I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter.
The cast-offs of human society.
I saw in their eyes love and hope, fear and dread,
Sadness, and betrayal.
And I was angry.
“God,” I said, “this is terrible!
Why don’t you do something?”
God was silent for a moment, and then He
“I have done something,” He replied,
“I created you.”
--Jim Willis, from Pieces of My Heart: Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature.
I grew up saving animals. Animals were intrinsic to my well-being. I believe saving animals can make others feel the same. In 1976, I joined a now defunct rescue group with the catchy acronym, ARF (Animal Relief Foundation). We rescued animals that were unwanted, on death row, abused, neglected, or abandoned, given up by loving owners who had died or moved. All the animals we rescued had tragic stories. I have been saving animals for the last 40 years and have witnessed first hand the benefits animal rescue has on mental health.
In 1987, I opened Brebeau Kennels, a large boarding, grooming and training facility in Elko, Nevada, and began rescuing animals on a large scale. I was also a founding member of two sill active local rescue groups, Animal House and Dog Town. I also pulled dogs and cats on death row from our local animal shelter. I watched as these animals touched the hearts and souls of the humans who saved them. I also witnessed juvenile offenders and at-risk youth soften and work together to save a helpless animal. I feel animals can save the people who rescue them from loneliness and despair. Saving animals can give people a purpose to live and make the world a better place for all creatures, large and small, human and non human.
Animal Rescue and Young People
Over the past 40 years I have done extensive animal-assisted activities with children and young adults and have witnessed an improvement in their mental health. I have coached, taught, and advocated for 4-H, girl and boy scouts, children from the Department of Child Protective Services, and disabled and handicapped children. Some of the children were considered to be at-risk, due to their family situations, disabilities, or delinquency, and others were honor students. These children assisted me in the actual rescue effort, training, and grooming of the animals we saved. The greatest lesson learned by these children is how to be empathetic (Fine, 2010). Learning to be empathetic is like learning a new skill for children who have suffered from abuse or neglect (Svensson, 2014). The children I worked with, who helped me rescue animals, learned to be empathetic, but also learned the skills to read emotions, and know and understand how the emotions felt. Rescue dogs show emotions through specific body language such as barring teeth, growling, tail wagging, licking, ear position, and posture (Loar & Coleman, 2004). Children also learn to read the dog’s body language which helps them understand human social indicators, and facial expressions (Levinson, 1969). Many of the children I work with don’t have loving parents to hug and show them love. Animals show children love they have never experienced before (Levinson, 1969).
In helping me with the responsibilities associated with animal rescue, the children I work with learn to think of something other than themselves. Children in less than desirable situations are only concerned with their own feelings and safety (Dietz, Davis, & Pennings, 2012). Many of the children have the same home lives as the animals they help me rescue. One may think introducing children to difficult and even sad situations might not be in their best interest, however, doing animal rescue with children who have extremely despairing home lives, takes the children’s minds off what they are experiencing at home. The rescue dogs we save have a lot of baggage and show a range of emotions. The young people helping me, offer the dogs a lot of one on one attention. Working with rescues is a great way to teach valuable job skills to children as well as enhance their mental well-being.
Animal rescue is a much needed community service. Having mentors for young people in our small community is a much needed service. My staff has taken on my pay-it-forward approach and helps me mentor young people who need helping, and also, take care of the rescue animals we are saving. When children are part of a rescue effort, it not only helps the children and animals, but the community as well. Doing animal rescue with children who suffer neglect and abuse is a win-win situation. Pairing at-risk children with animals, offers unlimited learning opportunities.
In Summation, animal rescue can help children:
- Learn empathy
- Learn to read emotions
- Relate to abused and neglected animals
- Relate to disabilities suffered by animals
- Have love objects
- Learn valuable life lessons and employment skills
- Be a part of something bigger than themselves
- Help our community and environment
- Forget despairing situations for a short period
- Enhance their well-being and mental health
Self-psychology Enmeshed with Animal Rescue
Doing animal rescue serves as a self-object function. Self psychology contains two main concepts. The first is "self" and the second is “self-object”. Self is the core of a personality and gives a person a sense of well-being, self-esteem, and general cohesion. In order to maintain a healthy self, humans need responses from something in their outside environment. These psychological self-sustaining responses might include calming responses such as empathy, affirmation, and soothing responses. These responses are provided by objects such as other people, animals, things, experiences, or ideas. These responses are called self-object functions. The calming effect from a rescue animal, along with the rescue experience, may be just the self-object function that helps people maintain a healthy aspect of their self, (Wolf, 1988). I learned self-object functions can be responsible for the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine which help support a health self (Fine, 2010). This is one of the reasons people continue to do rescue work. In establishing and maintaining a healthy sense of self, it is fundamentally important to form relationships which help bring out and strengthen the various aspects of the self (Wolf, 1988). Human-animal relationships, coupled with the experience of the rescue effort, help feed the needs of a healthy self.
