Author: Sarah V Schweig
Anyone who works to help the less fortunate does incredibly hard work. But when the less fortunate are so unfortunate they aren’t even considered by many to be part of society, the toil can feel unbearable.
“It is hard to grieve for animals that others see as food,” Susie Coston, national shelter director of Farm Sanctuary, said in a recent Ask Me Anything interview on Reddit.
Coston was replying to this question, from a fellow animal advocate: “Given all the horrible things you must encounter on a somewhat regular basis, how do you maintain mental health and optimism? Is daily life with all the ‘happy ending’ animals enough, or is depression a constant thing you have to resist? That’s often my biggest challenge, dealing with the dark world in which so many animals are living.”
Coston answered frankly that burnout is a huge issue among animal advocates and the staff at Farm Sanctuary:
“We improve with this every year. I and all my staff struggle with depression — it is not constant but it comes in waves …. It is a constant battle — but the reward on the sanctuary is seeing animals who are so terrified come to life and be the individuals they deserve to be — seeing those personalities come out that were hidden by fear — and that makes it all worth while.”
I decided to ask animal lovers and advocates how they avoid burnout as they fight for animals, so that they can keep helping. Farm Sanctuary president and co-founder Gene Baur told The Dodo that he keeps himself going by “dwelling on the positive.” From veterinarians to vegans to heads of animal rights orgs, the responses came pouring in.
What follows is what they said. This piece goes out to them and animal lovers everywhere.
“Turn that anger or sorrow into action”
“I have perfected the silent scream, as I do not want to disturb wildlife and companion animals. I concentrate on forward movement: I am buoyed up by looking back at the struggles and eventual triumph of all the social-justice movements before animal rights, and I even find myself smiling over the progress represented by the enormous selection of plant-based milks in the supermarket. As for depressed thoughts — which are hard to avoid when your job involves watching PETA’s undercover videos of everything from dog-leather factories to sheep being punched in shearing sheds — there’s no point in losing sleep or sobbing when you can get your rest and turn that anger or sorrow into action, which is what I advocate in my book Making Kind Choices.”
— Ingrid E. Newkirk, president and co-founder of PETA
“Have interests outside of animal issues.”
“For me, it’s important that I have interests outside of animal issues. I work hard on animal issues, but I also have hobbies, friends, activities that do not have anything to do with animal rights. I think this gives a balance that allows me to continue to do this work.
Also, I think perspective is really important. We can’t turn the world vegan overnight, but we can affect people in our sphere. If I am talking to someone who is not interested in animal issues, I let that be ok. Not everyone is ready at the same time. There are many, many people who are open to this information and on the brink of making changes. I concentrate on them.
I focus on being positive. I think humanity is basically good and wants to do good things. Coming at it from that angle allows me to feel positive. I think the people who only think about the bad things that are happening, sometimes get overwhelmed.”
— Michelle Waffner, Farm Sanctuary ‘s Director of Visitor Experience
“Running, lots of running.”
“For me, the best way to cope with the knowledge of animal suffering is to get out and try to reduce it. It’s heartening to stand outside a circus and speak with people, to witness ‘the light going on’ when people make the connection that, like us, animals experience fear, pain, and joy and want to be free and with their families. Knowing that most people want to make compassionate choices gives me hope—as does running, lots of running. It is energizing, clears the mind, and reduces stress.”
— Lindsay Rajt, PETA Associate Director of Campaigns. Lindsay coordinates demonstrations and events in the greater Washington, D.C., area
Push-ups, sit-ups and a lot of bad jokes.
“As far as the emotional work that we do it is difficult to put into words the emotions we feel on a daily basis. I can be playing with an 8-week-old puppy and then be humanely euthanizing a pet the next minute. The things that really make us emotionally drained are when owners do not listen to our advice to the detriment of their pet. For example if we recommend monthly heartworm preventative and the owner ignores our advice and one year later they are heartworm positive and need to undergo a dangerous treatment that may kill them. Or when the same client declines to even treat their pet for them.
Veterinarians are actually very high on the list of professions that suffer from depression and suicide. This is because of the highly emotional type of work, the long hours, taking the emotions of the day home with us, the low pay and high student loan debt.
