Practical Issues >
Things To Do >
Fear of Feeling: Trauma and Recovery in the Animal
By Pattrice Jones
Standing alone on a stage at Syracuse University, Sarahjane
Blum quivers with emotion as she speaks about what she saw inside a
foie gras factory.
Feeling as well as hearing her words, the audience sees the suffering
of the ducks through Sarahjane’s eyes. When words fail, Sarahjane
shows selections from the videotape, Delicacy of Despair. Sitting in
the darkened auditorium, scholars and activists flinch from, but force
themselves to witness, the visible misery on the screen.
On a literature table just outside the auditorium, a videotape loop broadcasts
undercover footage of animal abuse at Huntingdon Life Sciences. Over and over
again, a screaming man in a white lab coat abuses beagle puppies. One can only
imagine the mental machinations necessary for the activists staffing the table
to tolerate the constant barrage of human rage and animal pain. And what of the
activist who went undercover as an HLS employee in order to bring out the evidence
of such abuses? How did she cope with her emotions at the time? What does she
On a fine afternoon in late September, United Poultry Concerns President Karen
Davis stops by the Eastern Shore Sanctuary. She’s distraught, having just
come from euthanizing an incurably ill hen at the vet. As always, Karen stayed
with the hen to the very end. People are always asking her, “How can you
keep going without getting upset?” What they don’t understand, she
says, her voice rising, is that “I’m always upset!” All she
can do, Karen says, is keep going, channeling the feelings into something—some
document, some speech, some words—that might make a difference.
Disaster has struck another egg factory. Rescuers converge, seeking to save as
many hens as possible. Thousands are already dead. Having gone without food or
water for many days, the surviving birds trapped in cages with their dead confederates
are even more distraught than battery hens always are. Some flap frantically;
others stand motionless, their slumped shoulders expressing their feelings of
helplessness. One of the rescuers notices hens trapped in the manure pits beneath
the cages and wades in to try to save them, but has to turn back as the waist-deep
muck begins to suck him under. In subsequent weeks, he will suffer insomnia,
recurring dreams of being helpless in the midst of animals in need of help, and
intrusive memories of the birds he was unable to save.
Our Animal Emotions
People are animals. Animals have feelings. Animals have bodies that experience
and express their feelings. Like any other physiological processes, feelings
persist even if they are ignored or denied.
One of the myths of human superiority is that we can transcend our feelings while
other animals are bound by theirs. This goes along with the idea that we can
and should supersede our bodies while animals always coincide with theirs. This
idea is so deeply embedded in so many Western and Eastern cultures that even
animal liberationists can catch themselves implicitly embracing it.
When we refuse to recognize our own physical limitations or expect ourselves
to be exempt from the emotional factors that affect other animals, we come dangerously
close to the (human) mind over (animal) matter mentality that leads to biotechnology
and other efforts to reshape the natural world according to our fantasies of
omnipotence and control.
In truth, life follows its own rules, not ours. We have no more control over
our animal emotions than any other vertebrate. We can choose what we do with
our feelings and even, to a certain extent, whether or not we fully experience
them. But we cannot elect not to be angry about injustice or sad about loss any
more than a chicken can choose not to be afraid of a hawk or frustrated by a
Feelings can be both frightening and alluring because they remain undomesticated
no matter how tame we otherwise have become. But the only thing to fear about
feelings is fear of feelings. Like rivers, feelings are most dangerous when dammed
or inappropriately channeled. Like rivers, they are going to flow anyway and
may become unpredictably destructive if not allowed to follow their natural paths.
Often, animal advocates hesitate to talk about, or even think about, their own
feelings because the suffering of the animals is comparatively so much greater.
The motives for this self-suppression are altruistic but the results can be counterproductive.
Obviously, the distress caused by witnessing violence is not the same as the
terror and pain experienced by the victim of the violence. But the distress of
the witness is real and cannot be wished away by comparisons. Recent research
has proved that traumatic events can have just as powerful an emotional impact
on witnesses as on victims. Both witnesses to and victims of rape and domestic
violence, for example, may develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD). According to the PTSD Alliance, signs of post-traumatic stress may develop
after any experience that leads to feelings of “intense fear, horror or
a sense of helplessness.”
