This afternoon, I have to speak out on behalf of the One Hundred Thousand animals being put to death at the hands of California’s county-based shelters. I sent a letter to one of them, which I share with my animal-loving friends:
Dear Shelter Policymaker,
A few weeks ago, we spoke about the plight of homeless animals in one of the county shelters (and county-funded California shelters, in general). During the course of our discussion, you put to me the question,
Did I find it more humane for an animal to spend a lifetime in a shelter, or be spared the suffering of homelessness, through euthanasia?
I believe it is the right to keep the animal alive – for dead is dead. Who are we to take away its life?
Since then, I’ve been contemplating your query on a deeper level. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of learning more about the rate of euthanasia in California’s county-based shelters; more notably, the death of Turbo, in a Modesto shelter. (Best Friends Animal Society has ranked California #1 in animal deaths of over 100,000 a year.) I believe it is worth sharing with you some thoughts, at the risk of personal offense, because you are situated in a position of trust and responsibility at one of these shelters.
And, I realize that as a shelter worker, you are working with others rescuing animals. I mean no damage nor disrespect to this relationship; I also mean nothing personal in sharing further thoughts with you on the issue of euthanasia of homeless animals. I am simply imploring that as much as you are situated in a position of trust, that you reconsider the shelter’s policies when the opportunities arise. And further, I suggest that contrary to any assertion that the shelter workers putting these animals to sleep are acting in their best interests, they are indeed, not – as agents for the shelter, they are carrying out the shelter’s policies that are more concerned with the economic and space-oriented resources, further perpetuating the cycle of homeless animals.
The death of any particular animal in the care of the shelter is a harm not simply to the animal itself, who is often in fear and reacting therefrom, for its life feels threatened, but it is a wrong – as are any of the deaths by the shelter’s euthanasia policies – of healthy animals.
Food for thought, based on the teachings of Thomas Regan, philosopher and author of The Case for Animals Rights,
Indeed, we certainly do. I offer up his teachings (with which I resonate wholeheartedly) in the interests of reconsidering the shelter’s policies around euthanasia. Most importantly – what the shelter – and I use that term intentionally loosely, as they are not thus – they are, rather, killing places – where a healthy, homeless animal goes for an indeterminate period of time – then is put to death at the hands of people imposing the shelter’s will upon them.
All in the interests, as is evident by the existence of the self-perpetuating cycle, of continuing the status quo of making room for more homeless animals. (In the words of Thomas Regan, who examined this issue in-depth: to kill an animal ‘for his own good’ is paternalistic: we impose our will and our judgment on the animal, for the animal’s own good, as we conceive it. Paternalistic euthanasia is an appropriate label for this type of euthanasia.)
I realize that from the outside any shelter walls, this can feel like idealistic thinking or snowflake liberal philosophy. I ask that you indulge me and read further, in the best interests of the animals.
All animals, I’m sure you might agree, have preference interests – they can make conscious. intentional choices around their pains and pleasures – they can choose to play in joy or rest in exhaustion – they can choose to eat when hungry or refuse when sick or satiated. They can choose to lie alongside the couch with us, or resist our company and take solitude in another room. The consciousness of animals has long been proven; I will spare you the tedium of boring reiterations on the ways in which they conduct themselves as separate, sentient, beings. (For further reading, there is Regan, Peter Singer, and Marc Bekoff – who writes on the emotional lives of animals, to name a few.)
Animals can make conscious decisions in favor of their lives. They choose to avoid pain and suffering – much as these animals are doing when they react in fear when in a shelter. They suffer when detained, they suffer when caged, they suffer when led down the hall to the euthanasia room. They sense, as they are highly intelligent creatures with developed acuity, they are approaching death. They know and are aware of the ones who have gone before. They resist – I have no doubt you’ve seen this for yourself firsthand – that their healthy, full lives are about to end. They are expressing a preference to live – not out of fear for suffering, but out of a preference for the life that the shelter workers are deliberately and intentionally taking
Respectfully, I suggest that these choices are being made in the interests of the shelter – not in the interests of the animals – again, for space and economics, to make room for more homeless animals, thus perpetuating the cycle of homeless animals in a persistent search for a permanent place to live their lives.
