PJ BeavenZooFit

In an age where experts are telling society that sitting is the new smoking, and Nature-Deficit Disorder is a real malady that can be cured or at least treated by getting outside on a regular basis, zookeepers may feel we are the healthiest profession on the planet. Most zookeepers don’t sit as much as they’d probably like (except when we’re on light duty, and then all we want is to get up and be “useful”). And even if we work indoors with our animals all day, animal professionals get a very healthy dose of nature either while interacting with animals, interacting with exhibits, or connecting our visitors to animals through programs and presentations.

While zookeepers may not relate to the real harmful effects of sitting or being deprived of nature, there is one new trend which can put us flat on our backs- Compassion Fatigue. Compassion fatigue is not unique to zookeepers, although animal professionals are one of the top careers suffering from it. Other jobs which experience it are nurses, social workers, counselors, EMTs, and teachers.

What is Compassion Fatigue

Keepers care, but we also need to care for ourselves.

According to Dr. Charles Figley, the director of Tulane Traumotology Institute, compassion fatigue is “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” In other words, we end up caring too much.

Compassion fatigue is a serious threat to our livelihood. Besides causing apathy and depression, it is known to lead to substance abuse and in the worst-case scenario, even suicide. Professionals often have a difficult time separating work from personal life. I had a difficult time doing it myself, although counseling and therapy definitely helped.

Many professionals, however, even with therapy, don’t last long once compassion fatigue sets in. The most common result of this serious malady is zookeepers leaving the field, often pursuing a career that doesn’t take its toll on our bodies, or our psyches.

Personal Care for Animal Care Professionals

Slow down and take time to combat compassion fatigue.

Losing caring people in the field due to bottling up emotions, letting work drift into personal lives, and overwhelming schedules with work-related issues doesn’t have to be commonplace anymore. And counseling doesn’t have to be our only option in fighting compassion fatigue.

Acknowledging and recognizing compassion fatigue is the most important first step. The next important aspect is taking care of ourselves. This isn’t a vanity or even just a wellness act. When we take care of ourselves, we can take better care of our animals.

Zookeepers are the only people I know who think their animals need to come first. Here’s a harsh reality: whatever you put in front of your own well-being as a priority, you will end up losing. Second. The first thing you lose is your own well-being.

I’m not saying if you don’t care for yourself, you will end up killing your animals…although it’s not a far-fetched idea. Getting stuck in your head can lead to missing critical cues your animals are telling you about their own health. Or missing crucial steps in ensuring their safety and well-being. Being so stressed out you call in sick repeatedly means you aren’t there for the animals.

By taking care of yourself, you provide better animal care. It’s really that simple.

But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. We know that. Getting a weight or a blood sample are simple procedures, but that doesn’t make training the behavior easy.

The top five best ways to care for yourself is to sleep better, eat better, move more (outside your incredibly active job), focus on the positive, and reinforce your efforts. Kind of like working with animals. Subscribe to Zoofit

Five Habits for Combatting Compassion Fatigue

1) Sleep

Don’t underestimate the power of a nap.

Getting plenty of sleep is the most important action we can take to improve our own wellness. Eating and moving are fundamentals for good health, but sleep is the foundation upon which nutrition and movement stand. Most of us are not getting enough sleep either. In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows us that being sleep deprived is similar to being intoxicated. Getting good sleep every night is the key to good health.

2) Exercise- Movement Outside of Work

Beat compassion fatigue with movement.

Working out (in any capacity) outside our job will also help dramatically. Not only does exercise give us more energy, but it helps us focus, clears our mind, and improves our mood. John Ratey M.D, says exercise is “like taking a little bit of Ritalin, and a little bit of Prozac.” Even in cases where medication is necessary, doctors who prescribed exercise along with anti-depressants to patients who were depressed found they had longer-lasting episodes of hopefulness, positivity, and mental clarity, and often needed smaller doses of their anti-depressants.

3) Eating Right

The hardest healthy habit for zookeepers, and probably anyone with a break room or volunteers who bake, is eliminating junk food. Processed foods, especially foods with sugar and flour in them are wreaking havoc on our physical health. They also wreak havoc on our mental health. The roller coaster effect of highs and lows from eating sugar can actually increase symptoms of depression and addiction. Sugar is highly inflammatory, impacting our immune system and our brain. Inflammation is implicated in depression as well.

This is the toughest obstacle to overcome, fighting compassion fatigue with healthier eating. But the last two methods- focusing on the positive and reinforcing yourself- will definitely help conquer our addiction to junk food.

4) Focus on the Positive- Celebrate and Gratitude

Having hope for a better future improves out mental and physical well-being

Remember positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be food. Use activities that rejuvenate your soul to reward your healthy actions. Take a long bath after a hard day catching and weighing all the birds in the free-flight aviary. Allow yourself to watch an episode of a favorite show after resisting the donuts in the African Savannah office. Download that catchy tune you heard at the gym to reward working out.

Reflect on your day and make a point to really focus on what went well. It’s not ignoring the aspects that didn’t go well, but reinforcing the aspects we want to continue. The more we focus on the positive, the more we see the positives in our lives.

Taking care of our physical self is only part of the equation, we must also take care of our emotional side. Taking care of yourself means working on saying “no” at times, and leaving work at work. Again, simple, but not necessarily easy. The Professional Quality of Life Measure offers several useful ideas to helping separate the wonderful world of working with animals from our ordinary personal lives.

5) Professional Quality of Life Measure

  1. Talk to yourself as you switch from work-mode to off-work-mode. You can even tell yourself “Time to switch to off-mode”. Verbally recognizing the two different concepts helps your brain separate the two.
  2. Images can be useful to differentiate between work and non-work. For instance, you may conjure images of feeling safe and protected while at work (all gates shut, all animals safe, or playing), and images of comfort and connection while away from work (talking on the phone, reading a book, eating a homecooked meal).
  3. Find a ritual or routine to help switch from work to personal, and from personal to work. This can be a meditation or mantra you repeat as you leave work, or going to a neutral place which is neither work nor home (a gym is an EXCELLENT choice, or the grocery store, library, a park, etc…).
  4. Practice breathing or meditating before you go to work, before a big decision, a difficult chore, or when you need to re-center. Focus and clear your mind. Let go of outside thoughts. It is also help to practice meditation daily, so when you NEED the benefits, it comes easier to you.

Compassion fatigue can really drain us in a field where we care so much about our animals, our impact, and our planet. It is our passion and love which drives us to be zookeepers. But when we take that passion and help ourselves, we are stronger and better for it. Take care of yourselves, and be the best zookeeper you can be.


Clear, J. 2018. Atomic Habits. Avery Publishers

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project-  compassionfatigue.org

Pfifferling, JH, PhD, and Gilley, K, MS. 2000. Overcoming Compassion Fatigue. Family Practice Management

Professional Quality of Life Measure- proqol.org

Ratey, J. MD. 2013. Spark. Little, Brown, and Company

Sack,D. M.D. 2013. “Four Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health”.  Psychology Today

Walker, M. 2017. Why We Sleep Scribner Publishing