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Why Caring for Animals Also Means Caring for Us

Guest Blog by Heidi Quine
Sun Bear walking along a raised log

Happy People Mean Happy Animals: Why Caring for Them Means Caring for Us

Guest Blogger, Heidi Quine is Animal Asia’s Vietnam Bear and Vet Department Director, she heads up the bear care and veterinary department at Animal Asia’s Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre in the province of Vĩnh Phúc.


In my 23-year career journey, I’ve worn many hats—from working in a shelter caring for stray and abandoned cats and dogs in Australia to now heading up Animal’s Asia Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, the only GFAS-accredited (Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries) facility in the country.

Animals Asia Goldie the Sun BearEach step of the way has taught me invaluable lessons, but perhaps the most profound one is why caring for animals means caring for our people. However, the other stark truth I’ve observed is that as caregivers who dedicate our lives to animal welfare and conservation, it’s easy to overlook the importance of looking after ourselves and each other. In the name of animals, we nobly give and give and give, and it can feel like a luxury to prioritise our own well-being or to support our fellow caregivers. And yet, we must.

At the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, we’ve made it a priority to maintain the well-being of our staff. I want to share some of our tactics because I believe they are within reach for any organisation, no matter how small, busy or resource-restricted. I will share with you three things: the grieving rituals we observe when saying goodbye to our bears, our mindful practice of gratitude as a team, and our investment in team development.

So today, after reading this blog post, if there is one thing you take away, I hope it’s this: we have a profound opportunity to achieve better welfare outcomes for the animals in our care by looking after our people. How we care for one another is intrinsically linked to caring for our animals.


Why staff happiness matters
Our work at Animals Asia is defined by our mantra, “Kindness in Action.” Since 1998, we have been devoted to ending bear bile farming in Vietnam and China and improving the welfare of animals across Asia. Animals Asia Happy DiemWe promote compassion and respect for all animals and work to bring about long-term change through positive and non-confrontational approaches. And while the welfare of animals is our first priority, we strive to find compassionate solutions that benefit people and animals. Our people are the driving force behind our mission at Animals Asia, so we must invest in and protect our staff’s well-being to achieve our organisational goals.

When an individual’s life purpose and the work they are doing match, workplace happiness increases (1). I would argue that that’s primarily a good thing in our broader sector since the purpose-driven nature of our work naturally attracts compassionate and driven individuals. I’ve lost count of how many of our colleagues have told me they have wanted to do this type of work since they were children. Our organisations are vehicles through which people can fulfil their desire to make the world a better place.
Yet, we know that animal care workers are at risk of burnout and compassion fatigue, highlighting our need to consider how we look after our people (2). Worryingly, the prevalence of compassion fatigue in animal care workers is understudied (3), yet I doubt anyone from our sector would dispute it’s becoming a topic of increasing concern.

The literature contains decades of research on why staff satisfaction and happiness are good for business. Although I don’t think many of us would view our organisations as businesses, I believe there is much we stand to learn from research into staff happiness in the for-profit world.

One example from Oxford University shows that happiness at work is correlated with increased productivity (4). It might be surprising to hear, though, that in a recent survey by MIT of over 23 million job seekers in the USA, respondents identified workplace happiness as work-life balance, social relationships, enjoying the work itself and purpose (5). Interestingly, you’ll note that compensation and benefits weren’t at the top of the list.

I’d propose then that even with limited budgets, managers can employ a range of tactics to increase employee well-being and happiness, such as recognition and rewards programs, offering development opportunities, and fostering engagement and empowerment within their teams (6).


The link between animal welfare and staff welfare
Let’s look at why staff welfare and the welfare of animals in their care are intrinsically linked.
Something we all likely have first-hand experience with is that happiness at work encourages us, as employees, to bring our best selves to work. In the human care sector, NHS staff say that when they feel well-supported and valued, they are emotionally and psychologically better equipped to provide better patient care (7). We have long known that attitudes, personality traits, and the self-esteem of staff, as well as their job satisfaction, strongly determine their attitudes towards the animals in their care (8). Therefore, given that we want our animal care staff to bring their best for the animals in our facilities, we should be doing everything we can to encourage workplaces where our people thrive.

Animals Asia Armstrong Moon BearThe journal Animals published a paper in 2022 that showed how compassion fatigue can negatively impact caregivers and the animals they care for. Drawing parallels from the human caregiving sector, compassion fatigue not only takes a toll on the caregiver but also jeopardises the quality of care provided to patients (9). One of the most significant risk factors for compassion fatigue in the animal care sector is exposure to animal cruelty and the stress associated with performing euthanasia (10).

