Death of a brother in the band, Stewart Gollan
Stewart would likely hate that I’m writing this. He was the kind of guy who never wanted public attention, never sought out the spotlight.
I met Stewart when I first started volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in 1994. He spent his summers here doing whatever was necessary to keep the Sanctuary operating. He was one of those Salt Lake City kids neck deep in the Utah punk scene. A philosophy major at the University of Utah, Stewart was a total deviant and I loved teasing him about being Best Friends’ resident “callous sophisticate.” You know, the kind of person who always thinks he’s the smartest one in the room? Well, Stewart never thought that or acted like it. But for those of us who knew him, he absolutely was the smartest person in the room. And also the most caring. He had a heart of gold and often sacrificed his own needs to help others.
He was a special human being.
Stewart was part of a small team assembled back in 1999 when Maddie’s Fund, under the leadership of the larger-than-life Rich Avanzino, issued one of their first grants to Best Friends, to the tune of $11 million, and essentially entrusted a bunch of 20-something misfits to begin reimagining the animal welfare world, with the goal of taking Utah to no-kill.
A lot of innovations, and some of what today is considered the standard way of doing business in animal welfare, originated in that group of 20-somethings.
Collecting statewide animal shelter data monthly to drive lifesaving strategy. Community cat programs, retail mall pet adoption centers, super adoptions, embedding of staff in key shelters like West Valley City. Bold marketing, clever public relations and corporate partnerships that put adoptable pets in the public eye and gave retail businesses a run for their money. Outrageous promotions like Hooters for Neuters and partnerships leading to custom brews like Squatter’s Brewery Chasing Tail Ale. We were thrown into that bizarre foxhole of lifesaving mayhem together. It was a special time that none of us will ever forget.
Stewart was especially close to Gregory Castle, who headed up the effort on behalf of Best Friends. Gregory mentored him on his financial and accounting responsibilities for the upstart operation and saw him as a kindred spirit, a generation younger but joined by a love of animals and a shared appreciation for obscure European philosophers. Eventually, Stewart moved on professionally to practice law, becoming a prominent civil rights attorney in Salt Lake City. He went from fighting for the lives of homeless animals to fighting for the rights of the underserved in Utah.
I’m telling you all of this because Stewart lived with bipolar disorder and the week before last, he ended his own life. Receiving this news shattered me and left me heartbroken. Not only was he my friend, he was a man who always strove to make things a little bit better for everyone. His loss is a tragedy. And while we will never have the joy and privilege of interacting with him in this world again, his powerful presence and historic role in changing the course of animal welfare for the better are eternal.
These are challenging times we’re living in for so many reasons, including the rising tide of our country’s mental health crisis. And a quick glance at the news over the last few months is all you need to understand why. It feels as though it’s a pandemic all its own. Stewart’s death punctuates this for me. Though we’ll never truly understand Stewart’s internal struggle, it has me thinking about how prevalent this crisis is for those of us working in animal welfare. Stewart’s roots in animal welfare and civil rights — constantly working to be a champion for those who needed it most — serve as a reminder to all of us in helping professions that the combination of compassion fatigue and insufficient support for those living with mental illness can have devastating consequences.
We need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and make mental health a priority for our professional field.
I know that for those who don’t work in our field and who might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the animal welfare world, this discussion might seem odd. I mean, we’re just going around saving dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. How hard can it be, right?
The reality is that this is an extraordinarily brutal field. It’s full of heartache, daily life-and-death decisions, intense conflict, emotionally charged situations, bad actors, and a revolving door of challenges and setbacks. The work is endless and urgent. Animals’ lives are on the line, always. It’s a hard business to “leave at the office.” And in fact, we rarely do.
Yet, we persist. We dig in and continue to care for the animals and care for our communities. As much as it pains me to say it, though, we are falling down on the job when it comes to caring for one another and caring for ourselves. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that among American workers, helping professionals such as animal welfare workers have the highest suicide rates while on the job, a rate shared by other helping professions like firefighting.
For so many years, we’ve said the animals deserve better and therefore we must do better for them. And we have, in spades. So, now let me say this: We must do better for ourselves. There is no feel-good pet adoption story or number of kittens we can help that will save us from this crisis if we don’t prioritize it.
We can’t help pets without people. And people includes every veterinarian, vet tech, animal control officer, dog behavior consultant, cat caregiver, adoptions counselor, shelter director — and so many others who devote their lives to saving animals. It’s time to hit pause and create a new culture in animal welfare. It’s time for self-care, self-reflection and self-worth. It’s time for us to celebrate each other. Celebrate our progress together. Celebrate our lifesaving successes together. Celebrate our collective love of animals and the joy they bring to our lives.
It’s time to create a culture that deeply values and prioritizes our staff, our volunteers and ourselves. It’s time to create a culture in which it’s not just OK to create boundaries, but essential. A culture in which it’s OK to disagree with another’s point of view and be kind about it. It’s time to show our lifesaving band members that we love them. It’s time to show others that we care deeply about them, and that means leading by example through self-care and kindness toward others. I certainly don’t have all the answers for how we’re going to make this happen. I just know that it has to happen, and that’s all this field has ever needed to know to turn the tide and get it done.
The animals will benefit from it. Our lives will be saved for it.
And you know what? I changed my mind. I think Stewart would have loved that I wrote this. I’ll miss you, Stew.