Understanding self psychology has helped me understand why animal rescue benefits human well-being. I have learned animal rescue isn’t for everyone. But, for the people involved in animal rescue, there is a sense of well-being knowing they had a part in the bigger picture. I have learned a lot about brain function and mirror neurons. One example of how mirror neurons work is watching someone yawn and then feeling the need to yawn. A yawn is contagious (Meyer, 2014). That is our mirror neurons at work. Just like the contagious yawn, empathy becomes contagious. Empathy is an important part in animal rescue.
In learning more about what type of people do animal rescue and why it is appealing to them, I came across a study done in 1980 by Washington University by geneticist and psychiatrist, C. Rob Cloninger et al, on personality traits. Cloninger found there are three basic personality traits, self-directedness, how goal oriented you are; cooperativeness, governs your relationship with others; and self-transcendence, describes spiritual feelings independent of traditional religion. Self-transcendence is a blend of three sub-traits, mysticism, or the willingness to believe in supernatural; self-forgetfulness, the ability to get lost in the moment; and transpersonal identification, the feeling of being connected to the universe and everything in it, animate and inanimate. People having a high score for transpersonal identification can become emotionally attached to animals and people (Kotler, 2011). People who do animal rescue, who are advocates and not activists, fit all the characteristics of people scoring high for transpersonal identification.
- Helps humans maintain a healthy sense of self
- Acts as a self-object function
- Activates mirror neurons in the brain into emoting empathy
- Identifies animal rescuers as scoring high for transpersonal identification, a sub category of self-transcendence
Brain Chemicals and Animal Rescue
Doing animal rescue and having close interactions with animals can activate a region of the brain called the prefrontal-cortex which is responsible for the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin. Oxytocin has a calming effect and has actually been proven to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure, as well as lower cortisol levels and increase beta-endorphins and dopamine (Fine, 2010). Oxytocin deprivation is a real problem and many people suffer from it. Oxytocin deprivation can cause many social, as well as physical, problems (Olmert, 2009). Many people feeling anxious, depressed, and having social anxiety, can help relieve these symptoms by simply interacting with animals. The interaction with animals, coupled with the self-object function of doing a good deed such as rescuing an animal, can activate the brain into producing oxytocin, dopamine, and lowering harmful cortisol levels. Many people, old and young, who have helped me do animal rescue attest to the therapeutic benefits animal rescue has on their mental health.
Because brain chemicals are altered when doing animal rescue, I witnessed a small percentage of people become obsessed with rescue. I watch them go through divorces, spend their life savings on animals they rescued, and basically become addicted. I believe the addiction to animal rescue, is in part, due the surge of feel-good hormones in the brain. The surge of these hormones acts on the brain much the same as illegal drugs. Most people who do animal rescue have a sense of well-being without becoming obsessed or addicted. I still recommend interaction with animals when dealing with depressed children and adults. The good outcomes I have witnessed far outweigh the bad.
During my years rescuing animals and observing the people involved, I became extremely aware of the diverse dimensions of multi-cultural affiliations, and the difference in views towards animals. Different cultural views on animals seem to affect the way the brain reacts to animal interactions.
Animal rescue affects the brain by:
- Causing the release of oxytocin and other feel-good brain chemicals
- Alleviating Oxytocin deprivation
- Lowering harmful cortisol levels
- And, in a small percentage, causes addiction to the feel-good hormones produced by the brain due to rescue work
Group Cohesion and Animal Rescue
In January of 1991, a few years after opening the kennel, a large puppy mill was discovered East of Elko in the mountains. It had been abandoned due the large amount of snow fall which prohibited the owners from returning. The deserted puppy mill was discovered by a cowboy from one of the neighboring ranches checking for stray cattle. He was able to get through the deep snow on horseback. The conditions were deplorable. The temperature had dipped to 30 degrees below zero and had lasted close to three weeks. Hundreds of animals were starved, dehydrated, and frozen. Piles of dead animals were left to compost. Sixty-seven dogs had survived along with several rabbits.