Helplessness in the face of danger to oneself or others creates a conundrum for
the body. The senses shout “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!” and the nervous
system responds by stopping digestion, pumping extra blood to the arm and leg
muscles, releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream, making vision more acute,
and otherwise preparing the body to fight or flee. But there’s nothing
for the body to do! The nervous system keeps revving the internal engines and
the senses keep shouting “EMERGENCY!” but there’s nowhere for
all of that energy and emotion to go.
If this situation persists for long enough or is repeated often enough, the organism
may be permanently damaged. This was most easily seen during the first World
War, when soldiers stuck in trenches endured seemingly endless bombardment without
being able to do anything to fight back or protect themselves. Many ended up “shell
shocked,” sitting motionless in hospital beds while their hearts pounded
as if they were still under fire.
Americans first became aware of traumatic stress, as such, in the wake of the
Vietnam war. Nightmares, flashbacks, and debilitating feelings of fear or rage,
we learned, were common consequences of exposure to the horrors of war. As Judith
Herman has amply demonstrated in her book, Trauma and Recovery, this is a lesson
we have learned and forgotten before. Each generation tries to forget the traumas
it has endured and, in so doing, becomes more likely to inflict trauma on the
A trauma is an injury or shock. The stress of experiencing, witnessing, or even
learning about a traumatic event can trigger cognitive, emotional, or physical
reactions. Recent studies of people with PTSD have shown that traumatic episodes,
particularly when they are sustained or repetitive, can lead to changes in brain
chemistry, blood flow and metabolism. Liberators, cruelty investigators, sanctuary
staff, and animal advocates confront and often directly witness extreme suffering
over and over again, repetitively experiencing the combination of urgency and
helplessness that is the hallmark of a traumatic event. As a result, we often
struggle with sleep disorders, intrusive memories, and either heightened or deadened
If you have higher levels of the hormone norepinephrine, lower levels of serotonin,
and abnormal blood flow in your brain, telling yourself that the animals have
it worse is not going to make the resulting problems go away. If these problems
keep you from getting proper rest, interfere with your ability to concentrate,
or compromise your ability to maintain productive working relationships with
other people, then the efficacy of your activism for animals is likely to decline.
The four characteristics of post-traumatic stress are:
Reliving the traumatic experience. Nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks,
and strong emotional responses to reminders of the experience are all ways that
people relive traumatic experiences.
Emotional numbness. This may take the form of feelings of detachment or estrangement,
loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities, lack of positive feelings,
or lack of any feeling at all.
Avoidance of reminders of the experience. People often avoid or even develop
phobic reactions to people, places, things, or activities that remind them in
some way of the traumatic experience. Sometimes
behavior changes that seem to make no sense turn out to be efforts to avoid being
reminded of the trauma.
Increased arousal. This may take the form of a heightened startle response to
loud noises or other stimuli but may also manifest as increased alertness to
anything related to the trauma.
If you experience a trauma, be prepared for a stress reaction. Do what you can
to take care of yourself or allow others to care for you, remembering that taking
the time to do that right away may prevent or mitigate the emergence of more
persistent and debilitating PTSD symptoms. Find ways to experience and express
your feelings, especially in words to people who can empathize but also with
movement, music, art, or other safe outlets. Take particular care with rest and
nutrition, so that your body will have the resources to cope with the physiological
aspects of the trauma.
If you notice yourself or someone else experiencing several characteristics of
post-traumatic stress for a month or longer and these reactions are causing significant
distress or disruption, it's time to take action. Group work—whether it
be group therapy with a counselor or a series of discussions among peers with
ground rules in a safe space and moderated by a trained facilitator—may
be the treatment of choice for activists dealing with stress related to their
work for animals. Individual therapy has proved effective for PTSD related to
a wide range of traumas. I know several animal activists who have sought and
been helped by a healthy dose of "talk therapy" with an empathic psychologist,
social worker, or other professional counselor.
