Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Honesty in Animal Rescue - the Fallacy of "Better Off Dead"

I was recently cc'ed in on a conversation between rescuers debating the pull of a very small elderly dog from a kill shelter who had shown a tendency to bite since entering the shelter. This isn't uncommon - when you're 4 pounds, sick, blind, and freaking out because you've lost the world you knew and have been thrown into an unfamiliar and frightening environment - well, it's easy to understand how some dogs could get a bit bitey.

The person in favor of the pull was asking for help with possible placement and foster, and got a reply from a breed rescue group saying, essentially: don't bother, this dog is better off dead.

They had a list of excuses - this breed doesn't take to rehoming well, this breed is too challenging, we can't find experienced homes willing to take a dog with issues - and this is the breed they specialize in! The representative closed with this line: "Sometimes the absolute best gift you can give is to release the dog from a miserable, frightening, and traumatic existence."

All without ever seeing, meeting or evaluating the dog, taking her out of the shelter environment that was absolutely freaking her out, treating her for her flea infestation and her painful, rotting teeth. Better off dead, without even trying.

The better off dead line is one that has been used for years by the people with the awful job of killing shelter animals, because who could live with that? You have to justify it somehow to be able to sleep at night. All kinds of coping mechanisms are tried: blame the public, blame the animal - when in fact what we need to be doing, all of us, is to be trying a lot harder to not kill shelter animals at all.

I'm big on language. I hate the use of the term "euthanasia" to mean "shelter killing", something I have written about a few times before. We owe it to the animals we are trying to save to be honest with them, about them - to not obfuscate what's happening with pretty words designed to soothe our guilty consciences. I'm pretty sure I have an idea of what's behind this person's attitude, so be honest about it: this is too hard for me. I can't handle this. I don't have the contacts to place this dog. I don't have the expertise to rehabilitate this dog. This will take up resources that we could be using to take other, more easily adoptable dogs.

Those are the honest reasons, the ones that are so very difficult to say because they open one up to attack, to judgment. But I at least respect when one has the gumption to be honest with others and with themselves rather than saying that a dog is better off dead without even the slightest attempt to go beyond the most superficial of long-distance evaluations.

That bitey little dog, Lizzy, went home today with a rescuer who doesn't believe in better off dead and after a little time to decompress will go into the home of a very experienced foster parent who is willing to do whatever is necessary; who is willing to try. She's already showing some positive signs of adjustment, and I've almost got my heart rate under control from once again hearing the dishonest excuse: better off dead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, a long time ago I signed up for your RSS feed because I loved your sense of humor. I'm not a pet person in the sense that I've never had any...but I wanted to say that I have really learned a lot about animals and about the people who love them from reading your blog. This post really touched me for some reason...not sure why, but I really like what you have to say here about honesty and respect.

10:58 PM  
Blogger becky1860 said...

thank you

11:23 PM  
Blogger Mel G said...

yes, thank you

11:34 PM  
Blogger becky1860 said...

I was a veterinary technician for the last 11 yrs. I am now a full time foster parent for our local 501C3 rescue. I pull from our local kill shelter. I primarily foster small breeds due to space limitations. Very seldom do I bring home a cuddly well adjusted foster. "They" usually choose me. And usually they are matted, with skin issue, hwt-o (+), with attitudes or are seniors left to die. It's my job as a foster to evaluate, cleanup and match the dogs with potential new owners. I have found that honesty is the best policy. Be honest about the animals habits, good or bad. Most new owners can handle things they are prepared. Give them tools/information that will help with potential issues. I have had great success with almost no returns. When trying to place seniors, I tell them how I handle things...Care for them, love them and allow them to die with diginity, loving in their/my arms. It's the best, last gift you can them.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

thank you for this. I adopted a 100 lb totally matted newfoundland mix - 7 years old, all black (was told he had about a week and no one would likely adopt him due to his size, age, and color) who had scars on his nose from presumably escaping through fences and abuse. $80 buck, very few questions, and he was mine (from an Humane Society facility). He hopped in my car like he had won the lottery (well,he had:). Best dog ever. An untreated nail issue and a bad strain of kennel cough from the shelter and he had pneumonia within 72 hours of adoption. Went to the vet every day for 2 weeks, was told he had a 50% chance of making it, maybe 6 months, but he spent the next 3 years being totally adored and adoring and having a pretty great off-leash life. I think it was just love.

