I have been in the unique position of being able to work in a capacity that combines both my passions and my career choices. I currently work at the Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable as a Veterinary Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (VPNP). I earned a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from Boston College and was certified as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in 1977. I worked in my private practice for nearly 40 years. Along the way, I developed an intense interest in working with animals, especially wildlife.
I started volunteering all over Connecticut and Massachusetts, and made several trips to Belize to work with orphaned and injured wildlife. In 2015 I started working at the Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable as a volunteer carer. This led me to a clerk position once I retired from my private practice. I also became a Massachusetts Licensed and Federally Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator. The more time I spent with staff, volunteers, rescuers and animals, the more I realized how stressful caring for wildlife could be and the impact it had on carers. The combination of my skills led to my current position as VPNP.
Compassion fatigue is a common occurrence among people working with animals and is recognized as an occupational hazard. Compassion is described by the Dalai Lama as being open to the suffering of others, and noticing it, feeling it and responding to it. During this COVID pandemic, everyone has been working beyond their capacity, becoming mentally fatigued and physically exhausted. Through communication and social support, a VPNP can help staff move towards resilience and become more compassionate.
Caregivers often need to be reminded how to take care of themselves by taking more time off, taking breaks during their shifts, and limiting the responsibilities they take on. That’s hard to do when working with wild animals because they don’t have other defenders to take responsibility for them. From lifeguards to veterinarians, everyone is invested in the welfare of these animals. The cases are particularly difficult because most injured animals avoid capture because it is innate in them not to show any signs of weakness. By the time they arrive at our hospital, they are very sick or have serious injuries. This can lead to humane euthanasia, which is difficult even though it is known to be the best option.
Giving staff the opportunity to talk about difficult cases, tough decisions and choices helps manage feelings rather than building up and damaging their mental health. Dealing with people who find and bring back injured and orphaned wildlife is another aspect of this position. Finding a squirrel hit by a car or baby birds that have fallen from the nest can lead to feelings of helplessness. A VPNP can help them talk about their anger, frustration and sadness and listen to their tears. People become very attached to the wildlife they try to save, and it’s heartbreaking to realize that not all of them can be saved. Many feel guilty wondering if they should have done more. Many also feel responsible when it is their pet that injured or killed the wild animal, or when they try to care for it themselves and make it more sick by feeding it bad food or giving rise to aspiration pneumonia. I spend time with these people through phone calls and face-to-face meetings, helping them work through these feelings. It is important to not only recognize that they have really done their best despite the results, but also to hold them accountable by educating them on the proper way to care for any injured animal they may find until can be brought to us.
Often, once someone brings in an injured animal, they call frequently for follow-up information hoping the animal is getting better. An example is that of a woman whose dog destroyed a rabbit’s nest and dug up six babies. The woman brought the five living children and the dead from the dog’s mouth. We spoke frequently during the weeks the rabbits were in our center. She struggled to deal with the trauma of having to remove the dead baby from the dog, the guilt of having her dog hurt the rabbits, and the sadness over the death. Talking about it helped her deal with those emotions, and the success of the other five orphans helped her see the bigger picture instead of just the traumatic incident. Because of the information she learned during our discussions, she also felt better equipped to handle the situation if it happened again.
Sadness, anger and frustration are the most difficult emotions to deal with. Staff experience this on a daily basis. Sadness prevails when animals end up in bad situations through no one’s fault. Frustration occurs when animals are injured by people unintentionally. Anger occurs when animals are intentionally hurt. Unfortunately, this happens more than the public knows. For people who have dedicated their professional life to helping animals, it is inconceivable that someone would intentionally hurt an animal. When birds arrive shot by guns or arrows, or coyotes arrive maimed by illegal traps, or raptors die from rat poison, that anger is fierce and deep. It is important to find a solution and to refocus on the positive actions that we see in people who work to help animals. The people who bring animals to us are also very angry. They are angry because we cannot fix all the animals, or because they are not allowed to care for them or keep them as pets. Again, education and listening are useful tools to diffuse these situations.
This position is becoming more and more common and very few places have someone who is qualified in animal and human care. New England Wildlife Centers are invested in a VPNP so they can continue to not only provide the best veterinary care for wildlife, but also take care of their staff and help the community through times difficulties they may experience when encountering injured or orphaned wildlife.
To learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center or to help with its mission, visit www.capewildlifecenter.com, call 508-362-0111, or stop by 4011 Main St. (Route 6A), Barnstable Village, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Caryn Ritchie is a Veterinary Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts Wildlife Rehabilitation License and a Federal Migratory Bird Rehabilitation Permit..