An emotionally distraught woman walked through the doors of the Humane Society for Southwest Washington on a Wednesday, carrying a cardboard box formed into a cage that held a cat that she had adopted the previous Friday.
Kristen Starr, a customer care counselor, stood behind the counter as the woman, through tears and occasionally grabbing from the box of tissues on the counter, explained the cat wouldn’t eat and was unhappy. She felt she had no other option than to return it.
Starr talked with her briefly before calling in the animal care team triage staff. After some discussion about reasons why the cat may be unhappy — including that it can take time for an animal to adjust from a more raucous life in the shelter to a very quiet home — they took the cat back into care and the woman left.
At the same time, another woman surrendered two cats named Derpy and Cascadia. She didn’t have room for them in her current living situation.
“You never know what’s going to come in the doors, and you absolutely have to be neutral in every single case,” said Starr, 24.
Humane Society for Southwest Washington
1100 N.E. 192nd Ave., Vancouver.
Employees: 14 customer care department staffers, which includes admissions and adoptions.
Revenue/Expenses: The most recently posted financial statements on the organization’s website from 2016 reflected $4,320,391 in revenue and gains and $4,531,220 in expenses.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: “Employment of animal care and service workers is projected to grow 22 percent through 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth coupled with high job turnover should result in very good job opportunities.” The mean wage for the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro area is $13.33 an hour or $27,730 a year. Kristen Starr makes minimum wage, she said, which is $12 an hour.
Starr could have similar customer encounters dozens of times a shift. The day prior, they took in 15 animals. There were 541 in the last month and 7,295 in the last year. She starts her day at 7:30 a.m., though intake from the public starts at noon.
“On average, we can get from eight to 75 animals a day,” she said.
Besides the above cases, people are surrendering their animals for many reasons, said Starr, who’s worked in the department two years. They could be so sick a person can no longer afford the pet’s veterinary bills. A family may have not fully grasped how much work is needed to care for a dog and decided it wasn’t for them.
Perhaps the most contentious comes from the fact the Humane Society is the holding facility for Clark County Animal Protection and Control.
“Animal Control brings in some abuse cases, hoarding cases,” said Starr, wearing a cat-patterned gray cardigan. “They recently, yesterday, brought in a cat that was hit by a car and it was actively declining so we had to humanely euthanize it due to suffering.”
The contention can come from the fees imposed by Animal Control, which the Humane Society has no control over.
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“Checking an animal in is eighty bucks and it can go up to there, to $205 at least, depending on how long (the animal is) there,” said Customer Care Supervisor Kayla Beal, who has worked at the shelter for six months. “It’s exceptionally difficult when someone comes in when they’re in that low-income bracket and do not have the money to get the animal out.”
In a fragile state, customers can redirect blame to the Humane Society staff, such as Starr, who also fields calls, and searches Facebook and Craigslist for missing animal posts, in case they may be at the shelter.
The difficult work is reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook for animal care and service workers — which could be interpreted as good because it’s expected to grow 22 percent through 2026 — but not for a good reason: in part, because of high turnover. Additionally, work-related injuries and illnesses are higher than the national average.
But the organization has been working somewhat to mitigate emotional burnout of employees, many of whom pursue the path of work because they are so passionate, empathetic and hopeful about making a difference.
Working four consecutive 10-hour days has become the norm for most staff. The extra day off gives employees more time to recoup from intense interactions.
“I think the three days off I’ve heard consistently from everyone throughout the department is a nice way to give yourself the extra time,” Beal said.
“That is the most important thing to me, because honestly I think that’s what has prevented shelter burnout,” Starr said.
Her strategy also is to “detach as much as I possibly can, which is not realistic at all,” she explained. “And sometimes the animals are affected by the emotions as well. And being an animal lover, that hits harder than anything will, is when the animals are affected.”
Compassion fatigue and burnout have been pointed to as a problem in such industries that require many emotional interactions — including veterinarians, doctors, nurses, ambulance workers and journalists. Left untreated, it can cause “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment,” according to a 2001 study that focused on veterinarian nursing.
“It all adds up and you can get very overwhelmed very quickly. So three days away definitely helps prevent (burnout), but I like it because it also gives me time to reflect on how I handled all of my cases for the week. I think, what can I do to make that better next time?” Starr said.
Despite the intensity, the position pays minimum wage. Starr lives at home with her parents in Washougal, where she has a dog named Meeka and a cat named Milo. Starr moved there with her parents in 2014 from the Palo Cedro area of Northern California, where her grandfather started a no-kill shelter, she said.
Starr’s dream is to eventually work in the clinic, though she struggles with anxiety and isn’t certain how she may adjust to working strictly with animals.
“As much as I have experience and love animals, it’s a whole new idea for me to work strictly with animals and not humans, because customer service is all I’ve known,” she said, adding that she would need more schooling. The organization is planning to expand its clinic, adding more opportunities.
Beal said the Humane Society is starting a fund-raising campaign this year to “hopefully open a public facing, low-income clinic here at the shelter.” It also plans to construct a behavior center that would be staffed with a call center and trainers in the next two to three years, Beal said.
The prospect of growth and moving up the ranks excites Starr, who dreams of being able to afford to leave her parents’ house.
“I would love to survive on my own — I dream about it actually, but with bills and the amount of workers that are here at a nonprofit, it’s just not realistic to be working here for the money,” she said.