June 14th, 2016
By Beth Gammie, Director of Field Services
I know it can be frustrating to see other people’s lack of concern for animals. It’s easy to have reactions like, “Don’t they get it!?” or “Why can’t they see that an animal has feelings?” In essence, Why doesn’t that person have empathy for animals?
Empathy helps identify and understand another’s situation, thoughts and feelings. It is linked to good health, lower stress and positive relationships. For those of us who feel empathy for animals, the fact that animals feel, suffer pain, experience love and enjoyment — well, this seems obvious, because we feel their emotions with them. But this is not obvious for everyone. A lack of empathy is often what leads to the mistreatment of animals.
When RedRover Responders help shelter animals rescued from cruelty situations, such as puppy mills or hoarding cases, we often feel anger at the person or persons responsible for keeping animals in horrible conditions.
Although it may be difficult to fully understand why someone hoards cats, for example, I try to understand the perspective of a hoarder suffering from mental illness, and my empathy helps me move past the anger I might otherwise feel and focus on the solution. Having empathy doesn’t mean I condone the abuse, but it does help me understand what in their life might explain why they did what they did.
For example, in one hoarding situation we assisted with, the dogs were kept in filthy conditions, not spayed or neutered, and suffered untreated medical conditions. We knew these animals were suffering. In fact, the owner of the dogs went without her own needed medicine so she could buy dog food. As a child, she suffered physical and emotional abuse, and she was literally thrown out of the house and into the yard to sleep at night. The family dog was the only comfort she had. Her emotional wounds led her to do anything for the stray dogs in her county, to the point of keeping more animals than she could care for. The dogs clearly needed rescuing, and we did that. But understanding the owner’s situation — feeling empathy — helped us stay calm and effectively help the animals.
It is normal to feel anger towards those who mistreat animals. In emergency animal response, we see a lot of horrific conditions. However, at RedRover we strive to take care of the animals and try to find whatever empathy we can for the people involved. And doing this pays off — both for emergency responders and the animals.
For more strategies related to compassion resilience, visit RedRover.org/compassion.