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Show Notes

Her first spoken word was “cat.”

Even before she said “mama” and “dada.”

And the cat didn’t even like her.

Today’s guest is Tracy Munson, my good friend from lower shebobia New Brunswick. Lower shebobia … ha … it’s technically Hillsborough, New Brunswick, a small community about a half hour south of Moncton and right on the Petitcodiac River.

About a three-hour drive from the little town in Nova Scotia where I grew up.

But she’s not from there. She’s a Toronto girl, from the Big Smoke, where she plied her trade as a veterinary technician.

The work got to her, though.

Being in veterinary medicine is hard. It may be the only industry we know where it is a responsibility to end life.

Tracy recognized she was in burnout mode and started planning her escape … to becoming a pet photographer. She’s now a recognized leader in Canadian pet photography and an award winner in both pet photography and landscape photography.

Today, we have a discussion about careers in vet medicine and the trials and tribulations that lie within.

What to listen for

5:23 Vicarious trauma and its impact on animal shelter workers
11:53 The emotional toll of euthanizing sick and injured animals
17:53 How support in the field is improving for animal shelter workers
28:28 Compounding trauma with the grief from her own loss
40:00 How the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll
41:50 Why prioritizing your exit plan can make all the difference

Resources mentioned

⁠Dr. Faith Banks on TikTok⁠
Compassion Fatigue in Animal Shelter/Rescue Workers⁠
⁠Practice Compassionate Badassery with Jessica Dolce⁠
⁠The Art of Being Kind to Your Vet

Transcript

Angela  

Her first spoken word was “cat.”

Even before she said “mama” and “dada.”

And the cat didn’t even like her.

Today’s guest is Tracy Munson, my good friend from lower shebobia New Brunswick. Lower shebobia … ha … it’s technically Hillsborough, New Brunswick, a small community about a half hour south of Moncton and right on the Petitcodiac River.

About a three-hour drive from the little town where I grew up.

But she’s not from there. She’s a Toronto girl, from the Big Smoke, where she plied her trade as a veterinary technician.

The work got to her, though.

Being in veterinary medicine is hard. It may be the only industry we know where it is a responsibility to end life.

Tracy recognized she was in burnout mode and started planning her escape … to becoming a pet photographer.

She’s now a recognized leader in Canadian pet photography and an award winner in both pet photography and landscape photography.

Today, we have a discussion about careers in vet medicine and the trials and tribulations that lie within.

Hi Tracey Munson. How are you today?

Tracy 

I’m very well. How are you, Angela?

Angela  

I am good. Thank you. Today we have with us Tracy Munson who lives in southern New Brunswick, Canada and I am so excited to have her here with us today. Tracy, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Tracy 

I’m Tracy Munson and I am already okay, I’m Tracy Munson. And I, as Angela said, now I live in Southern New Brunswick. But before that, I lived most of my life in Toronto, Canada. And that’s where I worked as a veterinary technician in veterinary clinics and shelters for the first 25 years or so of my career before I retired to become a pet photographer full time, okay,

Angela  

let’s back the truck up for just two seconds. I had my husband in New Brunswick last August, and he was standing on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, and he thought it was one of the most beautiful places he’s ever been. Do you agree?

Tracy 

Of course I do. Lately, actually, I’ve been out east a few times. We used to come out here on vacations a lot. And actually Cape Breton where you’re from, I believe is is where we had originally thought we might move to. And then every year we would come out this way visiting Cape Breton and Newfoundland and every year we would pass through this area on the Bay of Fundy and we would camp here for a couple of nights. And then we were kind of like, well, like this area. And it keeps us a little bit closer to getting home to Ontario. We have aging parents and, you know, family and friends and stuff back there that we still want to see occasionally, and also puts us a little bit closer to some centers of population that we would be probably in Northern Cape Breton where we wanted to live where I don’t think I probably could have made a go as a pet photographer as a full time career in like ingonish Nova Scotia or so.

Angela  

Okay, ingonish is gorgeous as well. I’m from a town called Antigonish. So not quite Cape Breton, but um, oh my gosh, the scenery, the scenery is just so stunning. And yeah, given my druthers, if I could, if I could get my husband and move back to Canada, it would probably be New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. I would love Newfoundland, but you’re right. It is so isolated. It can be hard. Yes,

Tracy 

for sure. Although I do love St. John’s, if I was going to live in another city, St. John’s would be high on my list. St. John’s effects city are kind of the two cities I would consider living in again, but I don’t speak French. So probably St. John’s limited.

Angela  

So like as a vet tech in Toronto. How does that turn into dog photographer?