The travesty united our community. On a bigger scale, it united our state. It even made national news. People from our community organized fund raisers and came together to help me care for, and socialize, the traumatized dogs. Donations poured in from all over the country after word of the grizzly discovery spread. The dogs were all spayed and neutered, other necessary surgeries were preformed, and then came the daunting task of finding them all homes. The dogs were not housebroken and most had social and separation anxiety. The dogs were adopted and returned many times before they eventually found permanent homes. Long after the community had gotten back to the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life, I was still dealing with the most difficult animals. It took almost two years before all the dogs were adopted to forever homes.
I found group cohesion to be one of the success factors in this rescue. I witnessed how the tragedy of the puppy mill caused emotional sharing among members of the rescue group. What I learned during those years, was sharing an emotional tragedy as a group, creates group cohesion (Rennung & Goritz, 2015). Emotions abound within the group. Emotions ranged from empathy for the animals to rage at the people responsible for abandoning and starving the animals. A sort of bonding occurred between members of the rescue group. Negative experiences shared by the rescue group motivated people to bond with each other, which explains why, after 15 years, I am still very close to some of the people in the rescue group.
Animal rescue can cause:
- Group cohesion
- Emotional sharing
- Multitude of group emotions
- Development of long lasting relationships
Animal Hoarding Disorder and Animal Rescue
In the mid nineties, along with animal control, I rescued over a hundred cats from a hoarding situation. As with many of the rescue missions I have been involved in, the cats were in horrible condition. All but six cats had to be euthanized. All involved in the rescue were enraged at the woman.
I was less angry and more sympathetic towards the woman after I learned more about hoarding. Hoarding Disorder is considered a mental illness and is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Hoarding is often associated with depressive disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and general anxiety disorder (Frost, Patronek, & Rosenfield, 2011). All involved in a hoarding situation suffer. It is important to be objective in a situation such as this even though it includes animal abuse.
The woman was removed from her home and placed in an apartment and allowed to have only two cats. Members from the rescue group, along with local clinical social workers monitored her situation. Coming together as a cohesive group and helping the hoarder find treatment, and rescuing the cats from further harm, was good for everyone’s well-being. Coming together and doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing to do. Euthanizing animals that are in pain and suffering is the kindest thing to do for the animals. Euthanizing animals is always a sad situation, but knowing the animals are not suffering helps lessen the burden. Watching a hoarder lose his/her hoard of animals is heartbreaking, but knowing the animals are safe, brings a sense satisfaction to the rescuers.
Animal Hoarding is:
- A mental illness listed is the DSM
- An over accumulation of animals and not in the animal’s best interest
- Unfair and dismal for all involved
Human Grieving Diminished by Animal Rescue
Doing animal rescue can help lessen the symptoms of grief humans feel over losing a pet. Presenting a rescue dog or cat to a person who has lost a pet helps relieve the grief they feel. Actual studies have been done on companion animal bereavement. The studies point out that the grief following the loss of a companion animal can be far worse than that of a human, even if the human is a family member or close family friend (Kotler, 2011).
People seek advice from me on dealing with the loss of their pets. I help clients through the grief process which is often times coupled with guilt from having their pet euthanized. Adopting a rescue animal helps alleviate some of the guilt by knowing the life of the animal adopted, has been spared. I usually advise people to adopt another pet, not to replace the pet they lost, but to fill the void left by the death of their beloved pet. I go to the shelter with them to assure they adopt an animal which fits their family. After adopting a rescue, many people donate and became active in rescue. I have learned rescue animals can really rescue the people who adopt them.
Animal rescue can:
- Diminish the grief over the loss of a pet
- Alleviates the guilt of euthanizing a pet
- Acts as a distraction from the grief they are feeling over the loss of their pet
Animal Rescue and the Environment
Adopting rescue animals helps reduce the environmental footprint left behind by animal owners. This is important to those concerned with environmentally green living. Shelters are overflowing with animals needing homes. With the already vast overpopulation of unwanted dogs and cats in the United States, purchasing a new purebred pet from a breeder, or heaven forbid from a pet store or puppy mill, will only lead to a larger demand for purebred dogs. Along with the higher demand for purebred puppies, more puppies are produced and more shelter dogs are killed. The more dogs that can be adopted from shelters will help shelters spend their limited resources on other programs such as spay and neuter, and education for pet owners. Safely dealing with the bodies of millions of euthanized companion animals is definitely an environmental safety issue (Kiesel, 2012).
