My Journey with Zoos Victoria

In 2019 my work with Zoos Victoria began with the facilitation of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma awareness workshops to the veterinarians and veterinary nurses based at Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary and Werribee Open Range Zoo. This initiated my most wonderful journey into the world of Zoos. Seen mainly through the compassionate eyes of those who directly care for the animals – the Life Sciences teams.

As the devastating bushfires raged, I provided individual psychological counselling and support to staff who were deployed to the front lines and also to those supporting them.

After the bushfires, I conducted Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) sessions for everyone in the organisation who was involved directly and indirectly. CISD is a supportive crisis intervention process or “psychological first aid” for those exposed to traumatic events. The aim of this procedure is to mitigate adverse psychological reactions and build resilience. I felt humbled and honoured to hold space for these incredible people and listen to their stories. Their experiences were painful and traumatic, their responses were a testament to the compassion, ingenuity and courage of those committed to the welfare of animals.

My role subsequently evolved to include Employee Assistance support for all Life Sciences personnel, providing them with confidential, individual psychological counselling.

The restrictions of COVID 19 lockdowns inspired virtual solutions for training, counselling and support, ranging from Q&A with CEO Jenny Gray, debriefing and discussion sessions with leaders and their teams, RUOK Day, and workshops. I created supportive and educational webinars to cultivate optimism and enhance morale. The webinars were aired throughout the organisation weekly and were well received.

Compassion Fatigue Australia has a relationship with Zoos Victoria, aimed at providing the best possible support to their animal workers and working closely together with leadership to develop a variety of creative approaches for reducing the risk of compassion fatigue, enhancing psychological resilience and overall well-being.

Unique Environments

Every front-line caring organisation has its unique challenges and zoos are no exception.

These challenges are complicated in a world that may be ambivalent or critical about the place of zoos in modern society. Perhaps there are those who are unaware of the significant conservation work and fight against the extinction of species. The educational programmes which remind young and old of the importance of connecting with and caring for nature.

Each animal worker I have had contact with is dedicated, and tirelessly gives of themselves to provide an environment where the animals in their care can thrive physically, socially and mentally. Compassion satisfaction springs from this meaningful engagement with the work and offers some protection against compassion fatigue.

However, the repeated exposure to distressing events such as illness, accidental death, euthanasia and overwhelming workloads can leave zoo professionals vulnerable to compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout. As can the heart-breaking, morally distressing ethical dilemmas, where ideal solutions are not possible, and decisions must be made from a variety of less than appealing alternatives.

Compassion fatigue and trauma are occupational hazards to those who give of themselves to the welfare of the animals in their care. These conditions do not denote weakness or personal defect. By being aware of the cost of the work animal workers can consciously transform any self-defeating, other-directed beliefs they may hold, and begin to extend to themselves the same compassion, consideration, gentleness and nurturing that they give to their animals. Consequently, they can keep doing the work they love in a healthy way.

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