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The Dilemma of Life and Death

At SPCA Auckland in New Zealand, Bob Kerridge (pictured here with his now-deceased pet, George) ensures that the euthanasia protocols guarantee an animal's right to live or, if necessary, the dignity of a humane and peaceful death.

I hate talking of or writing about euthanasia, but it is a subject that we, as animal welfarists, must face on a regular basis.

The very environment of an animal shelter such as the SPCA places each of us in the situation where we must decide between our overriding duty to protect and honor all life, or to alleviate and prevent ongoing suffering. The decision and execution of the latter weighs heavily on our hearts, even in the knowledge that we have released that animal from its inevitable agony.

The moral fiber of animals does not improve with pain, for they do not understand the reason for their suffering; neither can they communicate to us the extent of their agony. They quietly undergo the terror of not knowing why they suffer, for what purpose, how long it will endure, or whether it will ever end.

Whether we like it or not, we are given the unenviable task of answering those questions on their behalf. It is the dilemma of life and death.

When animal shelters first emerged on the welfare scene, euthanasia was shamefully used as a population control mechanism. It reflected not only the enormous and uncontrollable excess of animal numbers, but also an inability to cope with the vastness of the problem because of a lack of resources and facilities. It was a bleak period in the history books, and even today there is still a public view that we kill for our convenience.

How wrong that perception is.

An international revolution is being waged against euthanasia as an acceptable management tool—and rightly so.

The San Francisco SPCA astounded the welfare movement with its efforts to proclaim a "no-kill city," stating that it would find homes for every "adoptable cat or dog in the city."

The proclamation was conditional, however, on categorizing animals into three definitions:

  • Adoptable—healthy, well-adjusted animals who, no matter how long it takes, will be rehomed.
  • Treatable—dogs and cats who are not adoptable on arrival, but with treatment, foster care, and attention may become so.
  • Nonrehabilitatable—animals for whom euthanasia is the only option due to their suffering from incurable and painful conditions, or who historically are prone to aggression.

Here there is a pleasing parallel between San Francisco and Auckland that is borne out by an enviable set of international statistics. When expressed as a ratio of euthanized animals per human population, San Francisco emerges as the lowest American city at 3.9 animals per 1,000 people, while Auckland improves on that to 3 per 1,000. We can be proud of that.

Our decision to euthanize has never been taken lightly. It involves a minimum of three people, including veterinarians and caregivers, who assess the health, temperament, and general disposition of each and every animal.

Operating under a strict euthanasia protocol, the reasons for euthanasia are clearly detailed, all created with the current and ongoing quality of life each animal can expect in clear focus. The protocol, as enforced, guarantees that every animal is accorded a right to live or the dignity of death.

And yet, even with all of that, the act of euthanasia, for whatever good reason, is still on every occasion a spiritual and emotionally draining experience. We should all feel for those who have to undertake it.

Anyone who has ever held an animal in his hands as the needle draws the animal to her last breath knows that a soul who touched us, loved us, and trusted us has passed this way and found peace.

May God bless them all.

Bob Kerridge is the executive director of SPCA Auckland in New Zealand. This essay first appeared in SPCA Auckland's magazine, Animals' Voice.


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