Looking at the prevalence of burnout, experiences of mental health and the loss of animals in animal care and health professionals, how facilities handle the death of an animal, whether sudden or not, affects the well-being of staff (11). Specifically, facilities with some ritual or formal process after the loss of an animal reduced adverse grief reactions in their staff. Yet, despite this, only 17% of the AZA-accredited zoos involved in the study had some ritual or formal process followed after an animal’s loss. A 2024 paper in Animals and Society explored compassion fatigue in 46 primate sanctuary workers residing in North America, Europe, and Africa and suggests offering opportunities for coworkers to collaboratively process traumatic or emotionally taxing events can be beneficial (3).

It’s not just in zoos that this holds, as found by a study of Australian animal care workers, that greater organisational support resulted in less severe grief, PTSD symptoms, and psychological distress in the team (12). Rituals on the death of an animal are something that facilities, whether shelters, rescue centres, sanctuaries or other captive facilities, can implement with minimal resources or cost.


Saying goodbye to our bears
At Animals Asia’s bear sanctuaries, we have a long-established tradition for farewelling our bears.
Despite the remarkable skills of our veterinary surgeons, nurses, and behavioural husbandry specialists, if we reach a point where we’ve explored every avenue to ensure the Quality of Life of a bear in our care and must face the tough choice of euthanasia, the entire bear care team comes together at the bear hospital. There, as our veterinary team compassionately administers the necessary drugs, our team surrounds the sleeping bear, softly holding their paws or gently stroking their fur, honouring the loss of a cherished friend.

Following the completion of the necessary post-mortem examination, our team gathers once more to lay the bear to rest in our on-site graveyards. Each funeral ceremony begins with a poem, spoken in Vietnamese or Chinese and then in English, as a tribute to the bear. Favourite foods, toys, handwritten notes, or bedding made from hessian sacks are offered to the grave before it is respectfully sealed by hand and shovel, with a grave marker erected in memory of the beloved bear.
These solemn ceremonies give our staff a meaningful opportunity to express their deep love and respect for the bears they have often cared for for decades. They serve as a starting point for processing and healing, acknowledging the universal grief felt within our profession and fostering solidarity and support among colleagues. Importantly, our rituals regarding bear deaths are always opt-in. Our team can always choose to participate or not in a way that feels right to them.


Gratitude…it really is the attitude
Fostering an atmosphere of gratitude in the workplace can serve as a supportive coping mechanism for caregivers9. At the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, we set out to implement a culture of gratitude that focuses on wins, no matter how small. A focus on gratitude and the positive aspects of our work can foster optimism among our teams and bring joy to the workplace (13). Gratitude is a powerful human emotion that helps reduce pain, improve sleep, regulate stress and reduce anxiety and depression (14).

At the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, one small but surprisingly powerful device we use is our “Gratitude Bear.” Our Gratitude Bear is simply a plastic jar in the shape of a bear stuck to the wall in our office (it’s highly visible), and over the month, members of our team leave anonymous notes of gratitude inside. They can be about anything – exceptional performance of a colleague, progress made by the rescued bears we are rehabilitating, the weather! At the end of the month, these are typed up and circulated to the team. We started this in 2019 and have been doing it ever since. In essence, it’s a team Gratitude Journal, and it’s part of our team lore at this point. It works because it’s simple and retrains our focus on all the good we achieve, regardless of setbacks.


Engaging and empowering our staff
One of our key priorities has been investing in the learning and development of our team. Animals Asia House 7 and 8 Team
Our Vietnamese veterinary internship program is one example. By bringing in newly graduated or early-career Vietnamese veterinarians and providing them with rigorous clinical and theoretical instruction, we have produced exceptional veterinarians who are now some of the best bear veterinarians in the country.
Our cooperative care training program has upskilled a significant percentage of our bear care team with new skills; we now have over 25 team members trained in cooperative care, working with over 30 bears to learn advanced behaviours, from measuring blood pressure to taking x-rays, all with the bears’ voluntary consent. There was a time when only 2-3 people on our staff could do this; investing in our team’s skills has exponentially improved our ability to help the bears in our care.
Through initiatives like these, we increase our long-term capacity to help animals and invest in the long-term development of the local workforce in Vietnam.


Happy People Mean Happy Animals
The key takeaway we should remember is that recognising and prioritising the emotional well-being of caregivers is crucial for improving animal welfare outcomes whenever we care for animals in captive environments.
Our work matters—to the animals and to us. We can’t necessarily save every animal, and that’s a great loss. But what we do matters to each one we can save. In the process, we can tap into our sense of purpose and hope and maybe save one another.
So, let’s recommit ourselves to well-being and re-dedicate ourselves to building safe, nurturing, and inspiring workplaces and workplace cultures. We are responsible for recognising the connection between happy people and happy animals.
Together, let us continue to build a kinder future for the animals and the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to protect and care for them.

Heidi Quine BSc MSc PgDipBA
Director, Bear and Veterinary Department, Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, Animals Asia

A guest blog in collaboration with Wild Welfare

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