Being environmentally friendly pet owners brings people a sense of satisfaction and well-being. Saving the life of an animal doomed for death is extremely satisfying. When people adopt from shelters, they have a tendency to become more aware of their environment and the world around them. Rescue animals can be their gateway to larger environmental concerns. People learn to advocate for animals who cannot speak for themselves. As a society, we have become selfish and wasteful, and killing millions of companion animals each year due to our lack of foresight and empathy is one of the factors contributing to the downfall of our environmental morals (Kiesel, 2012). Adopting rescue animals contributes to our ability to be compassionate and responsible pet owners, proving we are capable stewards of our planet's future. Becoming an advocate for helpless animals, as well as our environment, improves our well-being both mentally and environmentally.
Animal rescue affects the environment by:
- Reducing the demand for purebred animals
- Reducing the burden on over crowded shelters
- Reducing disposal problem of euthanized animals
- Becoming the gateway to awareness of bigger environmental problems
Rescue Organizations, Help or Hindrance
Dealing with many of animal rights organizations can be an eye opening experience. I have learned local people should adopt, volunteer, and donate locally. Large organizations such as the Humane Society, and PETA, (people for the ethical treatment of animals), are not always in the best interest of the animals. If local people feel the need to help animals, it should start at a local level. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) euthanizes 95% of the animals it takes in (Kiesel, 2012). This organization believes companion animals use many of the resources needed for human survival and should not be kept as pets. The organization's main interest is human survival, not animal welfare. People are outraged, and rightly so, when they find out PETA uses animal welfare as a cover up for the organization’s true mission. With this knowledge at hand, people should help rescue on a local level. Seeing results, and knowing that the time and money they have invested is actually going to help animals is very gratifying.
Many large rescue organizations:
- Are not in the best interest of the animals
- Euthanize 95% of the animals they take in
- Use very little donated money to help the animals
- Try to discourage people from rescuing on the local level
Spirituality and Animal Rescue
Many people doing animal rescue surpass the science of personality traits and are often driven by a godlier force. St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, is known for his empathy for all animals. His prayer, which in part says, if you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men, for it is in giving we receive. This prayer pretty much sums up why animal rescue enhances human well-being.
In the mid-eighties, one of the local Christian fellowships began helping with our rescue efforts. They held pet food drives for the needy, and dedicated one Sunday a month to animals. The collection plate was passed and all the proceeds were given to support our rescue efforts.
Animal Rescue in religion:
- Brings awareness to animal rescue
- Is an opportunity to teach about St. Francis and other animal passages in the Bible
- A great opportunity to teach lessons of empathy in Sunday School
Animal Rescue and the Recovering Addict
Two summers ago, I agreed to hire a young man recovering from addiction. Shawn was getting out of prison and had no where to go. His addiction had cost him everything. He moved in with my husband and I, and began helping on our ranch. He loved animals. As a recovering addicted, he wanted to do something more than help himself. He was looking for a purpose. We began going to the local shelter, and he began socializing the rescue dogs. The one thing most shelters and rescue groups have in common is their need for help. The people who run these organizations are not the sort to turn someone away simply because that person has had some troubles of their own. Shawn felt a part of something bigger than himself. The atmosphere in the shelter was filled with hope and love, and the suffering the animals and shelter workers had gone through previously, only made them more grateful to have Shawn there helping them. The shelter was a place of redemption and renewal for Shawn, where he could celebrate the wonders of God’s great creatures, large and small, and the environment of love and unselfish commitment. Working with the animals gave Shawn the boost he needed to heal his mind and soul. We volunteered at the shelter several times a week.
The benefits from working with animals has been proven many times over. I watched Shawn’s stress and anxiety level diminish. He became focused and alert. Spending quality time with non-human companions helped him recover from his addiction. Working with the rescue animals helped Shawn bolster his self-esteem, and he even had a reduction in the painful physical symptoms he was feeling due to his addiction. I learned there is no doubt recovering addicts can be helped immensely by spending time with other beings who will give them unconditional acceptance and love. Doing rescue work changed Shawn’s focus. Previous to doing animal rescue he was scattered and unhappy. We found there is something deeply satisfying about being able to help creatures who need us so badly. Working in shelters or at other rescue facilities and caring for animals with sad histories, is uplifting and empowering in ways that can touch an addict profoundly and deeply.
I have learned, most addicts think only of their own needs. Shawn was no different until he started helping with rescue animals. I learned in doing small acts of kindness and selflessness, Shawn came in contact with the best aspects of himself. This made doing rescue work incredibly valuable for him after spending so many years selfishly putting his own needs above those of everyone else. Shawn had spent years repeatedly using and manipulating people in order to satisfy his desire for relief from the symptoms of addiction, and besides his need to detoxify his body, he also needed to cleanse his wounded spirit and remove the contamination left behind by years of abusive and self-centered past behaviors.
