“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
A news article about the PBS series called “Shelter Me” has appeared recently in a number of venues including the Huffington Post. The TV series is produced and directed by Steven Latham and generally has shown uplifting stories of shelter pet adoptions and the wonderful bond between adopted pets and their human guardians. It has the tag line “Improving Lives, One Shelter Pet at a Time.” I am all for that.
But the recent news article indicates that Latham believes that pets at public shelters should “get priority.” It quotes him as saying that pets at open admission shelters “need our help the most.” Then, the article goes down the path of bashing organizations that embrace the no-kill philosophy and quotes Kelly Miott of Long Beach Animal Care Services, an organization that Latham is promoting on the series, as saying, “Euthanasia is a fact of life. We are what the no-kill people are trying to get rid of.” Well.
I am certainly one of the “no-kill people” and I am not trying to get rid of Ms. Miott or her organization but I am most definitely trying to get rid of euthanasia of healthy and treatable homeless animals in this country. Is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t every single person in the field of animal welfare be trying to do that too?
I understand and appreciate the effort of the PBS series to help animals in public shelters find good homes. But I am mystified as to why those pets deserve “priority.” The truth is that no-kill organizations like ours will bring another pet into our care from a public shelter where his or her life is at risk just as soon as one gets adopted from us thereby opening up a space for that other pet in need to come in. So, there is no logic to the statement that the animals in public shelters (I think this is their code for ones that euthanize) deserve priority. All homeless pets are equally deserving and every adoption saves a life.
The point has been reached in all of this heated back and forth about euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets when I believe something needs to be said and I am going to have the courage to say it. Both the Richmond SPCA and I personally do not believe that taking the lives of healthy or treatable companion animals is ethical. I don’t engage in behaviors that I believe are not ethical and I am proud that my organization is not going to do something that we believe to be unethical. I am a private person and the Richmond SPCA is a private organization and so we get to make those choices. I don’t appreciate any effort to make us feel that we are somehow avoiding some duty to participate in ending lives. There is no duty to participate. But there is a duty to work to change our society.
The euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals was undertaken in this country for reasons of financial and practical expediency with a disregard of the moral issues. As there were more homeless dogs and cats in the 20th century than the shelters they were in could find homes for, and society was not compassionate enough or progressive enough to fund other approaches, shelters resorted to taking their lives to reduce their numbers. It was a coldly logical but not ethical approach. It has now become something that much of the public seems to accept as a given and does not question in moral terms. But, they should. We all should. We all know that there are other ways to approach the issue – spaying and neutering, stopping the breeding of more pets when there are shelter pets in need of homes, always acquiring pets from shelters, providing pet retention support programs and affording adequate budgets to public shelters so that they can provide needed veterinary care for treatable animals. We must demand that these are the approaches used.
I recognize that people who work for public shelters are limited in how many pets they can save by the amount of money appropriated by their local governments to their annual budgets. I am not blaming them for this state of affairs. Nor do I or the Richmond SPCA have any quarrel with the euthanasia of pets that are untreatably sick or injured and suffering or ones that present a material threat to human or animal safety.
But I will not accept that euthanasia of the healthy and treatable ones is a “fact of life.” No, it is a choice that our society is making and it could make another, far more ethical choice if it wanted to spend the money on shelter budgets and push people to be more socially responsible in how they acquire new pets. The number of dogs and cats dying in shelters has declined dramatically in this country in recent years since these approaches have become more prevalent. That is proof that it is possible to get the whole way to ending the killing of any homeless animals but the ones that are untreatable.
I hope that those, like Mr. Latham and his PBS series, who prioritize promoting the adoption of pets in public shelters that euthanize healthy and treatable animals are also pressuring the localities to provide enough funding to allow those shelters to save the lives of more healthy and treatable animals. I hope they are pushing their communities and our society to stop accepting euthanasia as a fact of life and understand that we all have a personal role in engaging in the behaviors that could end all this killing. I hope that they believe, and are acknowledging clearly and publicly, that euthanasia of healthy or treatable shelter pets is not a morally acceptable solution for a matter that has other solutions and involves very real and precious lives.
We should not be just the caretakers of these innocent animals whose lives are at risk; we must be their advocates. For decades in the 20th century, most people in the animal welfare field passively accepted that their communities would not provide the resources to save the lives of the healthy and treatable homeless animals. They facilitated the massive loss of life even though it broke their hearts. We must stop being compliant and complicit. We must hold the unethical nature of this approach up in front of our communities and pressure them hard to change how they treat homeless animals and how they devalue their lives. Euthanasia of healthy and treatable homeless animals is not a fact of life. It is a tragedy and a moral outrage.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.