Tracy 

Well, for me, I’ve been working in animal shelters for quite a few years. And I started it I actually started out for me with an iPhone, I got my first iPhone, the 3g S. And right at about, I guess it had the iPhone probably for a year or so. But then right at the time that my last dog Becca came into the shelter, she was surrendered. She had a two day old puppy her family were evicted and had to surrender all their pets to the shelter. And so my partner and I decided to foster her and the puppy because she was just absolutely horrified at the shelter. And so Instagram was kind of a new thing. And I had foster dog with a two day old puppy. And so I started taking pictures of them and just have everything around. And I mean terrible, terrible pictures, like not good pictures at all. But I started taking pictures and sharing them on Instagram. And I started to get a little bit of traction there because that was possible back at that time. You could, you know, post a picture and get hundreds of followers kind of overnight. And so I started getting a following on Instagram and within a year or so I started having people asked to buy prints of some of my photos mostly my landscapes and stuff but actually I think maybe the second print I ever sold to a stranger on Instagram was a photo of Becca she was a super cute pug mix. So there is that but I’ve always kind of wondered that like what did they want that photo for like maybe a kid’s room or something? She was wearing a little pink coat and stuff it was using a little Magnetic fisheye lens on my iPhone. So it was kind of a cute picture. But anyway. So a couple years into that, I decided that I wanted to get a DSLR because I, you know, was running into some of the limitations of the iPhone, like wanting to take pictures of birds and things like that, but just it’s not really possible. So I got my first DSLR. And from there photography at first was really my escape from my work in the animal shelter that was very stressful. And so I saw so much ugliness and unhappiness and you know, so many terrible things working in the shelter that photography on my days off was my, you know, chance to make something pretty and beautiful and not think about all that stuff. So most of my early photography, sorry, therapy. Yes, most of my early photography was you know, nature and landscapes, wildlife, flowers, things like that. And then in probably in late 2013, I started doing photos for one of the rescue groups that we used, I wasn’t really doing photos for the shelter I worked at, because I already worked there, that was enough. But we had a couple of rescue groups that would, you know, often take our less adoptable dogs, senior dogs that needed, you know, medical care beyond the scope of what we could give them or dogs with certain behavioral problems and stuff that needed a little bit of work before they were adoptable to the general public. So we would send those dogs out to rescue groups. And so I started doing photos for one of those groups who are awesome. Speaking of dogs rescue in Ontario. That’s actually where my little guy Delgado came from. And so I started doing their photos. And it just kind of went from there, honestly, then I started doing photos for their fundraising calendar. And then people started asking me if I did sessions, and you know, kind of did sessions for a couple of co workers and then started to get some paid work. But while I was in Ontario, I really didn’t focus that much on marketing that side of my business, just because I was already very, very busy and very, very tired from my day job.

Angela  

So let’s talk about that day job. Um, we were talking off camera that we are both extremely familiar with the concept of vicarious trauma. How does that relate to life as a vet tech, especially in shelters?

Tracy 

Well, I mean, I think it relates pretty heavily because you do see so much trauma and of different kinds, not just the claims, you would necessarily think of like, you know, having to euthanize pets or seeing abused animals or things like that, which I mean, honestly, seeing cases of bad abuse and stuff, it’s pretty uncommon. Much more often, it’s, well, at least what affected me was all the reports of lost animals like that can become overwhelming. You know, you’d get so many calls a day coming in for people that have lost their dogs, and especially their cats, because it seems so much it’s much less common that cats are found. Um, you know, dogs, I think when you if you’re driving down the street, and you see a German Shepherd walking along by itself, you’re like, Oh, that’s not right, you’re gonna actually take note of that you might stop and try to catch the dog. At the very least, you’re going to be like, boom, and then if you see a lost poster later on, for German Shepherd, you’re like, Oh, I saw that dog. If you see a tabby cat walk across the street. I don’t think you even register that any more than you register a squirrel walking across the street, because they kind of belong there. people let their cats out. It’s just not remarkable. And then also, I think that oftentimes cats are found by someone who just thinks, oh, they didn’t have a good home and they keep them not intending to steal somebody’s beloved cat. But just because that’s kind of what you think when a cat shows up at your house. I mean, honestly, my family did it when I was young, a cat showed up, hung around long enough that we were like, well doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go guess it’s our cat now.

Angela  

Yeah. So neither one of us is clinically licensed as a therapist or counselor or anything like that but vicarious trauma is that which you … trauma you internalize by observing someone else’s trauma. It’s very common in first responders, victim services personnel, newspaper reporters. Hi, how are ya? And I don’t think we recognize the level of trauma that people in shelters, especially the veterinary workers, or even the volunteers face, can you speak to that a little bit?

