When I was a senior in college, one of my professors noticed one day that I was quieter than usual. He asked me what was wrong, and I told him that I was preoccupied about work. When he asked where I worked, I told him the animal shelter and, without missing a beat, he replied, “Oh, you’re just upset because you kill puppies.”
In truth, I was thinking about a fundraising project, so his callous words caught me off guard.
That was my first real moment of understanding what I represented to my community as an animal shelter worker. It was also the first time I realized how overwhelmingly misinformed the public is about shelters.
Shelters Are Symbols of Death
I’m not trying to convince anyone that pets aren’t euthanized in shelters. They are — every single day. I could argue that healthy animals are rarely killed and that I’ve never seen a single healthy puppy euthanized. But my real issue is who’s being blamed for the death of those pets.
According to my professor, I was to blame. I was part of an organization that, in his eyes, destroyed innocent, helpless animals. And his comment may have been made somewhat jokingly, but the underlying issue is that animal shelters (and their employees) are symbols of death instead of hope.
Unwanted Pets Outnumber Adopters
Shelters don’t just have animals that they choose to euthanize. Shelters are given animals. They are forced to accept pets, even when they’ve run out of space.
Communities are overcrowding animal shelters with their unwanted pets. And, because it is their responsibility to house unwanted pets, shelters take the animals that are too “inconvenient” for their families.
Open-access shelters accept all of the animals handed to them, and the staff dedicate themselves, both physically and emotionally, to rehoming pets who have been abandoned or whose novelty has worn off and are no longer wanted.
But every state contains shelters that receive more animals than can be adopted. That’s when shelter work becomes a horrible math problem — when the number of unwanted pets outstrips the number of adopters, space runs out and pets are euthanized.
The Emotional Toll of Working With Animals
Our society commonly pins the deaths of millions of shelter pets each year on the staff working tirelessly to care for and rehome the animals.
That level of guilt and persecution can be unbearable. A study by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology reports that “individuals performing animal euthanasia are at increased risk of emotional mismanagement, physical ailments such as high blood pressure and ulcers, unresolved grief, depression, as well as substance abuse and even suicide.”
Shelter employees and volunteers get involved with pets because they love them. Take my word for it. We grew up adoring animals. We are the ones who will cancel our dates because our dogs aren’t feeling well. We are the ones who feed our cats better food than what we feed ourselves.
Eric Gentry, a Florida psychotherapist, says of shelter workers, “The very thing that makes them great at their work — their empathy and dedication and love for animals — makes them vulnerable.” The people who are euthanizing shelter pets care the most about them.
This news item highlights the overpopulation problem at animal shelters in central Indiana:
Stop Pet Overpopulation at the Source
If we want to stop euthanasia, we can’t focus on the shelters, and we can’t blame the workers. We must focus on the cause of pet overpopulation and stem that crisis. This begins with:
- Pet stores
- Puppy mills
We are all responsible for shelter euthanasia. From that friend who didn’t have enough time for her dog and dropped him off at the shelter to the neighbor who won’t pay to spay his cat and gives away her kittens twice a year to the aunt who bought her designer puppy from a pet store to the coworker who insists on buying from a breeder. And each of us condemning shelters for euthanizing pets and refusing to visit because “it’s just too sad” only hurts the chances for the rest of the animals to find homes.
To end the killing of companion pets, we must all make a real effort:
- Don’t shop — adopt.
- Don’t breed or buy.
- Don’t condemn the shelters that operate at the mercy of your community.
Instead, volunteer, donate and adopt. Visit the shelter, compliment the staff members for their hard work and encourage the volunteers. Speak highly of shelters and see the hope that they symbolize, not the tragedy.