I had three separate conversations with contacts of mine last week regarding the phrase “no kill” and the word “euthanasia” as it relates to shelter animals. In one conversation, I was told that some organizations refuse to give grant money to any organization which refers to itself as “No Kill.” I use that phrase regularly and do so without hesitation. It is on the public radar and I think people are smart enough to understand that the phrase describes a culture. In another conversation, I was told about an animal welfare coalition in Colorado which does not allow members which use the word “kill” to describe what happens to shelter animals. The exact quote I was told was this: “We refuse to use the term ‘kill’ to describe agencies and their process of thoughtful euthanasia.” In the third conversation, I was told about a shelter director in the state where I live who uses the phrase “necessary euthanasia.” She boasts a “euthanasia” rate of about 8% when, in fact, it is routinely around 30-40% and was higher than 50% in May alone. More than half the animals entering her facility that month did not make it out alive even though hers is a non-profit organization with a huge donor and support base. I have often wondered if donors know what they are paying for.
The dictionary definition of euthanasia is easily understood: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.
I’m not sure exactly when it was in the history of animal sheltering in America that we first began to use the word “euthanasia” to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience in our tax-funded animal shelters. Regardless of when this practice began, it has continued to present day in earnest and it does not serve us well as a society. Words and phrases have common meanings which help us all communicate and do so fairly effectively. When we take those words and we distort them to excuse or condone our behavior, we are doing a disservice to our values and to how we function collectively.
The fact that healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our nation’s shelters, along with animals who are injured or irremediably ill, and we dare call it all euthanasia should be a source of public shame for us all. We consider ours a progressive society. We talk about dogs being “man’s best friend.” We hold our values about companion animals above those of other cultures, as if we are somehow more evolved. We are not. And we should be ashamed of ourselves. When we destroy perfectly savable animals in our shelters, we are doing just that. We are killing them. We are destroying them. We are not euthanizing them. The act has nothing at all to do with mercy and everything to do with complacency. Our history has shown that the destruction of these animals is not necessary. It continues to take place using our money whether we are aware of it or not. And it just doesn't have to be that way. Killing animals is a choice. Saving lives is a choice. The growing number of communities walking away from the status quo and functioning in new ways more consistent with our values in our society prove daily what can happen with some bravery and getting educated on proven programs which work anywhere and everywhere they are implemented.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the date when my husband and I had our beloved dog euthanized. July 4th of 2016 was one of the worst days of our lives and the very worst day of our 16 year relationship with our dog. No one gets to stay, human or animal. It was the circumstances of his passing due to some issues with receiving adequate and timely veterinary care which haunt us now, the memories of which we hope will become less vivid in time. Our dog had cancer which had moved to his brain and which was causing grand mal seizures which we believed could not be treated or stopped. We euthanized him for reasons of mercy and to keep him from suffering.
When healthy and treatable animals die in animal shelters, whether they are funded by tax dollars or donations or both, it is not euthanasia. To compare that process with the heart wrenching decision made by loving animal caregivers and families every day to prevent suffering is to devalue the lives of all of the animals in our society. If your beloved dog or cat ended up in an animal shelter due to no fault of your own and was destroyed, would you call it “euthanasia”? No. You would not.
If we are ever to reform our broken animal sheltering system in America, we have to speak plainly and not sugar coat what is taking place using our tax dollars and our donations. Only then can we reach the rest of the public which does not realize what is taking place in their communities using their money and their donations and only then will we be able to reform our broken animal sheltering system to make the killing stop. If you don’t know what takes place at the animal shelter in your community using your tax dollars, ask for statistics and learn for yourself what is really happening. No matter what they are calling it.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson