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I’m sitting on an airplane as I write this, clicking away at my laptop’s keyboard with the recent strains of a not-quite-tuned-out safety message ringing in my ears: “Always place the safety mask securely on yourself before assisting other passengers.”
This directive never fails to remind me of the first bit of advice I always impart to my stressed-out rescuer clients when they’re starting to feel overburdened: “There’s a reason airline safety dictates that you apply the oxygen mask to your face first. You cannot help others safely and effectively unless you’re ready to care for others!”
Doesn’t that make sense?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that talking to rescuers and foster parents is easy for veterinarians. Indeed, it’s often uncomfortable, stressful and fraught with interpersonal pitfalls.
As veterinarians, we want those who take on the needy to care for them well. Yet, in our veterinarian’s oath, we’ve also pledged to serve human health. After all, the connection between humans and animals is close enough that we cannot forsake our own species’ well-being in the service of others.
But the truth is that these fundamentally kind and sensitive people who derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping animals often experience a taxing degree of emotional anxiety and compassion fatigue in the process.
So veterinarians often confront an uncomfortably ubiquitous reality: Do we support our clients’ desire to help animals when we know that, in so doing, they’re putting their own mental and/or physical health on the back burner?
To help you understand what I mean, here are a couple of scenarios that help illustrate the pet rescuer predicaments I’ve personally confronted:
1. What should a veterinarian do when a well-respected pet rescuer client can’t afford his own medical care because he’s too busy paying for his foster dog’s needs?
2. Or how about this one: A well-known-to-me husband and wife step up to the reception desk, and the woman makes a show of complimenting the receptionist’s diamond pendant. Her husband's retort: “You’d have one of your own if you didn’t have to save every cat in the world.” Ouch!
So what’s a veterinarian to say? Ignore the uncomfortable marital exchange? I think not, especially when I enjoy a personal relationship with my clients.
Although I completely understand that veterinarians should always do their best to earn clients’ trust carefully and deliberately through measured professional interactions — and, in so doing, encourage cooperation through the use of non-threatening, emotionally neutral and highly supportive language — at some point, we should be forgiven for feeling morally compelled to speak out more personally.
In fact, I’ve found that addressing the issue head-on can be an extremely effective technique for getting clients' attention, securing their compliance and ultimately helping them to move beyond their daily stresses and sense of helplessness in the face of so many needy pets. In several cases, I’ve even managed to steer them toward long-term emotional and psychological supportive solutions.
Not that all rescuers need rescuing, of course. But we could all use a little help, right?
After all, I’m a rescuer, too. I know how it feels when each little animal soul you may or may not be able to save represents an outsized psychological burden that threatens to bring on an existential crisis of conscience. This is why I would hope that if anyone cared enough to notice any anxiety or personal neglect in the course of my life as a rescuer, they’d have the guts to come out and tell me so, too.
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