The hard reality of working at the shelter was knowing some of the animals were being euthanized because they didn’t have the temperament to fit into a loving homes. Shawn met Max, a fear biting Chihuahua, that was due to be put down. Shawn spent an entire week working with him and was finally able to hold him. This success sent his self-esteem soaring. We brought Max home to help Shawn fight his demons. I learned, with the help of animal rescue, even the most broken and jaded person, such as Shawn, can rediscover his or her deepest inner sources of compassion, which is an essential step for any addict who hopes to ascend from the pit of despair and shame that dominated his or her existence for so long. I learned that before anyone with a history of substance abuse can hope to find lasting sobriety, they must first rebuild their self-esteem. Self-esteem must be rebuilt to the point where addicts actually feel strong enough to accomplish difficult things, and worthy enough to deserve the happiness and peace that was denied them during their years of battling the demons of addiction. Showing Max the love and compassion he needed, helped Shawn feel worthy and confident as well.
I have mainly been talking about the animals, but human beings who choose to dedicate their lives to rescuing innocent creatures in need, also benefit greatly from their determination to make a positive impact on a world filled with too much sadness and despair. Above all else, I have learned, recovering addicts need something new and worthwhile to live for, and a commitment to caring for animals who have been cast aside by society, can provide vital meaning and purpose where before there was only dependency and hopelessness (Fine, 2010).
When doing rescue work, recovering addicts can:
- Find love, understanding, and redemption working in shelters
- Feel needed
- Think of someone else’s needs besides their own
- Can find relief from the symptoms of recovery
- Find compassion and empathy which has been hidden for so long
- Find hope from despair
- Bolster self-esteem
- Find something to live for
- Become confident
- Find responsibility in knowing a helpless animal depends on them
- Learn life lessons and employment skills
Rescuing helpless animals is so much more than saving the life of a cat or a dog. Over the past forty years, I have saved thousands of animals, but I have watched as rescue work has saved the humans who do it. There is much to be learned about humans in doing animal rescue.
I have watched children from all walks of life work together with a common purpose rescuing a helpless animal. Rescuing animals can give at-risk youth a purpose in life and teach them valuable life lessons and empathy. Rescue animals give much needed love to children who do not have love at home.
I have learned about how the brain produces feel-good hormones when humans come in contact with animals and in doing good deeds. I have learned this enhances human mental health in most cases, but can also cause addiction in a few. I have also learned how self-psychology plays a role in enhancing human mental health through animal rescue and how the increased levels of brain chemicals can help create a healthy self.
Doing animal rescue as a group creates group cohesion. Emotional sharing within the group can be incredibly valuable in working toward a common goal and creating long lasting friendships. Animal rescue groups can give people a purpose and make them feel as though they belong to something important.
I have also learned a hard lesson about animal hoarding disorder. Animals in a hoarding situation suffer, but the human counterpart is suffering as well. Animal hoarding is a specific disorder listed in the new DSM. Animal hoarders need help in healing their troubled minds, and the animals in their hoard badly need to be rescued.
I have learned a lot about human grieving in doing rescue work. The grief of losing a pet is almost more than some can endure. Saving the life of another animal, can ease the pain and grief felt by those who have lost their beloved pet.
I have learned how much animal rescue aids in environmental issues. Adopting rescue animals reduces the demand to produce more purebred animals. Less resources are used by shelters and less animals need to be euthanized. Disposing of euthanized rescue animals can be a huge environmental issue. Incineration is the best method of disposal, but that is not without environmental consequences.
I have learned, not all rescue organizations are created for the well-being of animals, but some go by the pretense of helping animals to fund other agendas. By helping local rescue efforts, time and money spent actually goes for the benefit of animals in the area.
I have learned first hand how much animal rescue can help someone suffering from addiction. Shelters and rescues are places of love and hope. Volunteering at one of these places can help an addict heal their body, mind, and soul. Working with rescue animals can give the addict a purpose in life, and assists them in thinking of someone else’s needs, when they are only used to thinking of their own. The animals show them much needed love and compassion and aren’t judgmental.
Animal rescue benefits almost all involved in a positive way. It has improved my mental health as well as others I have worked with, not to mention the animals we have saved. I have created long and lasting friendships and helped recovering addicts and children in need of love and understanding.
God requires that we assist the animals, when
they need our help. Each being, human or creature, has the
same right of protection.
--St. Francis of Assisi