a full-time community outreach coordinator to manage all Animal Service’s social media, which grew on Facebook by 141 percent, and includes an Instagram account.

“They do good here and it’s sometimes a job that they, in some way, have to thank themselves for what they do because sometimes you don’t always get that,” Martin said. “It’s definitely a tough job every day.”