Tracy 

Yeah, for sure. I mean, there is. There are times that, you know, I had to go into hoarding situations like, you know, houses that had dozens of live animals running around with also deceased and decaying ones. Yeah. Some pretty, pretty awful images like that to have to remember. And I don’t, it’s, it’s a little bit tough, because I don’t want to say too much, right? I don’t want to, I don’t want to put my horrifying images in anybody else’s mind. And that was kind of one of the problems when I worked there, as well was, you know, I’d come home some days after having seen these things. And I didn’t even want to tell my partner, not because he wouldn’t be supportive, but because I don’t, I don’t want to share that with him.

Angela  

You don’t want to bring him down that road with you.

Tracy 

Exactly. I got these images in my mind that I still can’t forget, after, you know, years and years and years, and I don’t necessarily need to put them in anybody else’s mind. But you know, that’s between cases like that cases of actual abuse that we saw. Cases … There’s wildlife stuff as well, you know, we had to we were the ones responsible for picking up a lot of sick and injured wildlife. So with that, it became just the sort of crushing numbers of it, you know, times when there would be distemper outbreaks and stuff like that. I felt like all you did all day long was euthanized, sick raccoons. With distemper, being a disease that is not treatable, there’s no way you can have, you know, a shelter full of raccoons on IVs recovering from distemper that will leave them with permanent neurological damage anyway, it’s just not feasible, especially with it being a disease that is contagious to dogs. So, you know, before we go down that road, there’s there’s no other option really there nobody, no Wildlife Center, nobody can treat distemper and raccoons. That’s just not a thing.

Angela  

I just had a visual, a mental visual of a hospital room lined with beds with raccoons on IVs.

Tracy 

Yeah, good luck with that.

Angela  

And what about, you know, when people are surrendering their animals? They all have a story to tell, how does that reflect upon your vicarious trauma?

Tracy 

Well, and again, oftentimes, it’s not even the ones who are the ones who truly didn’t really seem to care that much. I mean, they were infuriating at the time, but didn’t stay with me. But I mean, it’s also not uncommon that people when they’re surrendering their pets, you know, these aren’t the villainous, terrible, irresponsible people, they’re very often elderly people, or people that have become very sick, and unable to care for the pet anymore, maybe going into some kind of long term care. So that is, for me, one of the hardest things to see is people that you know, they love their pets, and now they’re going to have to be separated from them. cases though, people leaving abusive situations who need to go into the shelter system and can’t take their pets with them. And quite frankly, I always tried to remember even when people didn’t tell us that stories that sometimes it’s just one of our business. So you can’t just make assumptions just because somebody comes in and says, Oh, I’ve got to get rid of my cat or I’ve got to get rid of my dog. And, you know, your first instinct is kind of to be like, Well, you’re a jerk, or worse, but we don’t we don’t actually know maybe they just don’t want to tell us that they’re leaving an abusive situation and going into a shelter or something like that, right? So I always tried to keep that in mind that I don’t know the real reason this person is getting rid of this animal.

Angela  

Yeah, thank you for making that point, I think it’s really important for us to remember that there are a variety of reasons why people would have to surrender and not all of them are jerky. But you mentioned that you internalize your your trauma and and try to deal with deal with it on your own. Isn’t that a one way ticket to burnout?

Tracy 

Oh, that’s pretty much what happened? Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean, it definitely is. And I mean, I stuck in the field, I think longer than a lot of people do. But ultimately, it is, it is hard to see with enemy and even working in the vet clinics, you know, it was a little bit different. But in vet clinics, you deal a lot with owners that you’ve gotten to know very well. Like, often that dog that you’re euthanizing has been sick for the last couple of years, the owner has been coming in regularly for glucose curves, or whatever they know how you take your coffee, you know, you, you have become friends with the owners. And now you’re there with them for that moment at the end, where it’s not only an animal that you care deeply about, and have gotten to know really well, but also people that you really care about. So that aspect of it was tough in vet clinics. But at the same time, most of the time euthanasia is in the back clinic were cases where, you know, you knew that you were doing the best thing for the animal, there was no real question there that it needed to be done. But the other thing that sometimes happens in the back clinics is that sometimes they blame you, or the bat, you know, they sometimes people in their grief, are looking for somebody to blame. And even if their pet had a condition that like, you know, no amount of love or money or amazing veterinary care could help. The fact that it didn’t work can leave them. Like I say, looking for somebody to blame. And that can fall to the veterinary staff sometimes, especially when the end result of their care is a large vet bill and you know, pet to take home with them. That can be a very difficult situation to deal with sometimes.

Angela  

Um, correct me if I’m wrong. By date wise, I’m thinking you were at the height of your vet tech career in your 30s.

Tracy 

Yeah, I mean, I graduated from vet tech school in 96. So in my 20s, worked at vet clinics, basically all throughout my 20s. And then I think actually, I left clinic and started working in shelters when I was 30. Huh.