As far as how I deal with it: When I worked in the emergency room we used to do 1 a.m. push-ups and sit-ups if we had time pending emergencies. It was great to get the hospital team together and do some exercise to keep us going.
I also like to keep a positive, fun vibe throughout the day to keep everyone on the team in a light mood as it is easy to let your emotions get the best of you. I tell a lot of bad jokes (mostly old man jokes) that I hope keeps everyone in a positive mood.”
— Robert Proietto, a veterinarian in New York City
Paying tribute to the animals we’ve lost.
“There are a few different things that I’ve done over the years that have been meaningful, but one comes to especially to mind. Eleven years ago, I rescued a turkey from a factory farm and named him Adam. Unfortunately he passed away at a young age, and it was a turning point — it hit me incredibly hard. I didn’t expect it. As a tribute to him, I commissioned portrait from an artist using a photo I had of him.”
“To this day, that image hangs over my bed at night. When I wake up every day, I see this guy staring back at me. He’s not here with us anymore, but he’s certainly watching over us. When I think of animals, or really anybody passing away, I consider it to be not goodbye, but goodnight. It’s not the end, just going down two different paths. Seeing his image on a daily basis is a reminder that there are so many more we need to help.”
— Christine Morrissey, manager at Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary
“Chickens are the best animal to be around when you’re down — they are so completely and utterly engaged in their lives.”
“For me, the key to coping with the horrors of knowing what is going on in the world vis a vis animals is sanctuaries. I remember the very first time I visited a sanctuary — it was Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York. It was a long time ago, in the 90s, and I didn’t know many people who shared my passion for animals. Coming to Farm Sanctuary, and seeing the animals living so happily, and being surrounded by people who took it as a given that, of course we wouldn’t eat animals, was like heaven. It renewed my spirit in an incredibly deep way. Now, whenever I start to become overwhelmed with sadness, or feel a sense of defeat, I try to get myself to a sanctuary to hang out with some pigs, or cows, or, best of all chickens. Chickens are the best animal to be around when you’re down — they are so completely and utterly engaged in their lives. Every egg that is laid is a cause for a barn-wide emotional outpouring. I love it.”
— Mariann Sullivan, co-founder, Our Hen House and adjunct professor of animal law, Columbia University
“We start every day by watching cartoons.”
“My career in animal rights revolves around creating media — which is what my wife Mariann and I do with our non-profit, Our Hen House. And so even though I’m further removed from the earlier days of community organizing, I’m often contacted by podcast listeners or my readers from all over the world, asking for advice on living in a world that just doesn’t get it about animals. Vegans are often seen as the pariah, especially around things like family meals. So I think back to those early days of grassroots activism, and I offer the same advice that helped me then: Bookend any uncomfortable situation — be it a social gathering where you’re the lone vegan, or even an animal rights event that is saddening or maddening — with a safe space. Plan it in advance so that you don’t get sidetracked by details. See friends before it, and after it. Do something unrelated to animal rights — like watch a silly movie or treat yourself to a massage — and find a group of people who get it, and get you.
Mariann Sullivan and Jasmin Singer of Our Hen House.
When Mariann and I have a particularly grueling workday ahead of us, we’ll be sure to have a movie picked out on Netflix to watch that night. And — no shame — we start every day by watching cartoons.
My days are long, but I can’t imagine doing anything else other than working to change the world for animals. I make sure to ‘pay myself first’ by prioritizing physical outlets like tap-dancing and running. With tap-dancing, I have to focus on learning the moves, or I’ll fall back on the routine. So I am forced to put aside the heart-wrenching video I just watched. It’s been hugely helpful, and so, why not dance?”
— Jasmin Singer, Executive Director, Our Hen House
“Do something creative.”
“I engage in daily activities aimed at ‘self-care’—including yoga, exercise, long walks outdoors, and trying to do something creative. (I like to cook, which has the added benefit of allowing you to eat what you create!) But I think the thing that has most fueled my optimism is staying focused on the changes that we, as animal advocates, are making in the world. I like reflecting on the fact that when I took the pledge to buy only cruelty-free products in the mid-’80s, I had to mail-order everything from lipstick to dishwashing liquid. Now, I can go to my local drugstore to get products that are not tested on animals. Vegan products are everywhere. Our understanding of who animals are is snowballing. Young people support animal rights. The world has changed for the better right before my eyes, and that, probably more than anything else, keeps me going to fight another day.”
