On Martyrdom and the Lunacy of Hero worship

After doing this for 6 years, I can honestly and without remorse say I am exhausted and burned out, even after nearly a year out of Vietnam off and on to look for work and to take care of my health.  Today, I am sick, and I am also very lucky to not be at the shelter, which even when you get to be covered by a wide variety of animals to comfort you, is still a pain in the ass to be sick in.  The constant worry that goes into caring for so many animals in a country in which not a ton of other people do and where the simplest medical issue is always life threatening becomes a physically exhausting task in itself.  At times, it consumes me and all my thoughts, keeping me awake at night and destroying the day ahead. 

While I am quite used to a lot of medical issues and the madness of dealing with shitty customer service by vets who are generally less qualified than a vet tech at home to handle our animals, there are days where I lose it. Yesterday was one of them.  The clinic staff treat me like someone who hasn’t finished a high school biology class and enjoy leaving me in the dark for ages about what is going on with our patient.  Then I never actually get to speak with the vet who handled her (hopefully because they are terrified of me…).  I then have to endure the fact that I am about to completely empty both bank accounts to pay the bill, regardless of the fact that I also need to eat, get taxis, pay for the hotel, and get back to Hoi An with Brownie. All I am trying to do today is take care of an animal our supporters were happy for us to rescue, yet cannot be bothered to donate to when she needs maintenance veterinary care at the ripe old age of probably 100 something.  I am entitled to break down publicly over this and be a bit put off by the fact that the daily struggle to keep the funding for caring for these animals consumes me for most of my day and prevents me from actually doing any of the work we set out to do.   

For those of you who like to call rescuers heroes, please stop.  It’s awkward to start with, but we aren’t heroes.  We are dead tired humans. The above story is just one of the reasons we are dead tired.  Working our asses off for very little personal security and time off for a cause the majority of the planet doesn’t care about is not heroic.  It’s insane.  It needs to be done, but the way that it is going is not ever going to be sustainable in the human resources department.  It kills us and I am tired of watching this industry break people as a result of us needing to be the saviors of all things with fur 24/7 at the cost of our own health and sanity. Most of us are burned out like mad.  Almost all of us are medicating ourselves with vodka, Xanex, or in my case, running, not that I haven’t had my share of the others. 

Calling rescuers heroes makes us all feel like we have to be.  The truth is we are people working a very badly paid job with batshit crazy hours with far too much responsibility for one person to handle all on a shoe string budget (we’re more on a tooth floss budget though).  On top of this we have the daily trauma from not only the animals suffering we encounter, but the horrendous people we deal with day in and day out who can either be animal abusers, or actually people who think they are helping animals by trying to dump them all on us and then calling us horrible names when we do not have the space or resources to take all their animals off their hands.  Doing this job does not make us heroes, unless our mental hospitals are full of Marvel comics superhero burnouts. 

Don’t martyr us.  Pay us a fair wage for our education level, experience, and amount of work we do.  Give us time off for our bodies and our minds.  Respect us by acknowledging that we are all human, not machines and working for a good cause does not mean we should die for it. 

Friday I had a massage, something I do maybe 2 times a year and only when I am in serious pain.  Spending money on fixing my body or treating myself well other than a meal is a damn hard thing for me to do and it takes a ton of pain to push me to this point.  After my first massage that was more like a hard but necessary beating, I had one on Saturday because my first one told me that I am broken in more places I expected.  That massage therapist and I were in the trenches.  We went through some serious shit during that hour together.  I was poked and stretched and beaten and squished until every muscle had been hit.  As it happens sometimes when you have deep tissue work done, you get sick afterwards and I ended up with a fever last night, barely able to leave the bed.  I feel like my back is so tight that I am being squeezed by a bear and no matter how I wiggle in bed and stretch, I still feel like I was hit by a freight train while having the flu. 

A few years ago, I would have shoved myself out of bed and gotten on with things, pain and all, chowing down ibuprofen like tic tacs to get by.  I would have still worked a 10-14 hour day, been off and on a bike all day, talked to too many people I wanted to punch, and did a lot more bending and lifting than my body needed.  But this weekend I am forgiving myself for being a human being, a physical entity which requires maintenance, not a hero.  I am thanking myself for making the decision to close the shelter and to not be involved in physical tasks for the animals after having my herniated disk.  I am thinking of the hundreds of animal rescuers like me who cannot do this, and like I once did, do not have the staff to take care of the animals when you feel crappy.  I am grateful for having staff now who can do this work and are not breaking down yet because they are still young and spry and have not shoveled enough shit over 20 years to hurt their backs. 

If there is anything I can do in this work, it may not be to help animals, but to help the people who help animals.  I want social media fans and donors to stop ignoring these people and the fact that they need help as much if not more than the animals they care for.  We all get into this line of work because we love animals and want to help.  What we don’t know when we get in that it is going to take a serious toll on our health and many relationships in our lives.  I wish I was speaking for myself when I say that.  I wish it was just me in this situation.  But I see it again and again in Vietnam, Thailand, Ukraine, England, Iran.  No one is immune.  No country has it right.

Animal rescuers, and directors in particular, are people who naturally will push themselves to do anything they can to help an animal, even at the expense of their own health and sanity.  While this in itself is not a bad trait, it is if we do not have the backup in organizations and in our personal lives to help when we run out of steam.  The fact is that most of us can out-suffer the average person when it comes to working ours and burning the candle at both ends.  In my time in Europe this year watching people with normal 9-5 jobs in countries where things generally function at a much higher level than here, I can see that there aren’t a lot of them I’d put in my place here in Vietnam.  Many of them are miserable in their daily lives and hate their jobs too, but I’d say most people would never put up with the daily shit we do here.  They just wouldn’t stand for it and certainly not for this pay and lack of benefits. You can get used to almost anything though, and I’d say I do this more because I am used to it than because I enjoy it or think I am even doing anything useful anymore in a world in which most people simply don’t give a damn about anything they can’t take a selfie with.

In conclusion, give us some space.  Don’t attack us for taking days off.  Don’t hold those in high regard who do go months without time off or do this work for no salary at all.  They are killing themselves and being applauded for it.  Stop praising those who sacrifice everything for this work because you are setting a standard that cannot be met by most of us, including the people you are praising for their overworking.  Burning people out is not what this sector needs.  We need the people with experience on the ground to stay in the field, not be forced out of it to save themselves.  I have watched too many amazing people be broken by this over time and leave without looking back.  I might be one of them in spite of the diehard passion I have for the mission to end animal suffering.  Shelters as they stand are burnout factories.  Something must change.