Compassion Fatigue is Real for Wildlife Professionals During Oil Spills

In February 2022 I went on my very first oil spill response in Peru, working with our partner Aiuká to train and assist the local community in caring for wildlife affected by a major oil spill near Lima. Responses like these can bring up emotional and physical fatigue for those working with wildlife.

What is compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress.

The Cost of Caring

Working in animal  healthcare can be challenging, it is one of the job categories that is affected by compassion fatigue. We can’t talk to wildlife  patients and  yet we are making life and death decisions about their care without their consent adds another level  of responsibility and burden.

“Burnout and Compassion fatigue are a workplace hazard. There needs to be more training and support for mental health challenges in oil spill preparedness.” -JD Bergeron, CEO of International Bird Rescue

The last two years have been especially challenging in the veterinary field. Providing uninterrupted essential services during the COVID-19 global pandemic presented obstacles like staff exposures, unexpected absences, school closings, fewer volunteers and fewer resources contributing to an increase of compassion fatigue and burnout.

Practicing open lines of communication with your collegues, and remembering you are not alone can go a long way to combat compassion fatigue

Working with wildlife is unique –  wild animals are completely unfamiliar with humans, and often full of fear. We see and feel this fear, and some of us are quite sensitive to it. Sick and injured wildlife doesn’t come with health insurance or interpreters which lays the burden largely  on wildlife rehabilitators. We are often the only source of help for these innocent beings. Add to that the stress of an environmental disaster which includes working long hours, without days off, in a foreign place, without the comforts of home, and with people you have never worked with and likely never met. In addition, if you have social anxiety,  like many of us (that’s why we choose to work with animals),  it’s the perfect storm for burn out.

This week  at the 14th Effects of Oil on Wildlife (EOW) Conference in Long Beach, CA, I’m honored to be speaking about an important topic to other oil spill responders. My talk is entitled: “Mental Health and Self-care During an Oiled Wildlife Response”

When discussing spill readiness and preparedness, one aspect that is not often addressed is how to prepare our bodies and minds for the added stress, burnout and compassion fatigue that will accompany an oiled wildlife response.

I believe that compassion fatigue feels inevitable, however there are ways to prepare yourself to combat it. I find it helpful to consider proper nutrition and hydration, to pack comfort items, and a journal. Also, practicing open lines of communication, and remembering you are not alone can go a long way to combat compassion fatigue. When we prepare our minds and our go-bags with the right tools and supplies to head into a wildlife response, we can better handle any stress that might arise.

Compassion fatigue is a big topic. I hope  to explore this subject  in more detail in future blog posts. In the meantime, my colleagues  Julie Skoglund, Danene Birtell, and Lauren Dubois are also presenting on related topic at the EOW Conference:  “Wellness Management Tools for Taking Care of Yourself and Your Team”

And thanks to wildlife  colleagues who are doing important  research on this topic, including Mike Ziccardi, Bridey White and Louise Chilver.

About the Author

Devin Bergeles has worked with International Bird Rescue since 2015. She started as an intern and is now the Projects Specialist and working in Response Services with organization. She lives in the state of Washington.