2:28 AM  
Blogger Stew Magoo said...

Well said John. Have seen it first hand as well.

I know of a rescue once that constantly claimed to not have the money to work with older dogs, mixes and those with health problems.

Here is a list of dogs that they passed up:

Buck, HW+, previously broken leg, almost 2k from my own pocket and he is one of the best dogs I've ever rescued (he's on youtuba still) (owners donated 1k to the rescue that picked him up and have been contributing members ever since).

Sebby, my 11 1/2 year old (I just couldn't let her go) that stole my heart, ripped it to shreds, and broke everything emotional within me when she passed (again, youtuba)

And Cody, the mix Sheepdog/Beardie hybrid. Just the cutest dog I've ever seen. I get to see him occasionally at the nearby dog park and he's made a retired couple and their dog very very happy.

It's caring that makes the difference.

Thanks for the post.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Coconut said...

John, thank you for this post. We really must do a better job when it comes to evaluating animals that are in a shelter environment. There is no way that decisions should be made to kill an animal that is stressed and scared in a shelter. I would imagine we all would be that way if we were in a shelter. I am so glad that Lizzy has been given a chance and I hope that you will post an update when she has had a chance to adjust to help others see that she would not be "better off dead"!

10:40 AM  
Blogger sisteramy said...

hi everyone, this is Amy Harmon. I'm Lizzy's rescuer. she is currently sitting on my arm as i type this. if you would like to check out her progress you can watch my you tube channel. it's listed in parts. thank you John for speaking out and for all your support. you really encourage me to continue this fight.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Thanks John. Couldn't have said it better myself. I'm sick to death of hearing that phrase (and others like it). Who are we to play God by deciding what animal should live and what animal should be killed for whatever stupid reason?

1:21 PM  
Blogger Marcie's Manhattan said...

Thirty years ago I worked as a vet tech. One Sunday night my boss called me at home to come in and help-a dog had been hit by a truck. The owner was so upset we were going to try and save the dog. A broken leg, broken pelvis and a lost eye compounded by a broken jaw, most people probably would have put him down. I came in everyday, even on my days off, first to clean his cage and squirt liquid food in his mouth so he could get something to eat and eventually to teach him how to walk again and bathe him. Two months later he and I had become friends. I'd been beaten at least four times, a couple of times breaking the skin, but of course, he was in pain. When we returned him to his owner the dog was so happy to see him. The owner took him home. He was skinny and with only one eye, but he was eating well and a happy dog. We found out the owner couldn't bear to look at him and put him down when he returned home. I never cried so hard in my life. I know he didn't look "pretty" anymore, but he was still a good dog. I would have taken him if the owner didn't want him. Any dog can be loved by someone. No dog deserves to be killed because its too much work to take care of them.

4:39 PM  
Blogger sisteramy said...

Oh Dear Marcie, that is one of the saddest stories i have ever heard. i know it was a long time ago but i'm so sorry that happened to you. shame on that owner. similar thing happened when a couple brought in a dog at local humane society. broken leg. HS amputated it for them and when they saw the dog they said they didnt like the way it looked and left it there. what the hell is wrong with people. you really dont know a persons heart until you see how they treat an animal. i truly believe that!

8:08 PM  
Blogger Bankerchick said...

As usual well said...I am hoping as my retirement approaches to become actively involved in animal rescue. Right now I have adopted from rescue centers and I support them monitarily. I would like to help more.

8:51 AM  

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