A number of medications have proved to be effective in treating physical symptoms
like nervousness and sleeplessness. Those who shun commercial pharmaceuticals
because of animal testing should know there are a number of herbal remedies that—in
clinical trials using human volunteers—have been shown to be as or more
effective than synthetic drugs. Consult a qualified health care provider, whether
allopathic or holistic, to help you decide whether and how to treat your symptoms.
Whatever you do, don’t be ashamed to be an animal. Whatever you are feeling
is your body’s natural response to the things you have experienced in your
life. Hiding or denying your feelings won’t make them go away but might
make you feel worse. In contrast, bringing your feelings into the light of day
often helps them on their way. The sooner you face them, the sooner you will
feel better and be better able to do the work you want to do.
Depression is another common consequence of prolonged or repetitive exposure
to injustice and suffering. As with PTSD, depression can significantly impair
an activist’s ability to function and is often accompanied by changes in
the nervous system or metabolism. Depression is a debilitating condition that
is often associated with post-traumatic stress but may also be caused by factors
ranging from temporary vitamin deficiencies to long-standing intra-psychic conflicts.
Everybody goes through brief “down” periods that they may call “depression.” That
is different than clinical depression, which is a serious condition that the
World Health Organization considers a worldwide menace. Untreated, clinical depression
can last for years without relief. With appropriate treatment, depression may
abate completely or become significantly more manageable.
The symptoms of clinical depression include:
Prolonged sadness or inexplicable crying.
Significant changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
Persistent irritability, anger, worry, agitation or anxiety.
Pessimism or indifference.
Loss of energy, persistent lethargy, or unexplainable fatigue.
Persistent feelings of shame, guilt, or worthlessness.
Difficulty concentrating or inability to make decisions.
Social withdrawal or lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities.
Unaccountable aches and pains.
Recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
If you or someone you know has five or more of these signs for more than two
weeks, or if any one of these symptoms causes severe distress or disruption,
it's time to seek help from a health care professional. Because so many of the
symptoms of depression also may be caused by serious medical conditions, it's
very important to talk to someone who is qualified to determine whether depression
is the primary problem and, if so, to help decide what steps to take to gain
some relief, while uncovering the cause or causes.
There are even more kinds of treatment for depression than there are for PTSD.
Cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic therapies all have been proven to help
some people with depression. If one kind of therapy doesn't work for you, try
a different kind of therapy or a different kind of treatment altogether. As with
PTSD, there are herbal remedies with demonstrated effectiveness at or above that
of synthetic drugs, so you don't have to compromise your principles to get symptomatic
relief. As with PTSD, mind and body both impact and are impacted by depression.
In addition to rest and nutrition, exercise is very important for people living
If someone you know is talking about death or suicide, don't hesitate: Call 1-800-SUICIDE
to get advice about what to do. Forget what you think you know about homicide
and suicide. Talk to people who really do know and then take their advice.
If you are the person thinking about suicide, please remember that suicide is
an irreversible decision that should not be taken lightly. Most people who commit
suicide do so because they don't realize they can get relief from their depression.
You can and will feel better once you get the kind of help that's right for you.
You then will have many more years to work for the animals. Even if you don't
believe that we will be able to end the exploitation of animals, you must know
that being rescued means the whole world to every individual animal who is saved.
If you are feeling suicidal, please call 1-800-SUICIDE, a local hotline, your
favorite former teacher, your best friend, or the most friendly person in your
local animal rights group first.
Before moving on, let me make a personal offer to any activist struggling with
depression: You may feel completely hopeless right now but I've got hope to spare,
so you can borrow some of mine until you recover your own. Then you can pass
mine along to somebody else and we'll be even, because I've had to borrow hope
myself in the past. I'm serious. Just think about it for a minute and you'll
be able to feel it. When it comes time to pass it on, you'll know what to do.
What We All Can Do
Whether consciously or not, everybody who does animal shelter, sanctuary, investigation,
or rescue work must manage the natural consequences of doing emotionally dangerous
We’ve all seen sights that no one ought to see because such suffering ought
not exist. We’ve all confronted the worst that people are capable of and
we all know that nobody is truly safe in the perversely violent world of human
activity. We’re all traumatized by our own inability to halt the violence
and haunted by memories of animals we were not able to save. We all know that
our own trauma is secondary, that the primary trauma is endured by the animals.
