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Living with a broken heart: trauma in the animal welfare community

Imagine a world where you live afraid of being exposed to the trauma that you passionately try to resolve every day. A trauma that haunts you in every beach, field, and clandestine dump. You see it in your workplace, while on vacation, or when doing business. How can you avoid ending up with a broken heart after being witness to everything you saw along the way? Lifeless eyes and unclaimed bodies. It is an experience some of us face in Puerto Rico every day, and the few of us are overwhelmed, blamed, and in constant demand of help for thousands of cases of mistreated and abandoned animals. Welcome to the animal welfare community! And for a long time, we have been crying out for legal and social justice for all animals suffering in Puerto Rico.


According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is a natural response to a catastrophic event or any event that harms a person emotionally or physically. On an emotional level, they may experience denial, anger, sadness, guilt, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, confusion, and fear; physically, they can feel headaches, fatigue, sweating, nervousness, and digestive symptoms, among others. These symptoms appear as a consequence of the traumatic event. They can have a lasting effect on the person's well-being. If they persist and do not diminish in intensity, it may indicate that the trauma is developing into a mental health disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is the definition of how you feel and live in Puerto Rico when you love animals. It is a community that, beyond being burned out, is traumatized.


The trauma of the rescuer or animal welfare community is repeatedly found lying on the street, discarded like trash. They are crushed by anonymous cars and unseeing eyes. Every day, anonymous cars and unseeing eyes crush the bodies of discarded pets, flooding our roads with blood. Imagine visiting the countryside, the beach, and neighborhoods and finding packs of pregnant females, all with skin problems and parasites—generations living in misery. Today we won’t discuss the dogs and cats that live deplorable lives on the streets (we'll address that in another post). Instead, we’ll focus on the community that stands up every day to help these animals. Understanding the animal welfare community is essential because it is a vulnerable population exposed to high rates of PTSD and Compassion Fatigue. Their lives are marred by a lack of resources and the overwhelming number of requests for help that they cannot fulfill. Even worse, the problem is made invisible and invalidated because people deem that there are worse social emergencies than these. But, when will we understand that a mistreated or dying animal ignored by a community is a symptom and a sign that violence, indifference, and lack of solidarity are part of our reality? It is a sign of a struggling society with no resources to create cultures of health and well-being.


It is a world where you do not want to travel in your own country for fear of encountering the problem from which you so desperately need an escape. It is a problem that surrounds us each and every day. The complex thing about this issue is that most people, agencies, and institutions dismiss it as “pastime” labor for animal lovers. In most cases, it is the feeling that your work (voluntarily for the most part) is worthless because you work with animals, not humans. It is having to justify repeatedly that you are the voice of the most invisible and vulnerable members of our society. They are members with no rights beyond a law (Law 154) that is often not enforced. It is a helpless and vulnerable community with no support structures (social, municipal, and state) to resolve the matter.


And why does it hurt so much? Because taking on a case is a decision between life and death. For many, it's a decision of many more than one can handle or let them die feeling. This leaves us, members of the community, crushed by guilt and knowing we can't always help. It is waking up at night and thinking about the thousands of cases that cry out for our help. It is a harsh world full of disappointments; of “help” that is offered, almost all lost in the wind, because support is seldom given or materialized. A "please help me” from someone that then disappears, not because they are bad people, but because they are not willing or don’t know how to leave their comfort zone. And what does that really mean for us?

Do they think we have more space than them or more money left over to cover expenses?

Do they think we don't have to get up two hours earlier to clean, give food and medicine?

Do they think we don't want to watch Netflix on the weekends to relax for a while?

Trauma impacts our whole lives because it's even being afraid of taking calls from numbers, we don't recognize so that they don't have the opportunity to tell us about animals that need help. It's receiving calls from friends who never call, but only when they need help with an animal. It's seeing them on Facebook buying dogs because they are the hottest accessory of the year. We ask for help and in return, receive more cases. Unfortunately, it's a vicious cycle many people don't understand but contribute to. We have to ask ourselves repeatedly whether the people who dedicate body, heart, and soul to this do it because we like pain.

Seeing the suffering of the animals on our daily journeys makes us cry, break into pieces, and walk around with broken hearts. It differs from other suffering as we still lack social and governmental structures, such as a governmental agency, that can support this work. We know that this requires complex and diverse interventions that should not burden individuals or foundations individually. To help animals (and all social problems), we all need to support this cause directly and indirectly. It is about recognizing that we all are responsible for creating a better world. And this is a social emergency without a voice. We silence those who work on it when we don't support it. As a result of an anthropocentric view (humans at the center of everything), we learn that seeing an animal suffering is not like watching a child in a neglected and abusive environment. Yes, I did it. I dared to compare an animal’s suffering to a child's. This comparison, for many, can be offensive since we still live by our own Darwinian narcissism belief that we (humans) are above everything else and therefore have rights that allow us to crush (or ignore) those of others that we understand are not as important as for example the earth, the trees, the insects and so on. It is a justification for my needs going above the others. This is reflected in a society that thinks the other (you and me) wants to hurt you, so I do it first (an individualistic and selfish vision).


I must warn you; I'm afraid this view is not correct. Why? Because we can see it in the animal welfare community. As with any social work group, we may encounter many challenges. Despite this, we have learned to support ourselves, recognize ourselves, and work together to accomplish our goals as a clandestine society. Despite our differences, we are a community that recognizes we must support and work with each other.


Today, we affirm and claim social justice towards the invisible, those we let die daily without assuming individual and collective responsibility, but above all, it is a celebration of gratitude and love towards all who collaborate in this mission to create a more compassionate Puerto Rico.


Úrsula Aragunde Kohl, Clinical Psychologist, Professor and Researcher UAGM, Gurabo

Cristina Adrianza, Master's Student – School Psychology, Universidad Interamericana- Metro

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