The euthanasia practices of shelters are not euthanasia at all, as mentioned earlier. In Regan’s words, again: To persist in calling such practices euthanizing animals is to wrap plain killing in a false verbal cover. It deserves a reconsideration of this characterization, for euthanasia, a Greek term meaning good death, is an act of ending the suffering of a living being. Is the animal being put to death at the hands of the shelter actually suffering, or simply reacting in fear-based aggression at the hands of those putting the needle to his or her paw?
Again, the dogs subject to the confines of the shelters are instinctively aware of the motives of those handling him or her – They can sniff out intentions as well as they can sniff out a delicious beef bone – and they are reacting accordingly. I urge you to consider the words of Thomas Regan on the issue:
Virtually, all cases where healthy, unwanted pet animals are said to be euthanized fail to qualify as euthanasia. Because these animals are healthy, killing them can only erroneously be classified as preference-respecting [for pleasure, pain, freedom, will to live, etc.]. And because those who kill these animals could refuse to do so, instituting instead the policy, as a few shelters do, of keeping animals until they are adopted into a responsible person’s home, it is false that these animals (that is, the ones already in the shelter, the ones who would be killed) are better off dead than they would be alive. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that these animals would be better off alive, if those who ran the shelter took proper care of them until they were adopted.
Even assuming they are killed by the least painful means available…and granting that they believe they are acting in the interests of the animals they kill, what they do is not euthanasia, properly conceived. It is no more true to say that healthy dogs and cats are euthanized when they are ‘put to sleep’ to make room for other cats and dogs at animal shelters than it would be true to say that healthy derelicts would be euthanized if they were ‘put to sleep’ to make room for other derelicts at human shelters…
To acknowledge that these animals are not euthanized but are killed will not resolve the moral dilemma face those who work in animal shelters. It might, however, help occasion a fresh reexamination.
(Regan, p. 115-116)
In consideration of a thoughtful reexamination of the term euthanasia, I am also calling into question the so-called behaviorists employed at the shelter. From the outside, it appears to be more the case that determinations of an animal’s authentic nature and suitability for long-term companionship and housing in these moments when they are disoriented, confused, confined, constrained, deprived and feeling threatened – IS NOT IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE ANIMAL – but in the interests of others – the shelter’s policies, resources, etc. This belief is false – simply untrue – that the shelter’s staff is at that time acting in the best interests of the animal in depriving him or her of the life they were given.
The arrogance with which the shelter, in general, is taking away the lives of these animals and calling it euthanasia is intolerable and lacking in any moral, legal or ethical justifications. These animals are being deprived of the right to live – and instead are suffering at the hands of people abusing the power they were given to care for their well being.
Again, respectfully, I am imploring that you reconsider what you and the shelter staff – or any of the county-based shelters in California – call euthanasia. At best, it can be classified, in the words of Thomas Regan, as paternalistic euthanasia – making paternal-based decisions to end early the life of a healthy animal – against their strong, independent, sensitive wills – in the economic interests of limiting costs, preserving resources, making room for more, and the like. Such actions not only perpetuate the cycle of homeless animals, but actively encourage the indiscriminate, ignorance-based greed of breeding and reproducing animals for profit, pleasure, or casual disregard of the health of any one animal.
If the shelter were indeed acting in the best interests of the animals in its care, it would cease its practices and reallocate the economic resources towards training, spay and neuter education and services, and foster-based care programs. It would better allocate its resources towards ridding the community of breed-specific legislation that treats American Staffordshire Terriers as outlaws (which seem to be a majority of the shelter’s inhabitants), and it would promote, instead, the idea that landlords accept these animals into their communities under the responsible, experienced care of mindful dog owners. To do any less is to do a grave disservice to the animals in the shelter’s care.
And, I might add, the shelter’s adoption of these reconsiderations would facilitate a reduction in the intense, deeply-rooted, and long-standing suffering to the animal-loving people intensely concerned for the animals’ welfare, who are actively being harmed on emotional, psychological and spiritual levels, for the stress and angst they incur daily, every time an animal is in the hands of the shelter. Even in the words of another philosopher on the same issue, Peter Carruthers, he considered the moral duty we owe to animal lovers – and concluded that as they suffer harm every time we cause an animal harm — we owe them a moral duty, as moral agents in our social arena, and refrain from acting, thusly.
Thank you for your time. May the shelter and all its workers operate in the best interests of the animals.