Life and death decisions

Opinion

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By Kathy Capone

About four years ago I read a letter in WEDNESDAY JOURNAL asking for volunteer help at Forest Park Animal Services, a municipal animal control/animal shelter facility that was just getting started. The letter mentioned that it was a no-kill facility. Up until that time, I hadn't given much thought about what happened to stray and abandoned animals. I must have understood on some level that euthanasia was a part of it, as the words "no-kill" drew me in. At that time my family had one dog, a Siberian Husky named Buck. I love Buck, and that feeling generalized enough that I began to simply love dogs. So when I read that this facility was no-kill, I decided to see what I could do to help. Who wouldn't want to be involved with a place that didn't kill dogs? Sign me up!

The early days at Forest Park Animal Services were chaotic. There was one man in charge of doing everything, but no other employees. The building was dirty, dark, dismal, and in disrepair. But there were dogs and cats, and they needed attention. Some other volunteers attended to the cats, and I devoted myself to the dogs. My goal at first was that each dog would get a walk once every three days. You read that right: not three times a day, but once every three days. There were so few people, and those few couldn't come in every day, so that was the best we could do. Conditions eventually improved. Employees were hired, more volunteers came in, and as word about the animals spread, some cats and dogs were adopted.

I was familiar with the dogs' personalities, as I spent time with them all. But I was still only a volunteer who didn't know very much when I began to have some misgivings. A family would come in to look at a dog, and I would find myself thinking, "Be careful, be careful, be careful." I had begun to see that not all dogs could be fully trusted: some were aggressive, some struck out in fear, and some dogs had been too badly abused to ever trust people again. I often breathed a sigh of relief when a family decided to pass on a particular dog. But what would happen to a dog that was obviously never going to be adopted? Should it live out its life confined to a cage? My feelings about "no-kill" were starting to be challenged.

After about a year, Forest Park Animal Services became the Forest Park Ark. A director was hired from the Anti-Cruelty Society, and a high degree of professionalism was instituted in day-to-day operations. Temperament evaluations, which play a major role in determining a dog's adoptability, became standard operating procedure. I observed dozens of evaluations. I often held my breath when one of my favorites was being evaluated, because I was never sure how any particular dog would do. A dangerous dog is not dangerous all the time, and the temperament evaluation is designed to show where the dog could be a problem. And over time it became obvious, even to me, that some dogs should not be available for adoption, as they were very capable of hurting someone. And I learned that when there is no future as a pet for a companion animal, euthanasia is the humane necessity. There is no big farm or happy sanctuary for these animals to go to.

The decision to euthanize is typically made in collaboration with staff, but the final say is the responsibility of the shelter director. Everyone who understands the process has a huge respect for the person who must make the call; it is an aspect of the job that no one envies. This decision of life or death is never made lightly, and I have seen staff weep when euthanasia is necessary. The euthanasia is done by injection, and it is a peaceful, gentle death.

But faced with the truth that not every animal can or should be adopted, how can some shelters claim to be "no-kill"?  Some shelters, usually private humane societies like Oak Park's Animal Care League (ACL), wisely try to take only adoptable animals. Good stewardship of their space and resources compels them to "turn over" their cage space quickly in order to offer a second chance at life to as many animals as they can. But even ACL does not call itself "no-kill," as they find themselves from time-to-time with an un-adoptable animal. Other shelters (usually municipal organizations like animal control) are "open admission," meaning they accept every animal that is brought to their doors. Those facilities have the overwhelming responsibility of dealing with every degree of adoptabililty and un-adoptability. They must also keep space available for newly arriving animals. Euthanasia is a sad fact of life at that type of shelter. Not only do they need to euthanize due to un-adoptabililty, many such organizations are forced into the position of euthanizing adoptable animals simply because they have run out of room, and there are not enough places like ACL to absorb the overflow.  

I have come to understand that "no-kill" is a divisive term that is almost meaningless. To say that one organization is no-kill (read "we are good and compassionate") implies that another organization does kill (read "we don't care about animals"). But I remember something that Elliott Serrano, the director of the late Forest Park Ark, said: "Anybody who says they're no-kill is really saying that they let somebody else do it." 

Euthanasia of un-adoptable homeless animals is a sad but necessary responsibility of those who care for these animals, and it actually saves lives in the long run. Fewer animals are euthanized for space when un-adoptable animals are not occupying the limited shelter space available. But euthanasia for shelter space is a very different matter from euthanasia due to un-adoptability. The problem of too many animals for the space available is one that is within our power to reverse.

Healthy animals with wonderful temperaments are put to sleep by the thousands every day in the United States because there are simply not enough shelter spaces or homes for them. About 30,000 of those animals were euthanized last year in the Chicago area alone. This is an atrocity that could be corrected in a generation. A future article will explain how legislation that helps people to have their pets spayed/neutered has worked in other states and how it could work in Illinois, allowing us to be proactive at the source of the problem rather than reactive at the heartbreaking result.

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