Angela  

Where I’m going with that is that I worked in newspapers in my 20s and early 30s. And we didn’t have any support at all, when it came to the levels of trauma that we experienced out on the street. Is that similar in vet clinics and shelters for?

Tracy 

It probably was when I first started out, I will say that in later years of working in shelters. You know, we were provided with some, you know, training here and there on things like caregiver stress or compassion fatigue, it’s what they used to call it, but I actually saw something a while ago, I think it was a vet that said this, but he felt that in the veterinary field, it wasn’t even so much it shouldn’t be called compassion fatigue, but ethical fatigue, that you know, you’re just so it’s not, you’re not being any less, you’re not having any less compassion because it’s not your compassion that is fatigued. It’s having to make these ethical choices again and again and again and being put in these situations. That’s the part of you that comes fatigued and I thought that was very apt.

Angela  

I think that’s a much better description. Have you noticed any changes in how shelters and clinic acts are supporting their staff?

Tracy 

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think there’s a lot more supports available now. And I think they’re starting to be in the clinical world too, just because the suicide rate in veterinary professionals is very, very much higher than, than normal. And I mean, I think that actually, the veterinary profession is kind of reaching a crisis situation, in general, and there aren’t enough new people going into it, you know, they get so abused. And this goes back to what I was saying earlier about how sometimes people blame you, even when it’s not your fault, you know, a dog gets hit by a car and is brought into the clinic, and you’re unable to save that dog. But now you also have to give the people a bill for $3,000. They’re not happy. And what do people do nowadays, when something like that happens, they go on social media and slamming the vet clinic all over the place, when you know, the vet clinic can’t not charge everybody that comes through their door, they simply can’t as much as they might want to their business and to stay open, to keep serving people, they need to charge money. And so it just becomes this, you know, kind of circular thing where you have like, the literally the most compassionate people in the world towards animals being told at least daily, that they don’t care about animals, and that they’re terrible people. Yeah, so you know, I wouldn’t recommend to any of my, you know, nieces or nephews or any young people, I loved to go into that field. But what’s become going to become the result of all that is that there’s going to come a point where no amount of you’re not gonna be able to find veterinary care for your animal for any amount of money, because there aren’t many left.

Angela  

Right, and we had Leanna Titcombe of Ontario, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her, we had her on in the fall, talking about why it’s so necessary that we show a little compassion to our veterinarians, because, yeah, we are at risk of losing them. I mean, we’re at risk of losing so many more in our medical profession than just vets. Because we don’t appreciate them.

Tracy 

Yep. And I think that’s almost kind of a bigger problem in Canada, because we don’t pay for a lot of our own human health care. So there’s really a big gap in understanding how much this stuff can cost. When you have no idea that 10s of thousands, that you might be billed for a broken leg yourself, then it becomes very easy to be like $3,500 for my dog’s broken leg. That’s, you know …

Angela  

That’s easy! Of course, the $4,000 in rehab that came after was fun, too. But whatever. Are there any specific training programs or resources that you would recommend for vet techs and veterinarians or anybody who works in the environment where you experienced your vicarious trauma?

Tracy 

That’s a really good question. And I wish you’d asked me it before so I could have had that ready. There actually a woman that I follow on TikTok of that, you may know who I’m talking about, she does really good. Just short TikToks about grief they but even I can watch and that’s one of my things is kind of that I. And again, this I guess goes back to what we talked about a bit before, but me not wanting to share my grief and stuff. I also do very much like just sort of trying to put things aside and I’m only beginning since I’ve been away from working the shelter now for six years. I’m only just kind of beginning to deal with stuff now. Basically, for all those years, I couldn’t, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of grief. I … if I started crying. I said this to you before I felt sometimes like if I started crying, I would never stop. And so it’s kind of been a journey for me where you know, the first year or so after I left, whatever and then suddenly I started noticing like I was crying more not because I was less happy … my life is — trust me — much happier now. But just you know, little things like watching something sad on TV or things like that was actually making me cry. Because I’ve started to feel like I have that luxury again, of being able to cry. But as I go through that, you know more and more of that stuff from the past does come up. So basically where I’m going with this is I often avoid things like listening to your podcast.

Angela

It’s OK we’re friends …

Tracy

And, and, and stuff. But there is a woman on TikTok. And I’m sorry, I’ll send you the info afterwards. So that you can include it in the show notes or whatever that I follow, because she just does really short, kind of matter of fact, videos about, you know, pet loss and euthanasia and stuff that I really appreciate. But I think that I think the other thing is maybe just too Well, again, and it can be very hard because even as far as your co workers go, you’re all in that same place, you know, so even to talk to your co workers about what’s bothering you and stuff it can be, it can be very challenging because nobody wants to go down that rabbit hole. So I’m certainly not saying I’m dealing with it well or properly, so I don’t really know what the answer is. That’s right.