But we also know that we must take proper care of ourselves and each other, if
only so that we can act most effectively for the animals.
That being the case, there are a number of things that individuals, groups, and
the movement as an entity can do to help us all be as healthy as possible within
the profoundly unhealthy context of the social world that people have created.
The first step is to remember that you are an animal and that animals have feelings.
The feelings associated with PTSD and depression are the normal responses of
an organism subjected to unnatural stress. The sooner we learn to recognize and
respond to symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress in ourselves and
each other, the stronger our movement will become.
Get your rest. Stress and depression are both causes and consequences of insomnia.
All by itself, sleep deprivation can cause otherwise happy people to become anxious,
enraged, or despondent. If you’re already struggling with difficult feelings,
lack of sufficient rest can make the struggle much more difficult. Rest your
body even if you’re having trouble sleeping. You may want to try a non-addictive
herbal sleep aid such as chamomile tea or look into other strategies for promoting
Take your vitamins. Healthy bodies are better able to bear strong emotions without
breaking down. Also, deficiencies in some vitamins can themselves cause depression.
Talk about your feelings. Listen when other people talk about theirs. Express
empathy when you can.
Listen to your body. Where does it hurt? What helps? What is it trying to tell
you? Remember that your body has its own animal rights. Don’t do it wrong.
Do give it fresh air, plenty of exercise, and whatever safe and consensual pleasures
Don’t make things worse. People sometimes “self-medicate” stress
or depression with alcohol or drugs. While social drinking is fine, regular or
binge drinking creates more problems than it solves. Since alcohol is a depressant,
people struggling with depression may want to skip the drinks altogether.
Does your group engage in work that could lead to post-traumatic stress? If so,
what does the group do to help members take care of themselves and each other?
A group is nothing more than a collection of relationships. If those relationships
are strong and nurturing, the group will last longer and do more substantial
work. Time invested in making the group healthier and more supportive of its
members will pay off in increased productivity and decreased drop out rates.
If I could, I would ban the words “[fill-in-the-blank] is nothing compared
to [fill-in-the-blank]” from all movement meetings and conferences. People
use that phrase to shame each other out of paying attention to feelings of stress
“Broiler” chickens live in crowded sheds and are trucked to a painful
and terrifying death at about six weeks of age. “Layer” hens in egg
factories endure up to two years of torture in cages before being trucked even
longer distances to their painful and terrifying deaths. We would never say that
what broiler chickens endure “is nothing” compared to what layer
hens endure. Even if it is comparatively less, the suffering of the young broiler
chickens is real and meaningful. It is particularly real and meaningful to them.
No, the trauma of the undercover investigator who observes monkeys being tortured
is not as acute as the suffering of the monkeys themselves. But it is not “nothing.” All
suffering is real and meaningful, particularly to the being enduring it. We must
change our movement ethos to one of empathy for all—including ourselves.
We also must begin building a movement infrastructure to help us more effectively
cope with the trauma inherent in many forms of animal activism. Why don’t
we have support groups with trained facilitators at all of our conferences? Why
isn’t there a network of psychologists for animal rights offering free
or low-cost treatment to traumatized animal activists? Why is it that we only
talk about our feelings in rushed conversations between meetings, if at all?
My partner and I run a sanctuary for chickens smack in the middle of of a region
dominated by the poultry industry. Transport trucks rumble right past our front
door. I can’t count how many birds have died in my arms. This month marks
our fifth anniversary. I doubt that I would have hung on through the grief of
the first year were it not for the sympathy and support of other people who rescue
chickens. We understand each other just as, I’m sure, people who face the
extreme and unique challenges of undercover work understand each other. Let’s
all find more ways of being there for each other so that none of us feels alone
in the struggle.
Prior to co-founding the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center,
Jones studied and practiced clinical psychology, specializing in individual and
group therapy for survivors of trauma.