— Dr. Alka Chandna, PETA Senior Laboratory Oversight Specialist. Alka focuses on animal experimentation issues and pressuring government agencies to fulfill their legally mandated responsibilities.
“Good self-care is vital.”
“The same compassionate qualities that draw people to a profession of service to animals create inherent challenges since the work itself exposes those who are most sensitive to suffering to so much of it. Effective animal advocates recognize this dichotomy and know that in order to sustain the work over the long term, good self-care is vital. Our team employs various techniques to stave off burning out, including celebrating our victories and supporting each other when the going gets tough, regular exercise, and a healthy vegan diet. A sense of humor is also imperative for staying grounded in the trenches. Our team members keep each other laughing, and it helps to know we’re all going through the same thing. The work can and does take a toll, but good self-care and knowing that what we do makes such a difference in animals’ lives have resulted in long careers for our staff members.”
— Stephanie Bell, PETA Cruelty Casework Director. Stephanie is the director of PETA’s Emergency Response Team, which works around the clock to handle reports of cruelty to animals across the U.S.
“Celebrate the victories”
“Everybody at The Humane League has to deal with the reality of factory farming daily. We tell the sad stories of the animals who are confined and suffering. For most animal activists, our successes are somewhat abstract—changes in policy or purchasing that we will never get to see with our own eyes. One of the best ways to keep motivated is to focus on and celebrate victories. We all know that there is a lot to be sad and frustrated about, but there is also a lot of progress being made every year for animals. When one thinks of the incredible strides that we are making in meat reduction, the new laws that protect animals, and the talented young people who are being drawn into the movement, it’s hard to be pessimistic.”
— David Coman-Hidy, executive director of The Humane League
“Praying for animals — and their abusers.”
“I draw strength from my Christian faith, praying for animals — and their abusers — to whom I cannot directly offer the peace and kindness that they need. And I draw the strength to press ahead from scripture, whose images and language often shed light on the cases I happen to be working on. Around Easter 2014, for example, I was reviewing footage of sheep shearing from PETA’s investigation of the U.S. wool industry. Having to watch footage of a man who twisted and bent a docile sheep’s neck, breaking it, and kicked her headfirst down a chute, where she died, was the most emotionally difficult task I’ve encountered in my work. But it served to remind me how Christ — who ‘[t]hough harshly treated … submitted … Like … a sheep silent before shearers [and] did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7)—suffered and died to bring us closer to the so-called peaceable kingdom, where no animal will be harmed or destroyed (Isaiah 11:6–9). Until that day comes, it is a privilege—and, I believe, my duty as a Christian—to try to heal ‘the sufferings of this present time … in hope that creation [is] set free’ to share more fully in God’s glory (Romans 8:18–21).”
— Dan Paden, PETA Associate Director of Evidence Analysis. Dan works with PETA’s eyewitness investigators to document the conditions and treatment of animals on factory farms, in slaughterhouses, in laboratories, in circuses and in the pet trade. His work has led to the rescue of thousands of animals and cruelty charges as well as convictions for the mistreatment of animals in several landmark cases.
“Animals have it the worst. Acknowledging their pain gives me the strength that I need to continue working until every cage is empty.”
“Watching undercover investigation footage is part of my job as a video project coordinator. I cope with it by knowing that I’m making a difference every day. My work ensures that the footage will be seen by law-enforcement officials and millions of other people around the world. There are days when emotions take over. I’m not the one with the most strenuous task, though, because animals have it the worst. Acknowledging their pain gives me the strength that I need to continue working until every cage is empty.”
— Kenia Ortega, Audiovisual Senior Project Coordinator, PETA
Writing these stories helps me make sense of things.
As for me, I write difficult stories about animals every week. Putting things into words has always been the way I felt I could grasp the world, so the very act of writing these stories helps me make sense of things. But some stories prove to be ungraspable. So then, I’ve found, writing about that very feeling, writing through the helplessness of having to let the real weight of a story slip through my fingers, is a kind of consolation.
Also, long walks with my best friend, swimming, reading poetry and re-watching old episodes of “Frasier,” along with an occasional glass of wine. And, of course, getting to talk to people who are out there doing the hard work for animals every day is a constant source of inspiration.
So, thank you.