Angela  

I might also recommend Jessica Dolce. Je Well, Jessica, DOL C e.com. She is an expert in compassion, fatigue, and teaches a course to sheltering clinic workers on how to better support staff. With compassion fatigue, I did take her course to learn more about it. But like yourself, I’ve internalized a lot of my experiences. I showed up at the scene of a murder-suicide too soon. And got to I still hear the screams of that four year old who was being taken out of the house after her parents died in front of her. So yeah, those are, those are the rough nights, and I’m crying now. I usually only cry about dogs. But that’s … that’s how it works, though. Right? Like you, you take all of this stuff in? And you really don’t, you really don’t have anyone to talk to because you have to get back to work. Right. Um, other than photography, what does self-care mean for you? And, and I don’t know how much you want to go into this. But I know you’ve experienced your own loss with pets recently. So how is it all working for you self-care, photography, in, you know, managing all of these complex emotions from your vet tech career? And your own grief for your pets?

Tracy 

Good question. I don’t know that I’m, again, the best one always for self care. I got a hot tub last year. So that was kind of nice. Especially because we live in an old house that doesn’t have a bathtub. So that was something I really missed when we moved here was baths. So now, at least we have the hot tub. So that’s kind of nice. Reading. Probably too much wine, maybe that’s not so much self care.

Angela  

That’s coping mechanisms.

Tracy 

Exactly. Yeah. And so then we went through a period of about a year and a half, we lost three of our pets within a year and a half. So that fully sucked. And two of them any kind of went in from an older cat that was pretty expected to keep getting old dog. But that went downhill, you know, within a couple of weeks, like no idea that we were going to lose her. And again, as a bad tag, I honestly until the last 24 hours, I was just like, oh, I … she’s gonna get through this. I can save her, you know, and then couldn’t, so that was very hard. And then less than a year after losing her we lost our sphinx last summer, she was only six years old. So that was extremely sudden and unexpected. But I will say at least with that one, I mean, I miss her terribly. But we were left with that one with no questions. I’ve often found with my own pets that the euthanasias that have bothered me the most have been the ones that I feared maybe I let it go too long. Whereas with her, it was very clear cut. We had no choices. Her heart had grown, the walls of her heart had grown so thickened, that it didn’t have any room in it for blood anymore. And I mean, she went downhill within two days, and we basically, you know, to the point where she couldn’t survive outside of an oxygen tank, so there was no treatment, there was no getting better as the vet said, you know, basically, at this point, she needs a heart transplant, which is not really a thing in cats. Yeah. So I would left at least with no real guilt or second guessing. As far as that one went, where I do feel oftentimes with a lot of the other pets, I’m like, oh, did I let that go too long. There’s a saying in sheltering, or in veterinary medicine in general, you know, to the effect, that better to do it a day too soon, that a minute too late, you don’t want them suffering, you know. And so sometimes, in looking back, I’m like, oh, maybe I should have made that call a bit sooner. You know, and again, that’s one of those things. Sometimes it can be easy to judge people who bring in an animal that has a bag of bones, and you’re like, God, why did they let it get to this point? Well, but then you’re in it yourself. And you realize why because these things happen very gradually. And you just don’t notice. I mean, again, even with Trillian, our cat last summer, it was really just, it just kind of struck me one evening that I mean, this was just over a couple of days. But subtle things like I was like usually, when she would sit on me if you touched her, it was literally like an on and off switch, like you touched her purring started, you took your hand away, purring, stopped, start, stop, start, you know, it was funny, and I was like, Oh, she’s not purring when I touch her. And also, you know, she’s just been sitting on the couch under the blanket all day of not coming and sitting on me. And, you know, like, just it was just a couple of little things that I was like, hmm, that all adds up to something’s not right. But none of those individual signs on its own was enough to, you know, sort of tweak me she was still eating, she’s, you know, it just was. So I think that’s a lot of it, too, like, for me is the second guessing in the wondering.

Angela  

I just got a time machine in the backyard? Well, I’m going to do, I’m going to take Tracy months and back to her that tech career. And we’re going to create a more supportive environment for her. What does that look like?

Tracy 

Ooh, good question. Um, I think in sheltering it looks like I’m trying to think about how to word this because there can be, I think, a lot of kind of bullying, within sheltering from other staff who are going through the same stuff. But at the same time, I also want to kind of have compassion for the fact that that’s their coping mechanism. And again, it goes back to me saying, like, how I never felt like I had the luxury of crying. So I think a lot of times, you know, people would come in to working in the shelter, and they would be getting upset. And the rest of us who had been there and had been going through this for years, we we couldn’t handle that, like, we can’t watch your grief. So we need you to you know, suck it up buttercup, just like the rest of us have to do and get through this day. We didn’t have it in us to offer that support to our co workers. And I include myself in that, you know. So

Angela  

There’s also the there’s also the idea that working in shelters is a non stop thing. And just like, you know, a new reporter comes in, and I can’t manage to helping her learn the difference between it’s and its. I just gotta yell at her and say it’s this. Stop screwing that up. I don’t have time to teach because it’s a thing. Right. And I’m sure it’s the same in shelters and vet clinics.

