Last Sunday I received a vituperative message lambasting my area’s municipal animal services division for euthanizing healthy pets. The message sender alleged that many pets never got a chance to receive a health and temperament test before they were summarily executed.
Why? Because their owners had surrendered them due to poor health and were asked to sign legally binding documents effectively mandating their euthanasia.
Here’s the first half of the letter:
Miami-Dade County Animal Services (MDAS) routinely kills all dogs and cats only because their owners sign euthanasia request forms. Animal Services doesn't require veterinarians to examine these animals, so there is no way for anyone to really know if the animals being killed are healthy, incurably ill, or aren't in any pain at all. Recently, Roxy, a starved dog who gave her all to nurse her puppies, was killed after her owner signed a euthanasia request. She could have been sent to a rescue group or adopted by an individual. Although adoption rates have increased at the shelter, they could be even higher if animals with euthanasia requests who were healthy or had treatable conditions were given a chance to be rescued or adopted.
When the animals have no euthanasia requests, Animal Services' rules require that sick and injured strays and animals surrendered by their owners be given "treatment plans." These animals must be examined by a veterinarian and may be given immediate treatment. They can be sent to rescues for medical fostering. In contrast, Animal Services regularly kills dog and cat surrenders with euthanasia requests who may be adoptable.
The letter goes on to explain that MDAS is working on changing its euthanasia request forms so that the department reserves the right NOT to euthanize animals that can be treated and potentially adopted.
But at the crux of this issue is not so much the intake form for animals whose euthanasia is requested. What I’ve gleaned from requesting more information from Dr. Sara Pizano (Director at MDAS), and after querying some additional interested parties, is that this issue arose more over differences in philosophy with respect to animal suffering than with any flak over specific policies and procedures.
Because when twenty healthy animals enter and one flat pet follows, who is to say whether a shelter that kills healthy pets every day should expend the community's resources preferentially on the ill?
When is an animal so ill or moribund that its condition merits euthanasia? How sick was Roxy, really? Could she have been saved? Do we have a moral obligation to commit shelter resources to each and every ailing animal as long as an adopter or rescue facility is willing to accept responsibility? Where does the shelter pull the trigger (forgive the mental imagery) given the stickiness of a complex, dying-animal intake relative to the typically tricky third party commitment process?
By some accounts this dog was at death’s door — not the simply over-nursed specimen the message describes. And if this extreme, near-death circumstance was indeed the case, what would YOU have done?
Could my municipal shelter be doing things better? Absolutely. Dr. Pizano freely admits to the fact that it has a long way to go. This admission comes in spite of an unprecedented uptick in adoption rates since the beginning of her tenure.
And sure, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been way critical of MDAS’s leadership at times (reference its support for the pit bull ban and its public euthanasia of one healthy pup). But could I do a better job? I wouldn’t last a week. Not if I truly felt I was working at my most frenetic fever pitch and knew that my detractors (and there would be many, to be sure) were out for blood.
But make no mistake, I'm no blanket euthanasia apologist. Consider the case of Target the war veteran. It was reported that he was "mistakenly" euthanized last week after he'd escaped his yard and ended up at the municipal shelter, where procedures were not followed and the wrong dog got the drugs.
Shockingly sad. And not so much a cautionary tale about keeping your dogs secure as one that underscores how shelters will continue to euthanize healthy animals until we adopt broad policy changes and commit to no-kill solutions.
Whether we're talking about the Roxys or the Targets of the world, shelters will continue to come under fire. But it seems to me that in some cases shelters deserve more of a pass. Though I will grant that intelligent people may disagree. What's your take?
Dr. Patty Khuly