By Elise LeQuire
From an early age, Elizabeth Strand was blessed with biophilia: an interest in nature in general and animals in particular. She knows first hand that animals have curative powers unlike those of physicians and pharmacists. “If we could bottle new puppy feeling, we wouldn’t need antidepressants,” she says.
Today Strand, a licensed clinical social worker, is the director of Veterinary Social Work (VSW) at UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and she helps deliver a dose of TLC to people who care for animals.
As a graduate student in UT’s College of Social Work, Strand focused on the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. “At the time I was very interested in issues of racism and efforts in American culture to overcome racism,” says Strand. She studied with Catherine Faver, a former professor in the College of Social Work. Faver’s interest in animal abuse and animal rights raised unsettling questions about how humans could treat animals with such objectivity, or even cruelty. “These issues are linked,” says Strand. “It’s important to treat all beings with respect.”
Upon completing her Ph.D. in 2004, Strand was named director of VSW, which she helped launch in 2002 with the support of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s John New, James Brace, and former dean Michael Blackwell.
VSW offers counseling and outreach services to the community, focusing on four areas: exploring the link between human and animal abuse, offering support to people grieving the loss of a pet, using animal-assisted interventions to take pets into varied settings in the community, and helping animal professionals cope with compassion fatigue that arises from the stresses of their jobs.
Strand’s research on the link between human and animal abuse led her to the Fourth Circuit Court of Knox County, where domestic violence cases are heard. With the blessing of Judge Bill Swann, Strand collected data on animal abuse and found that in a three-year period, 35 percent of victims who owned pets and had taken out an order of protection also reported animal abuse.
Working with Knox County’s Animal Abuse Task Force, Strand has helped launch an animal haven program, through which battered women seeking shelter for themselves can find a temporary haven for their pet. “Our goal is to reunite the animals with the women,” Strand says. “Out of 45 women, we had only one case where the pet and its owner were not reunited.” This service is important because many victims of abuse postpone seeking shelter in order to protect their pets.
The depth of bereavement over the loss of a pet can at times surprise even its human companion. “Grief over a lost pet is not like grieving over humans,” says Strand. “Unlike humans, pets offer unconditional love.” One client whose pet had died was surprised by the level of her grief. “By talking with a social worker, who honored and respected her grief, she was able to lose weight and reach out to people. It gave her a new lease on life.” VSW offers a Pet Loss Support Group that meets once a month from May through August and twice a month from September through April.
Animal-assisted interventions take many forms, from teaming troubled teens with dogs that need basic training, to bringing pets for visits with elderly people, to helping children improve reading skills through the Ruff Reading Program that sends dogs to area schools.
Recently a canine volunteer has been helping alleviate the severe anxiety about dogs that a young child developed for no documented reason. Robin French, a Knoxville-based paralegal, could not find professional help for her six-year-old daughter Rachel. “Finally, someone told me to call the vet school,” French says. That call led to weekly meetings with Strand; a volunteer dog owner and her golden retriever, Maggie; and Rachel and her mother. The goal of these sessions is to take slow but deliberate steps to overcome Rachel’s fear. After a couple of meetings, Strand introduced Rachel to Maggie.
At first, Rachel became afraid at the sight of Maggie, but as therapy progressed, she surpassed the goals set by Strand with surprising rapidity. At a recent session, Rachel was able to meet Maggie off the leash. She first hid behind her mother on the couch, but was finally able to pick up Maggie’s leash, take it to the owner, and give Maggie a pat. Maggie’s owner is a volunteer from Human and Animal Bond in Tennessee (H.A.B.I.T.), an organization with representatives from the College of Veterinary Medicine, the local community, and area veterinarians.
Dave Head, a career animal control professional and director of Knox County Animal Control, knows all about compassion fatigue, the emotional exhaustion that comes from being constantly empathetic to those who are suffering. “We deal with compassion fatigue all the time,” says Head. “We are the bad guys. We are looking out for the animals, but 99 percent of the time we are dealing with people.” Head cites a mentality that is widespread among animal owners. “You can take my wife and my children, but not my dog.”
Most animal control officers are compassionate, says Head, but they are subject to a great deal of stress.
“We pick up about 15,000 animals a year—dogs, cats, snakes, goats, tarantulas, pigs, cows, birds.” Animal Control also refers people who have lost a pet to the Pet Loss Support Group, and they referred one client, a cat hoarder, to Dr. Strand for help.
VSW also has a help line and offers three free consultation sessions for any animal professional—rescue group workers, euthanasia technicians, zookeepers, and animal control officers suffering from stress and compassion fatigue. “Animal control officers are not dog catchers, they are first responders,” says Strand.