I have to admit, I didn’t really believe in the strength of compassion fatigue- until I experienced it for myself.
The day started off like any other here in Washington, DC. I woke up early in my little apartment in Foggy Bottom and enjoyed my morning jog around the already-bustling city. I made coffee for my roommates, and smiled as I picked out another fun, professional outfit from my closet. I listened to The Daily as I rode the metro to the end of the red line, feeling very adult in my patent leather pumps and silk blouse.
Once at the Humane Society office, the morning continued as usual. I greeted my supervisors, responded to a few emails, and opened up my ongoing project: a gargantuan excel spreadsheet containing all of the currently active NIH-funded research grants that contain the words, “dog,” “canine,” or “canis familiaris.” There are 679 such projects, and I have been dutifully going through them for the past few weeks, extracting data about each project. However, it’s not always so simple. Oftentimes, the grants won’t explicitly mention that they’re using dogs. They use words like “in vivo” and “animal models” and “translational research” instead. But does that imply dogs? Or rats? Or rabbits? Or monkeys? So I have to do a little digging. I’ve started to think of myself as a kind of private detective, for dogs.
If I compartmentalize what I’m doing as sorting through grants and pulling out data, it’s easy to remain detached. But sometimes, when I start to think about the implications of the information I am going through, it gets to me. Because while these grants represent exciting scientific discoveries, they also highlight all the places in which dogs are currently suffering in laboratories across the US. In Pennsylvania, dogs are being fed a developing drug, at doses hundreds of times higher than would ever be prescribed for a human, to see if it will kill them. In North Carolina, dogs are being bred to have muscular dystrophy, a painful genetic disease that leads to muscle weakness, and makes it difficult to swallow. In Ohio, researchers are injuring the spinal cords of dogs to paralyze them, so they can serve as a model for testing spinal stimulation treatments. The list goes on and on and on. And the worst part- most of these dogs will be euthanized after the research is finished. So when you frame it like that, this index of exciting new science morphs into a sobering list of dog obituaries. And that can be a little hard to swallow.
On this particular day at the office we had an eye-opening lunchtime presentation about the effects of climate change on the animal world. It was a fascinating new angle on climate change- one I had never considered. I didn’t realize one of the biggest contributors to the world’s carbon emissions is factory farming. I didn’t know that a temperature increase of a few degrees causes mass animal extinctions in Africa. I didn’t think about what happens to farm-raised pigs in the floods that follow a big hurricane, and I was horrified to realize they are often left inside to drown in locked cages, because insurance companies reimburse farmers for their deaths.
Uplifting stuff, right?
After lunch I was experiencing a bit of climate grief as I returned to my cubicle. I started back up at my spreadsheet, and almost immediately I came across a particularly gruesome study in Texas. The project had been recently completed, and the results published only a few days ago, so I was able to read all about it. Nine male hound puppies had undergone a pneumonectomy- the surgical removal of a lung. Following this, researchers tested a novel nanoparticle treatment to see if the dogs would be able to regenerate the lost lung. And shortly after, they were all put to death.
I’m not sure why this particular study had such an impact on me, but I couldn’t handle it. I burst into tears at my desk. Thinking about those nine innocent lives, so recently lost, I couldn’t help but grieve. And I’ve never felt so alone in my sadness. It felt like I was the only one in the whole world who knew and cared about those nine hound dogs, and it was too late. They were already dead, and beyond that, their deaths were entirely legal- even commonplace. I felt utterly hopeless.
And in that moment, crying silently in a quiet office, I knew I was feeling the effects of compassion fatigue. It’s absolutely real. And it’s kind of beautiful, to think that we as human beings have the capability of having so much compassion for another entity that we are moved to personally feel the effects of their suffering. The power of empathy is amazing.
I dried my tears, and composed myself to continue with my day. But I couldn’t forget those nine dead puppies in Texas. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.
I think I’d like to do something to commemorate them, although I’m not sure what exactly that might be. All I know is, it feels like I have a responsibility to remember them, and to honor their sacrifice in the name of science. And honestly, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the privilege of knowing their stories, and for the privilege of feeling compassion.