The ‘passion tax’ animal welfare workers are expected to pay

04 mars 2024


The ‘passion tax’ animal welfare workers are expected to pay
Ula Chrobak

Ula Chrobak is a freelance journalist based in Nevada. You can see more of her work at

Workers in welfare and rescue organizations, zoos, and veterinary care say their love for animals is often exploited, leading to burnout and high turnover in those industries. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here's what workers and their employers can do to make things better for everyone.

Joey Lusvardi discovered his passion for training cats after helping his own feline, Zoloft, who had developed aggression issues. During a particularly busy spell in his work as a physician assistant, Lusvardi was spending less time at home. That’s when Zoloft started to lash out, biting his owner and following him around the apartment.

At first, Lusvardi didn’t know what to do. He was on the brink of surrendering Zoloft to a shelter when he learned from a veterinarian how to help his pet. This involved using strategies such as positive reinforcement and providing Zoloft with more outlets for his energy, including play and food puzzles. Soon, the cat cooled his bitey habits.

Now Lusvardi works part-time as a certified cat behavior consultant using similar protocols to meet cats’ inherent needs and resolve behavior challenges, including cat-on-cat aggression and difficulties using the litter box. He loves helping animals and their owners live in harmony. But his new role comes with an unfortunate struggle: He has to navigate feelings of guilt about turning down frequent requests for free advice.

This is one example of the “passion tax” in animal welfare jobs. Those in roles they are passionate about, such as working with animals, often face expectations that they will work for less or even for nothing. But paying this tax is not fair or sustainable, say animal welfare workers. The low pay, long hours and poor benefits are causing burnout and leading to high turnover at such organizations, they add. With increasing advocacy, they hope to change the culture around exploiting passion for cheap labor.

When childhood dreams are exploited

The passion tax is a big open secret in the industry, says Valli Fraser-Celin, who manages the Community Pet Care Project at the University of Guelph and formerly worked for an animal welfare nonprofit. Nearly every job posting asks for applicants who are passionate about working with animals. And everyone applying for those jobs probably has dreamed of working with animals since they were a child. “So then, when you feel like you have this opportunity to do it, you’re willing to take any salary that is offered to you,” she says.

Fraser-Celin adds that part of the problem for those working for nonprofit organizations is donor perspectives. Donors tend to see staff salaries as extraneous to the cause of helping animals. “There’s this positioning of staff as an overhead,” she says, even though these organizations can’t function without their employees. It’s a zero-sum game perspective where putting more money toward employees is seen as taking money away from helping puppies and kittens.

In addition to animal shelter and rescue organizations, the passion tax is pervasive in other areas, such as veterinary roles, zookeeping, and animal training. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is blunt about expectations on its website: “You should expect strong competition and salaries considered low relative to the level of education necessary to perform them.”

If a worker burns out due to the poor working conditions and emotionally exhausting nature of the job, there’s always another applicant willing to fill that role. This cycle leads to high employee turnover in animal welfare jobs, says Fraser-Celin.

When following your passion leads to burnout

Ashley Devine witnessed this cycle of burnout and high staff turnover in their previous role in the behavior department at an animal shelter. Devine handled strong and sometimes aggressive animals, assessed and worked on behavior issues, and gave training lessons. Sometimes, they were pulled into other tasks, such as cleaning kennels or doing laundry. It was like 10 jobs in one, says Devine. Despite the stress and financial insecurity, they stayed on in that job for a few years. “You start to get this mentality of, ‘Oh my god, I have to stay here and help these animals,’ ” says Devine.

But after nearly six years, it became too much. “I was completely deteriorating,” Devine says. They struggled with sleeping, had trouble eating, as well as suffering from back pain, and heartburn. At the same time, they felt that they had minimal support from administrative staff who didn’t interact with the animals or the public directly, and who seemed to have an “out of sight, out of mind” mindset when it came to conditions in the shelter.

Lusvardi transitioned his career toward cat training partly as a result of burnout from working in healthcare – another industry where workers are expected to give their all out of a sense of duty. But after launching his cat behavior business, he discovered the passion tax in a new way. Friends, acquaintances and even total strangers sent Lusvardi lengthy, detailed descriptions of their cats’ behaviors, with the apparent expectation of receiving free advice. It has presented a challenge for Lusvardi, who feels pulled in two directions: He feels a sense of duty towards helping cats, but he needs to have a profitable business if he is to be able to continue. “People just expect that I’m readily available to give out this advice and that it doesn’t take a bunch of time for me to do that,” he says. “It is hard for me to say no, because I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t want to help cats.”

How setting boundaries or switching jobs can help

To preserve his business and his wellbeing, he has had to set boundaries with clients. He establishes clear expectations for his services, including the number of email follow-ups included with a consultation. When clients push that limit, he requests that they book another session. Setting boundaries has got easier over time, he says. It’s also helpful to remind himself that “I am not going to be able to continue helping cats if I end up getting burnt out.”

For Devine, leaving shelter work and starting their own dog training business alleviated burnout. Just one year in, they say they are more financially stable than while working at the shelter.

Employers can do more for their workers

Beyond individuals setting boundaries, employers also have a responsibility. Fraser-Celin says there are many ways to improve working conditions, even in organizations with limited budgets. While some managers or supervisors may organize perks like pizza parties to improve morale, Fraser-Celin says it’s more important to ask employees what they want.

Leaders taking the needs of staff seriously led to Seattle Humane animal shelter improving conditions for its employees, says Fraser-Celin. In a 2022 statement, the organization said entry-level positions would pay $22 an hour. It also extended benefits such as an employer-matchinging retirement fund and a pet care allowance to all part-time and full-time staff.

Lusvardi says he’s learned from his work in healthcare that even if you’re passionate about your job, it’s best to view it as a financial arrangement providing you with money and benefits. If your job isn’t meeting your needs, it’s fine to look for other opportunities elsewhere. At the end of the day, he says, “Your employer is not going to love you back.” Taking care of animals doesn’t have to mean neglecting your needs – no matter how much you enjoy helping our furry friends.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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