This article was published in the Feral Cat Activist, a publication of Alley Cat Allies, in June of 2005.
In the United States, euthanasia* is the accepted method of disposing of unwanted companion animals.
- The District of Columbia’s animal control contractor killed
5,900 animals in 2004 alone. More than 4,000 were cats.
- In six Texas cities, 194,000 animals were destroyed in shelters during the same time period.
- The National Animal Control Association’s 2004 statistical survey of representative animal control agencies reported euthanasia rates as high as 80 percent.
In all, 5 to 6 million healthy companion animals are killed in our nation’s shelters and animal control facilities every year.
Animal advocates and rescue groups who are working to bring these numbers down focus on saving animals’ lives. But there is another aspect of massive euthanasia that remains largely hidden from public view. It is the disturbing psychological toll that killing so many healthy animals takes on the shelter and agency personnel who must perform the deed.
Although the public knows little about the issue, the harmful effect of euthanasia-related work has been observed in the sheltering field for at least 30 years.1 The largest body of studies and articles on this subject, however, dates from 1990 through last year, a period in which public and industry awareness of the need to improve conditions and upgrade shelter procedures was rising.
Who is Harmed
Shelter workers generally take their jobs because they love and
want to help animals, and they often experience considerable emotional anguish from participating in animal euthanasia.2 In 1996, researchers Debra White and Ruth Shawhan reported the reactions to euthanasia work of 200 shelter workers who had been in their jobs in 86 shelters for periods of less than one year to considerably more than five years.3 Some had little or no emotional feelings toward euthanasia:
“It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been at it too long.” (16 years)
“I have been here long enough to know not to get attached to the animals, but sometimes I still do.”
Others were profoundly affected.
“To make a decision to end a life is the hardest decision I have ever made.”
“I overeat, am stressed, have high blood pressure and an ulcer. Also, I have difficult relationships with others.” (veterinarian)
“I entered therapy in the beginning of June and am being medicated for severe depression. Much of my anger, guilt, frustration, and outright sadness is connected to my work and my passion for wanting to save the animals I kill.” (kennel manager)
”I sometimes go home thinking I am a murderer.’’
Can We Afford the Human Cost of Humane Euthanasia?
The White/Shawhan study focused on how shelter workers learned to cope with their reactions to killing. Learning to cope is the standard theme in studies on this subject.
In 2000, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s panel on euthanasia warned that “constant exposure to, or participation in, euthanasia procedures can cause a psychological state characterized by a strong sense of work dissatisfaction or alienation….”4 The report states that this is a principal reason for employee turnover and suggests that coping strategies be adopted to prevent, decrease, or eliminate the problem.
Additional research focused on coping mechanisms was published in 2004.5 Funded by the Humane Society of the United States, researchers Charlie Reeve, et al., worked with attendees at the HSUS Animal Care Expo 2002. This study asserts that “thousands of people charged with performing animal euthanasia…are an at-risk population…at risk for a variety of psychological, emotional, and physical ailments such as high blood pressure, ulcers, unresolved grief, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.” To take part in the study, participants must have been in their jobs for at least two years. These people were categorized as “survivors”:
“…the highest degree of turnover occurs within the first year of experience. Thus, two years of experience seems reasonable as a cutoff to distinguish those who ’survived’ at least the initial confrontation with euthanasia from those who did not.”
The Reeve study identified specific turning-point events that influence adjustment to euthanasia related work. Of the ten events specified, nine pertain directly to euthanizing animals, e.g., a first or a difficult euthanasia experience, or euthanasia of healthy animals (all “downturn” events). Upturn events, that is, events that made the person feel better about the job, included “reduced number of animals euthanized at a shelter” and “reduced amount of euthanasia for [the] individual.”
A notable fact about the Reeve study and its predecessors is that none of them suggests a change in policy—that is, taking in and killing fewer animals—as a way to reduce the impact of euthanasia on shelter workers.
“The authors confuse the symptoms of disease (dis-ease) with the disease itself,” says Alley Cat Allies general counsel Wendy Anderson. “They assume that the sole issue is how to treat the psychological distress— the symptoms—and they ignore whether that distress merely manifests another, more profound problem, namely that euthanasia of healthy animals is toxic to those involved.
“If most shelter employees leave before two years, as the authors state,” Anderson continues, “and if the very few who stay struggle to cope and never fully habituate to euthanasia, why do the authors focus on developing better coping skills? Aren’t they missing the fundamental issue? If 100 people are hired at a shelter and two years later only 5 are left, isn’t the question, why did 95 leave, and not why did 5 stay?”
“I had a mama and three little kittens, and I euthanized the mama and just laid her there in the cage. Then I injected one of the little babies and laid it next to her, and it got up and crawled over onto its mama—and that was it. I was done. Doing that isn’t why I got into this work.”
Kent Robertson (in California, 1980)
Robertson quit the job. He later returned to the animal control field in the administrative end and is now Executive Director of Dallas Animal Services, Dallas, Texas.
“In our little world, it is hard to go home and tell your spouse or anyone else how you feel about some of the stuff we have to see,” says Robertson. “Beyond the euthanasia, there’s the cruelty, the neglect. Animal control groups are constantly beaten up by being called killers, murderers, and all this kind of thing. That has an effect on folks.”
The vast majority of workers in one study felt criticized and misunderstood. Many hid the fact that they performed euthanasia to avoid these reactions. “One worker, for instance, said she has learned to tell people that she ‘drives an animal ambulance.’”6
“You don’t have to be a euthanasia tech to be affected by euthanasia,” says Maryland clinical psychologist Dr. Carol A. Brothers.** “Anybody who cares about or is involved with
animals in our country is affected by overpopulation…and it’s heartbreaking for everyone.”
Keeping feral cats out of shelters helps the psychological impact problem enormously, says Dr. Brothers. “People in shelters feel that they end up with the dirty work of having to do the euthanizing. I think [Trap-Neuter-Return] is a very responsible way to care for feral cats. It is humane in all the senses of the word, which includes both animals and humanity.”
Caring-killing paradox: research aids animal shelters. Monitor online: A weekly publication for the BGSU community; available at http://www.bgsu.edu/offices/pr/ monitor/pastissues/05-12-03/paradox.html. Accessed April 29, 2005.
From Sadness to Rage, Euthanasia Brings It Out. Animal Sheltering, May June 1996.
Kirkwood S. When Stress Turns Into Distress. Animal Sheltering, March-April 1999.
Manette CS. A reflection on the ways veterinarians cope with the death, euthanasia, and slaughter of animals. J Am Vet Med Assoc July 1, 2004; Vol 225, No. 1.
McMillan FD. Rethinking euthanasia: death as an unintentional outcome. J Am Vet Med Assoc Nov 1, 2001; Vol 219, No. 9.
White D. It’s a dog’s life—animal shelter workers share the psychological impact of having to euthanize animals as part of their daily routine. Psychology Today, Nov-Dec 1998.