This is one of the most difficult blogs I have ever written. Simply put, I don’t write well or clearly when I’m pissed. But the ten previous drafts helped a little to dilute the anger that was laced in my early drafts. Hoping this one hits the mark.
Having had a recent conversation with one of our dedicated volunteers who joined us not so long ago but whom I’ve not had any lengthy conversations prior to this one, I realized I’ve been making a big mistake. While easily corrected going forward, I wonder now how many new volunteers leave my dog handling sessions with unrealistic expectations about euthanasia in our shelter.
During my dog handling sessions I have essentially two hours to cover everything I want to share and need to share to prepare new volunteers. With any audience discussing euthanasia is a sensitive subject but with children often in these sessions, it’s extremely difficult. Over time I’ve concocted a vague sort of approach to this topic that strikes a glancing blow at the subject. Honestly, now that I’m writing these words I realize what a disservice I’ve done to this most difficult of topics and the most difficult of jobs. While well intentioned, as I don’t want to scare these people off from the get go, it may have been backfiring by making the jobs of our staff more difficult and causing the loss of some volunteers anyway. I’m certain I lost the one who spawned this blog.
When she contacted me she was first understandably upset because, when inquiring about the dog she’d become particularly attached to, she felt lied to by the staff who said the dog had been adopted. I have no idea if this was a lie or an unintentional mistake by an ill-informed staff member that assumed the dog was adopted but when she learned that in fact the dog had been euthanized, this “lie” added to her emotions.
Whether it was intentional or not I don’t know, but I do know all too well the innate desire to avoid these discussions… especially with volunteers. They are hard to have and often end poorly. Sometimes I literally cringe when I hear someone asking “Hey, what happened to…?”
I think she was really angry and confused about why the dog was euthanized because she had spent time with the dog who seemed happy and despite some apparent hip issues, didn’t seem to be in much visible pain. The reality was a diagnosis that included FHO surgery and total hip replacements in both hips. She was in considerable pain and despite medication, was getting worse.
And while the volunteer was not privy to all this information, she was disappointed that we had seemingly given up on this dog and in her words, not mine, had chosen to dispose of her rather than treat her. And while her choice of words spoken more out frustration still angered me, they also forced me to realize how I had been missing the mark in educating our volunteers on the reality of our shelter. In my aversion to the topic, I had spent zero time explaining to my audience how difficult such decisions are on those involved. I assumed people understand how difficult it would be for everyone. My mistake.
In trying to find some analogy or story to drive home my point, I came up with this one.
Let’s say you’re a friend that stops by my house now and then. Not every day but once a week for an hour or two. During such visits you’d meet my eight dogs – Lily, Bruce, Lola, Autumn, Sophie, Penny, Abby and Oliver. With that many dogs and only an hour or two a week, you would probably know Penny, Abby and Oliver the best as they would insist upon it. For purposes of this story, let’s say you become particularly attached to Oliver which would be highly likely as he’s a charmer.
So on your next visit you realize that Oliver is not around anywhere. It’s totally reasonable to expect that you would ask me “Hey, where’s Oliver?” And when I tell you that I had to put him to sleep, I would likewise expect you to ask me why. Especially if there were no clearly visible issues with Oliver’s health or I hadn’t talked to you about Oliver’s problems since the last time you stopped by.
When I explain the reason, whatever it is, would you say “Why did you give up on him?” Probably not. Nor would you ask with a tone accusation “How could you do that, he was such a great dog?”
More likely you’d say “I’m so sorry” or “What a shame. He seemed like such a great dog.”
And you’d do so because you knew that I loved Oliver. And because you knew that I took care of him every day, that I spent more time with him than you did, and that I was the one that bore the greatest weight of my decision about euthanizing him. I suspect too you’d realize that no one was more upset over the loss of Oliver than I. As such you’d not be so quick to judge my actions even if you didn’t know all the details or fully understand them. Even if you didn’t agree with my decision, I suspect or want to anyway, that you’d not be so harsh to criticize my decision.
And yet despite all this being exactly the case for our Shelter staff and management, who spend more time with our animals than anyone — each day caring for them, cleaning up after them, medicating their illnesses, treating their injuries, etc. – they are rarely if ever offered this same respect and consideration. Rather it’s much more likely that they would be met with criticism, judgment and disdain.
I can’t remember EVER that I saw or heard of someone, upon learning that an animal was euthanized in our shelter respond with “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “I’m so sorry you had to do that.”
Why is that?
It reminds me of when my neighbor suddenly put their collie, Buddy to sleep suddenly. I had become very attached to Buddy over the years and he often visited my house. But when he suddenly became ill one day and they rushed him to the vet and it was suggested he be euthanized immediately, they did not think “we should let Carrie say good-bye to Buddy first.” They were very upset themselves and despite how fond of Buddy I was, he was their dog and it was their decision. And when they tearfully told me after the fact, I was a little taken aback and sorry I didn’t have a chance to tell him good bye, but I knew how upsetting this decision had to be for them and to have said anything other than “I’m so sorry” would have been rubbing salt in an open wound.
But should the same consideration be offered those who deal with this all the time? YES!
Aren’t they used to losing animals? Aren’t they hardened to it? NO!
If you think our staff doesn’t care because they’re not falling to pieces in front of you as you believe you would be, please don’t judge them as unfeeling. If you think our staff doesn’t hurt because they come back tomorrow to do it all over again, please don’t judge. As in fact I think it is because they care SO much that they return to their jobs to continue to try to make a difference.
And thank goodness they do. We are lucky they risk their hearts each day for our animals. And fortunate they give their hearts and souls each day in doing what many could not.
My mistake has been in not explaining that euthanasia is still a reality in our shelter AND how difficult it is for those on the front lines. Those that have to make the decision and those that have to carry it out. I don’t know that it is ever easy but maybe knowing you’re stopping suffering can make it at least tolerable. But it doesn’t make it any less of a loss. And when it is for no other reason than a shortage of space or “inconvenient” breeding like with Pitbulls which are so prevalent and difficult to get adopted, there is no relief. Or simply because the animals is the “wrong” color, like black cats which we have more of than any other color and again can be the most difficult to get adopted. There is no way to make sense out of it. It’s just unfair. Horribly, ludicrously unfair.
And while I can empathize with a confused volunteer, having ignorant, ill-informed and careless people accusing you of murder and insisting that you just become a “No Kill” shelter to solve the problem, only makes it more ludicrous. I have little hope for educating those people and won’t waste my time and energy on such lunatics, but I do have hope for our volunteers.
Life in an open admission shelter can be sad and frustrating and ridiculous and cruel. And under the circumstances, sometimes you just strive to do the best you can in a world where over population and irresponsibility is levied on those who care the most.
It’s damn unfair at best. It’s heartbreaking at worst. And it’s the job of a shelter worker…every day.
So to the volunteer that helped me get to this realization and who I hope comes back and all those that I failed to educate, I apologize. And to future ones, you’ll get an earful and likely tearfully. And to our staff, I’m really sorry for not realizing sooner how I too was making your jobs more difficult by not more openly sharing what I know too well. As uncomfortable as it may make me, my discomfort can’t compare to the pain I know you feel. And I promise I won’t make that same mistake ever again.
And to those who want to throw vicious slurs at the brave souls on the front lines while you remain ignorant on the sidelines, you all can just go to hell.
Oops…guess I’m still a little pissed.
Categories: Shelter Facts