How Do You Choose?

Had the title for this blog before the blog itself was fully formed in my head after reading a post on Facebook where someone asked this question. Not as if it was the first time I’d heard it before but when one of our volunteers posted a tribute to one of our shelter dogs that was euthanized recently, I knew the discussion, anger and sadness would soon follow. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling up for the questions and certain anger that would ensue as a result….in part because I’d dealt with enough death in the last week from sick kittens I could not save and had lost another one just this morning. But moreover because I’ve been through it too many times over the years, trying to make sense to people that are watching from outside the window the reality of an animal shelter with unlimited space and unwilling to turn animals away. We’re an open admission shelter…not a no-kill one and as such, killing is a part of our world. (If you haven’t read any of my blogs before, I suggest one I wrote last year called a No Kill World if you want to understand more about this.)

Truly I can handle the questions and the conversation, most of the time anyway, but feel protective of our staff that has to do the dirty work, take the blame and be the target of criticism, makes me want to avoid it and want to protect them from it was well. As a very smart lady posted in the discussion that resulted from the Facebook post blaming the staff for euthanasia is like blaming the oncologist for cancer.

I understand that people want to make sense out of the nonsensical. And some people want a target they can hit and the easy target are those that make the choice. Those that do the deed. And even the most well-meaning people that love these animals as we do, want to know “How do you choose”.

Before I answer that question, let me provide a little personal background on this topic. Not long after I became Board President, it became obvious to me that in many ways I felt reasonably qualified to be in this position. Years of management experience, several years in and around the shelter, organizational skills, I could make an Excel spreadsheet dance (inside joke) and a great passion for helping animals all seemed to lend me some credibility. But in one area I was severely lacking. While I’d been in the shelter virtually every day for a few years with my hands in just about every pot, there were two areas that I couldn’t get my hands in deep enough to truly understand the challenge. The job of the person that ultimately was responsible for euthanasia decisions and the job of the euthanasia technician themselves.

The Shelter Manager with the input from the staff, was responsible for making the final choice of which animal would be euthanized when this was required. And obviously the staff member that was a trained euthanasia technician, responsible for carrying out the task. I don’t know when I realized that for me to really feel capable to oversee a business that involved such challenging jobs, I would need to understand them better and the only way to understand them was to do them.

I would soon attend the euthanasia training offered by the WV Board of Veterinary Medicine specifically for shelters and county humane officers who require this training and certification. This is an intense few days of training that includes classroom and practical training and testing. Should I be proud of the fact that I got a 100% on one of the written tests? Not sure that will be a grade I brag about but assuredly the written tests were much easier than the practical exam. It was an enlightening class. Moreover because of the people that I met from around our state in this class. It was the first time I realized how much we have as a shelter and organization. And it was the first time that I realize that regardless of the county, the size of your budget, the quality of your shelter, the vastness of your volunteer base…we are all in the same boat. All face similar challenges.

Of course the very worst part of the class was the final practical exam where unbelievably you are required to euthanize an animal to pass the test. Someone had led me to believe we’d just do a saline injection and not the actual drug (sodium pentobarbital) but the instructor would soon dispel that rumor.

To this day I remember one thing vividly about my test. The dog I euthanized…no…the dog I killed was a dog that in our shelter would have been adopted in about five minutes. It was a blond terrier mix of sorts that came from the local shelter in the county of our training. Just a few years old had died for no other reason than to train me to do more of the same. I hadn’t chosen him but wondered then why he was chosen and how someone could not have seen how cute and obviously adoptable he was. Well apparently he wasn’t obviously adoptable in Marion County or he wouldn’t have been there now, would he?

I realize as I type these words how awful this all sounds. How ludicrous it must seem that not only is this a reality but that I would chose to be there. But no more ludicrous than to expect that I would expect our own employees to do the same.

The first dog I euthanized as a euthanasia tech for our shelter was a very old dog that the owners brought in to us to be put to sleep. It was his time. (We no longer offer this service to the public by the way.) While it was not easy at all, at least there was no choice to be made and the fact that it was this dog’s time, made it as easy as reasonably possible. The next dog would be much more difficult because the dog was a young Husky mix. Young, beautiful, viable, healthy….just not adoptable. What I mean is that he wasn’t getting adopted. He had been with us a long time, was a big lively boy and not a dog that many potential adopters found fitting. Unfortunately after being with us some time, we ran out of space and choices needed to be made. While not an obvious choice because of his age and health, in the overall scheme of things, he was a likely choice because he wasn’t highly adoptable.   Rescues were not interested. Fosters not interested. Adopters not interested. And as such, I will remember him forever.

I can’t explain I’m sure in words that many will understand how it felt to be injecting the liquid that would end his life into his vein and think at the same time that I was one of the few people in the world that had cared about this dog. At the time our volunteer crew was small and so his friends and fans were the staff who had cared for him each day and a handful of volunteers who could handle the boisterous dog that he was. And yet, I wanted him to be with someone that loved him at the end. The same thing I want for my own animals. Even if the someone who loved him was also ending his life. Again, this may seem crazy but its how I felt. How I feel. And I’m certain how our staff responsible for this today feels.

In ten years, there have been two times where I can personally say that I could make sense of the choice that was made. One was a dog that was so unpredictably aggressive that I could not control and I did not believe we could rehabilitate and even if we could, the risk of adopting her out was too great.   The other was just last spring when I returned from vacation to see my former foster dog Ellie standing in Kennel 1 on the big dog side. She may have been the only foster dog I’ve ever brought back into the shelter but Ellie had been a mother with puppies that I had brought home but when the puppies were old enough to go to rescue and I was leaving on vacation and didn’t feel comfortable with Ellie staying at my home with my house sitter, I had chosen to return her to the safety of the shelter and their care. And yet I had not anticipated her reaction to returning there. She was obviously an emotional mess and a physical one too. She’d lost weight in just one week and was in emotional distress. Even with all the special attention she was given during my absence…hanging out in our manager’s office during the day and extra walks in the evening by our volunteers, she was deteriorating.

By the time I’d returned my fostering capacity had been filled with others that needed a place to go and so taking Ellie back home was not an option without displacing a large litter of puppies that would have no place to go. We’d have to euthanize the puppies to make room for Ellie here. There was little need for any real thinking about what needed to be done. The puppies would be easy to find homes for. Elllie a big Pit mix would be much more difficult. The choice was “easy.” ?????

I’m certain that had it not been for the fact that Ellie had been my foster and our manager too had become very attached to her through the extra time she spent with her during my absence, that they would have already done what was needed. It wasn’t fair to let her suffer in distress as she was. But no one wanted to make the decision. Least of all the person that loved her as I did. So I made one of the few decisions of this type that I’ve ever made. It wasn’t as President as much as it was as her former foster mom. I couldn’t watch her suffer this way and I couldn’t help her. I was almost frantic in my need to help her and the only way I knew to do this was to end her suffering. To end her life.

Ten years and I’ve only ordered this once!

So ask me how do you choose. Ask me why such and such dog or cat had to die. Ask me why and I’ll tell you this story and cry as I do and feel hopeless and helpless to make sense out of it. And if I sound angry or bitter as I try to make sense out of it for you, this is why. There is no answer to that question that will ever be good enough. And know that in my mind the real question is not “how do you choose”.

But why do you have to?

Categories: Shelter Facts


1 reply

  1. Thank you so much for a letter that I know was so painfull to write.

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