I recently got peripherally involved in a case where a person felt they had to give up their pets due to landlord pressure here in NYC (and before I begin, let me tell you that there is a happy ending to this story: all of the pets involved are alive and well). I don’t know the person, I don’t know (or want to know) their name, and I don’t know their story; what exactly they were being threatened with, what their financial situation was, how desperate they were.
But I do know how they reacted. And that is what I find… well, not curious. Not even surprising at this point but nonetheless a vivid illustration of what we fight on a daily basis.
This person’s reaction was to go to their veterinarian and request that all seven of their pets be killed, some of whom had been the person’s companions for ten years or more.
The staff at the veterinarian’s office would have none of it, and thank God for vets who will not take the blood money of killing a healthy animal. Instead they gave the person resources, guiding them to contact local rescue groups who could (and likely would have) helped them. But there’s no evidence from insiders at these rescue groups that they were contacted. Instead, the pets showed up a short time later at New York City Animal Care & Control (NYCACC).
I’m not sure what transpired there exactly but I take some comfort in that as flawed as NYCACC is I have never known them to perform “owner-requested euthanasia” – killing – of a healthy animal. Quickly the word got out in NYC rescue and the wheels started to turn, and within days (and with a little luck) a loosely-connected group had delivered them all to safety… but it’s that first reaction I find the most fascinating, the initial impulse: my pets are in danger, and therefore I must kill them.
Though many now find this attitude completely abhorrent it’s not hard to see where it’s come from, the roots of the impulse, when for years the party line from shelters was: death is good. Death is justified. Death is a sweet relief from suffering.
This attitude is now considered archaic enough by much of the general public that many shelters (though certainly not all…) hesitate to trumpet it publicly. These days it has a tendency to offend — although many still preach some version of it internally to themselves (and some days may even let a justification or two slip to the media), to convince themselves that they are still good people, to justify the blood on their hands. PETA is one of the few major animal welfare groups to still proudly fly the flag of death, proud to kill, proud to trumpet it daily: death is good. Death is kind. Death is justified. Death is a gift. Death is kindness.
If you are like I am and you believe that shelter pets have an inherent right to live then as flawed, as terrible at times as NYCACC is it is some small comfort to me that even they will not kill a healthy animal presented to them solely because it is what the owner wants. Even with all the killing done there there is still a line that is not crossed, there is still hope that they will evolve, because in that smallest of ways they are recognizing an animal’s inherent right to live. And so we fight on. We fight on until all of them are recognized – the sick, the elderly, the young, those thought to be “unwanted”, because we have no choice. Because as people – and there are more of us every day – who have concluded that an animal has an inherent right to not be dispatched simply for human convenience, that is what we must do. Because as leading communities throughout the US like Austin, Charlottesville and Reno show us with save rates over 90% and even higher, we know we can do better.
That seed planted long ago, the idea of death as kindness, is in itself a dying attitude – the last gasps of a failed philosophy as our brightest and most creative shelters explore what is actually possible. Don’t give in. Never give in. Because it can be done here too. Because you recognize that the person in that example simply did not have the right to make that choice for their healthy companion animals, and that is a sprouting oak of a new normal, of a new era, here in NYC and elsewhere. It is inevitable because we will make it so.