Tracy 

Yeah, so I mean, a lot of the time, I guess it’s that, you know, we didn’t have the time or the capacity for compassion towards each other. And then further, especially again, within the shelter and rescue world, this was one of the things that really bothered me was the amount of bad mouthing that went on between different shelters and rescue groups that like, aren’t we all in the same thing? Don’t we all want the same thing that you know, we all want the best for these animals. We’re all trying we’re you know, we all have employees and or volunteers that care deeply about the animals and there’s more than enough animals needing our help to go around. So why are we bashing each other? And I still see it happen so much on social media. You know, and so that that was something that really, really bothered me the the bad mouthing between different organizations with the same goal, but just makes no sense. And I don’t think that happens so much in most other fields, like, I feel like, you know, are the nurses in one hospital bashing the nurses and another? Or, like, I just don’t think that happens in most other communities where people go through this kind of grief and trauma. And I think a lot of it may be within the veterinary world. And this is the one thing that I will say that I think, sets us apart from all the other first responder type jobs that tend to have, you know, some of these kinds of secondary trauma is that we’re the only ones that are actually expected to kill patients.

Angela  

Wow. I just got to let that sit for a minute. Um, so how do you? How do you go home at the end of the day, and, and not? Well, I mean, like, I guess that’s one of the reasons why suicide is so high in the vet in the vet world. I mean, that’s a lot. Yeah. I mean, you’re dealing with, you’re dealing with customers, upset customers, you’re dealing with staff, you’re dealing like, wow, that’s a lot.

Tracy 

I remember once in the last, maybe it was within the last year or so that I was working there. And I think the main thing that got me through that moment was that I actually, you know, my escape plan was really kind of coming together. And I knew I was getting out soon, but, um, we would have the public health inspector would have to come we’d have animals under quarantine, like that had bitten people and so they’d have to be under quarantine for 10 days, and then the public health inspector would have to come to release them. And for some reason, she got sent back when I was euthanizing something in the back. And it was it was what it was a wild animal. I think it was Rabbit actually, that was like really, really badly injured. Like a wild rabbit ad that had been hit by car or something like that. And when she came back, I was I was finished, the animal was dead. I was just sort of cleaning up. And then she was like, oh my god, like, how do you, how do you deal with this? Like, how do you how do you deal with this? And, and I was like, oh, I drink. And I kind of laughed. But it actually, like, at the time I said it, like I said it flippantly but at the time I said it. I was like,

Angela  

No, I did. I did drink a lot.

Tracy 

And I started to like, I actually started to tear up and had to like, just kind of laugh it off. But I was like, Holy crap. Like that is pretty much how I deal with it.

Angela  

Yeah. Are you sure you’re not from Atlantic Canada? Because that’s how we cope. How do you think the COVID 19 pandemic bettered or worsened the situation around compassion fatigue?

Tracy 

Oh, I mean, I think it worsened to at least within the veterinary world by quite a lot, because it may so many people for one thing, so many people got pets during COVID Either because their jobs led them to believe that it would be a work from home situation permanently moving forward, and then it turned out not to be or they maybe just didn’t have the foresight to see that at some point. They have to go back to work then second of all, they got these dogs that as puppies that never got properly socialized because you couldn’t go out you couldn’t go take them places in public. So a lot of behavioral problems from animals that you know people got during that time and then those people ended up having to go back to work and now have unmanageable unsocialized pets that can’t go to daycare that can’t you know, so shelters and rescues are overwhelmed to a degree that certainly I’ve never seen Even in my career, like I’m seeing rescue groups that I’ve followed for years, and I’ve worked with that are like, desperately posting puppies that they’re like, you know, they can’t get rid of puppies. I mean, when I worked at the shelter, literally, if we posted a puppy up for adoption, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve seen fistfights in the lobby, like,

Angela  

in Canada that we

Tracy 

only find, yeah, but Toronto

you know, there didn’t used to be any issue of finding a home for a puppy. And now it’s it’s just constant.

Angela  

Yeah, and landlord tenancy rules have changed so much. Down here, especially area and you there are so few places to rent where you can have a pet now or landlords are changing the rules and, and people are having to give up their pets. And it’s, we’re in crisis situation. So what’s the best thing you can recommend to people who work in in shelters and vet clinics? who are experiencing? What are the warning signs they need to look for to understand that they are heading straight for burnout?

