As I was writing my next book (Defending the Defenseless: A Guide to Protecting and Advocating for Pets which is now in editing), I struggled with whether to use the word “euthanize” or “kill” when addressing the shelter animal overpopulation crisis. Over the past few years, the No-Kill Advocacy movement has grown and encourages animal advocates to use the word “kill” rather than “euthanize” as an attempt to highlight the tragedy. They want to use shocking and inflammatory language to promote change.
I will have the honor of conducting a workshop at Michigan’s first-ever Getting to the Goal Conference that will focus on the no kill movement. Today, a friend of mine posted a Facebook comment that she abhors the word euthanize and that we should use the word kill instead. And so it got me thinking again on the morality of using euthanize versus kill and what terminology I will use when I conduct my workshop? For the book, I opted to use euthanize.
But really … is there a right answer to this moral dilemma? What do these words really mean? Euthanasia involves a compassionate, painless death, whereas killing evokes an image of a violent, terrifying death. Relating to people, the stark comparison would be between being shot to death as part of a violent crime (killing) versus the controversial nature of assisted suicide (euthanasia). While I think we can all agree that ending the life of an animal by gas chambers and other similar outdated methods is violent and terrifying for the animal (and should be labeled killing), most agree that professionals who are trained in how to perform injection euthanasia can do so compassionately, kindly and painlessly. When we take our beloved pet, in the final moments of life, to a veterinarian, we take comfort in knowing that the procedure is painless, kind and our pet is in the loving hands of a trained professional. We can all agree that we are not “killing” our pet, but being kind to end suffering. Since a vast majority of animal shelters use the injection method like a veterinarian (and if done properly after the pet is sedated, it is gentle and painless), this is why I use the word euthanize when I discuss shelters dealing with the pet overpopulation crisis.
I have been a long-time advocate for helping homeless animals find new homes or relocate to organizations that can house them until they are adopted. I detest that animals are euthanized in shelters (or killed in a gas chamber). I have lost many nights of sleep fretting on how to save “just one more.” This is why I recently co-partnered to create Michiganders for Shelter Pets, a coalition that is working to rid gas chambers from Michigan shelters. I have encountered some shelters that seem to not care that animals are euthanized or whether they are using the most painless methods. However, I have also encountered shelters and shelter workers who deeply care about the animals, try to find adoptive homes, and when space runs out are forced to euthanize. They do not choose to end the life of a shelter animal, but when homes are not available, rescue organizations are full, and money is not available to get creative on finding space, what choice is left?
I am going to go out on a limb here, but those shelters and workers who try should not be labeled as killers. I have friends who work in these positions and they are not killers. They grieve each lost life like you or I would and suffer long-term trauma from trying to help animals. Would you want their job? I do not wait to raise the ire of the no kill advocates because their work (which I fully support and do my part each day) is important to keep the focus on shelters to reduce euthanasia, find solutions, and work toward changing how we think about pets. However, we need also to recognize that communities and individual people are also responsible for the pet overpopulation crisis. Blaming shelters for euthanizing due to pet overpopulation would be like blaming homeless shelters for creating the millions of homeless people in the U.S.
We cannot solely blame the shelters for euthanizing animals due to overpopulation when there are communities who fail to embrace spay/neuter initiatives and responsible pet ownership education. We cannot solely blame shelters when we live in a disposable society and where animals are victims of society’s toss-away attitude. What has happened is a perfect storm where various factors have come together and now we are faced with an extensive problem. So rather than hurl insults, throw stones at each other, and inflame the conversation, let’s put down our weapons and take action. While I do not claim to have the magic answer, let’s work collectively with shelters who need our help, volunteer time, and donations; let’s reach out to veterinarians and ask if they can offer a few hours each month to provide free or subsidized spay/neuter services; and let’s keep educating communities and neighbors about responsible pet ownership and that it is not cute to have “just one more litter”.
Complaining is easy … but finding a solution is challenging. Not all shelters, shelter workers, veterinarians, and communities will embrace finding a solution. But for those who are willing to listen and try, let’s work to make change and watch miracles occur. If your shelter and/or community has found a solution to lower euthanasia rates, please share your successes to empower others.