Tracy 

I always said, I used to look at some of the people I worked with who had been in it for a long time and used to say if my short circuiting like them, I’ll know it’s time to leave. Because just have a perception, I think that they didn’t care. And you know, I don’t know, I don’t know how I looked to somebody on the outside by the end of when I left. I definitely still cared and I don’t think I was ever going to stop caring. And honestly, to some degree, that is kind of my best advice for somebody who’s starting to struggle with this stuff, is start planning the week. Like having a plan as I started making a plan to get out and working towards that goal. That just immediately improved things. For me on a day to day basis. I used to have kind of a mantra and I didn’t even I didn’t meditate or think of it as a mantra or anything back at the time. But I read something recently that said about how like, just pick a word or two that describes something you want, like, say it through your head throughout the day. So it’s already like happened kind of thing. And I was like, oh my god, I used to do that. You know, it used to go through my head all day, every day when I was at work. Tracy left? Oh, wow. I used to think that all the time, Tracy left. And that was just something I bought all the time. So what happened? Tracy left? Tracy.

Angela  

But if everybody leaves, then we have no one to deal with these issues. So how do we know my problem? Ah, what how? How do we make it better though?

Tracy 

Well, I think that that part of it is an issue of the public’s perception. You know of these workers both shelter and veterinary workers that you know, I’m not sure how well I mean, for one thing there’s portrayal I’ll say this I have yet to see movie even like kids Disney movies and stuff like that, that portrays animal shelter workers or animal control officers as anything other than the villain.

Angela  

Oh, good point. I just finished watching well not just finish but I did recently watch strays and and the animal control officer and that is a bad guy.

Tracy 

And I kind of make a turn remember I watched that a little while ago. And I don’t think it was even really the worst portrayal that I’ve seen like I remember the movie and it give us that movie. It’s a dog’s life. One of the times the dog is reborn, it’s like a puppy and then it gets scooped up by animal control and then boom, it starts a new life. So it’s like it was a puppy up, you get scooped up by animal control. And now it’s dead and starts a new life like that was even one of the Disney or Pixar cartoon ones, the pets life, I think, again, animal control officers are the bad guys. So, I mean, that’s something that could change that might help improve perception. From the time we’re little children. The people trying the most to help societies unwanted and uncared for that, maybe let’s not portray them as the villains. And especially nowadays, because I think that is partly a hangover of a time back in the late 60s and 70s, where that was, that was a city job. That was something you maybe like, started off with the city in garbage collection, and then moved into animal control. It was like maybe a lateral move or a slight move up the chain. You didn’t have to necessarily have any animal experience. You probably were somebody who like, didn’t hate animals actively. But it was a job that just No, it wasn’t. Whereas nowadays, most shelters are hiring, you know, trained, experienced people who you’d wish. Well, I mean, when they can.

Angela  

Well, we have a lot of hangovers from the 60s and 70s. Thank you so much baby boomers. How do you? How do you distinguish between normal stress and the early stop signs of vicarious trauma and burnout?

Tracy 

Good question. And I don’t know if I can answer that. Because I don’t know. Again, it’s kind of like what I was talking about earlier with, you know, your own pets how sometimes the changes are gradual, and you don’t see it as much as somebody who just sees them cold as that bag of bones might. I think it’s kind of the same gradual slide. And so I mean, I can’t really pinpoint any particular moment where it was like, oh, that’s the moment it like, started getting to me, I just know that there are reached a point where, you know, I had really thought that that was going to be my career for the rest of my working life, and that I would never leave and then more and more and more, I started to think, Tracy left. So yeah, I mean, I don’t know and I think those answers are probably different for everyone. But …

Angela  

What can we as pet guardians do to improve the situation for our veterinary medicine professionals?

Tracy 

Like educate people, advocate for your vets, understand that like, veterinarians, like newsflash aren’t getting rich. You know, they leave what seven or eight years of post secondary education with like hundreds of 1000s of dollars of student debt. They then open a clinic which like, your family doctor does not own a x ray machine. They don’t own a surgical suite and anesthesia machines, they don’t own blood analyzers, they don’t keep a fully stocked pharmacy in their building. Oftentimes, they’re just renting space in a building like an office space, they don’t have to pay for the rent and to run and keep the lights on and a whole hospital building with all those hundreds of 1000s of dollars worth of equipment plus pay all the staff I mean, it is astronomical the overhead that that clinic has, you know, and then much the same as we face as photographers all they see all the time is Can somebody recommend a vet that you know, isn’t just in it for the money? No, that is in it for the money there are way easier ways to make money.

Angela  

And I know very few pet photographers who are in it for the money. Honestly, exactly. What is one last piece of advice you can give especially to veterinary clinic and shelter workers

Tracy 

don’t other

Angela  

20 to know.

Tracy 

Um, yeah. Don’t drown your sorrows. But also, I think to be aware that like, I think some careers maybe do have a lifespan. And it’s a very rare person that can, you know, survive it beyond that without doing themselves some harm. So I’m just not sure that they’re jobs that really are suitable for most people to be in for the rest of their life. Like, maybe it’s a job you do for 10 years. And then you’re like, Okay, I’ve done my part. And I’ve had enough time for somebody else to step in. I don’t know. And I know that doesn’t help anybody who’s in it doesn’t feel they can leave. But, you know, I planned leaving for like, seven or eight years, you know, I got a lot better at photography, I learned about business, I, you know, I planned getting out and knowing that I had that plan was what kept me sane.

Angela  

You learned how to run a business before you started a business?

Tracy 

A little bit not to say that I was like, you know, fully prepared. But I’m so glad I did, actually, at one point, thought that I was going to leave a lot sooner than I did. And then some things fell through and stuff. And it was definitely I ended up feeling that it was a case of you know, God protecting fools and drunks. Because I’m so glad things didn’t work out at that time for me to leave because I was nowhere near ready, either in terms of my photography being good enough, or in terms of having any idea of how to run a business by the time I left I, you know, certainly didn’t do everything perfectly, but I had a lot more things in place to, you know, be successful.

Angela  

Can you look back at a vet tech Tracy Munson and still like her?

Tracy 

Yes. Um, and, um, sometimes I feel like, Oh, I wish I you know, never gone into that one. I wish I had gone into photography way back when, but I don’t really because I think if I’d been into photography, way back, then I probably would have quit photography at some point within the last 10 years and be looking to do something different. And I mean, that’s another thing, right? Like our parents, people of our generation, they probably have one main career throughout their whole lives, right. But that’s less and less the case now. In fact, I think now they say most people can expect to have like three or four different careers, not jobs, but like careers within their lifetime. So and I guess that’s why I say, just be prepared to leave. If it gets to that point, you’re not actually trapped. And that’s what I feel I see in a lot of my old co workers, I saw it when I was there. And they would all you know, there was oftentimes a real feeling of being trapped, especially because it was a good job with a pension plan and benefits and stuff, right? There was this feeling of being trapped that they couldn’t leave, and you can leave, thank you maybe can’t just quit and walk out the door and leave tomorrow, but you can start making plans and leave.

Angela  

Definitely, I’m on career three. Even though I went back to career one part time. I don’t know what possessed me to do that, but whatever.

Tracy 

It felt like leaving an abusive relationship to me by the time I left. So and there’s nothing bad about that.

Angela  

Yeah, that’s how I felt about marketing and communications. Absolutely abusive relationship. Wow. And I think one of the things you’re trying to, you’re striking at is that we need to have boundaries for ourselves, and not that we should place limits on ourselves. Because we still need to understand what our potential is as human beings and as as career people, but to have boundaries for ourselves as to what we will accept on a daily basis to still go home at the end of the day, and have a healthy fulfilling life.

Tracy 

Well, and I think it’s well that those of us who go into caregiver type jobs, we can also take a lot of the weight of the world onto our shoulders, right? So something I hear a lot and even felt myself sometimes at the shelter was well, if I leave who will do it, you know, I mean, you even kind of said this before it well, if everybody just quits, then who will do it? And I said then Not my problem. And it’s true, you kind of have to, you can’t worry about who will do it. You know what somebody will do it. You know, it’s and there may be comes a point where you have to admit that if you’re not functioning at full capacity anymore, maybe somebody else could do it better than you are at this point. And, you know, again, I think I’d probably reached that point to where I don’t think I was doing a bad job or anything, but maybe younger, fresher. People could come in and bring some new, you know, life and enthusiasm to the work that I had kind of lost.

Angela

And on that note, thank you so much for joining us today.

Compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine — or ethical fatigue, which we determined may suit that industry better — is becoming a less overlooked issue.

My friends at the Companions Animal Center in Idaho where I volunteer as a photographer for the adoptable cats and dogs are looking into helping their staff and volunteers improve their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Let’s get this right: Veterinary professionals are driven by a deep love for animals and a desire to help but the nature of their work exposes them to constant emotional stressors.

Tracy has shared with us the links to the TikTok vet she follows and a Facebook support group for animal and shelter workers. I’ve shared those in the show notes, along with the link to Jessica Dolce’s website.

No matter how much we love the animals, we still have to put our own wellbeing first. Because if we’re not well, we can’t help those who need us — animal or human.

And thanks for joining us at The Companions Collective. If you enjoyed this conversation, share it with a friend or two. If you have a moment, we’d love it if you could leave us a review or rating on your podcast platform.

Until next week, tell your dog I said hi.

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