BOOKS: Paws For Thought: A Look at the Conflicts, Questions and Challenges of Animal Euthanasia

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1993:

Paws For Thought: A Look at the Conflicts, Questions and Challenges of Animal Euthanasia
by B.J. Ellis. Paw Print Press (7509-I Garners Ferry Rd., Suite 164, Columbia, SC 29209), 1993, 137 pages, softcover $12.95.
Paws For Thought may be more divisive than it is
thought-provoking.
With a cursory introduction to the causes of pet
overpopulation, Ellis arrives at the anticlimactic conclu-
sion that, “Until there is a drastic improvement in the pet
overpopulation problem, a significant part of an animal
control officer’s job will involve destroying healthy ani-
mals. The effect is to put ordinary people under extraordi-
nary stress. They love animals, but have to kill them.
How unfair. How stressful.”

According to Ellis, a freelance writer and former
newspaper reporter with a shaky command of syntactical
logic, “This book is for the hard-working animal abuse
investigators. The ones who keep a bottle in their desk to
ease their psychic pain. The ones I’ve overheard bragging
about their drunken all-nighters. The ones who are in the
doghouse with their spouses because they’ve given up try-
ing to explain why they feel so bad.”
After interviewing dozens of animal control offi-
cers and volunteers, Ellis outlines “Euthanasia Stress,”
dealing with death, grief, guilt, co-workers, and society,
and discusses coping mechanisms. The strongest section of
her book, “Feelings, Emotions,” explores “Recurring
Euthanasia Stress Syndrome,” likening it to Post-
Traumatic Stress Disorder. Concrete suggestions offer
direction: regular physical exams for shelter workers,
open discussion sessions, facilitated support groups, and
networking.
Ellis lists 13 “Consultants on Euthanasia Stress,”
one of whom, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region
education and publicity director Phil Arkow, recommends
that shelter directors should, “Hire people with farm back-
grounds [for euthanasia work] who are used to compassion
and detachment with livestock.” Detachment, yes, but
humane workers familiar with farm routines will see little
evidence of compassion in such common practices as cas-
trating pigs without anesthesia, debeaking chickens,
crushing newly hatched roosters to death, confining calves
in veal crates, locking dairy cows’ necks in rigid stan-
chions, and docking horses’ tails. Approached for clarifi-
cation, Arkow told ANIMAL PEOPLE that, “My experi-
ence in Colorado has been that for farm/ranch people, or at
least those with rural backgrounds, it’s often easier to say
goodbye to animals when necessary. I call it compassion-
with-detachment: people who care about animals, but can
leave problems at the shelter and recognize that they can’t
save all the animals. Obviously not everyone on a ranch
has this attitude. My point in B.J. Ellis’ book,” Arkow
continued, “is that a shelter which euthanizes can’t just hire
animal lovers; the stress is too great. We assume that any-
one who wants to work in this field is an animal lover, but
beyond that they have to have other skills and attitudes
which make the shelter want to hire them. A realistic
approach is called for, and someone who’s gotten his/her
hands dirty, whether it’s doing vet tech work, delivering
calves, etc., may be better equipped psychologically for
putting down 30-50 dogs and cats a day.”
All of that should have been in the book but is
not.
Often losing focus, Ellis rambles through many
tangents unrelated to her frequent subheadings. For
instance, a chart titled “Ten Rational Plans of Action for
the Pet Overpopulation Crisis” includes “demand humane
treatment and sanitary conditions for laboratory research
animals,” “demand that animal shelters exist not only for
the good of its animals, but care for its employees,” and
“don’t let a few animal rights crazies speak against you or
bash your shelter.”
Animal rights activists are mentioned many
times––”the animal rights crowd who says we shouldn’t kill
any animal at all,” “animal rights groups protest euthana-
sia,” “animal rights extremists who offer no logical solu-
tions, only to ‘liberate’ the animals,” and “you [euthanasia
technicians] are caught between the animal rights extrem-
ists and the animal abusers.” These harsh blanket state-
ments float through the text with no substantiation, and
severely detract from the author’s stated goals: to increase
awareness of Euthanasia Stress, provide coping tools, dis-
cuss feelings, encourage networking, “affirm what
euthanasia technicians are doing,” and explore future chal-
lenges.
It helps to know that Ellis did much of her
research around the time of the “Homeless Animals Day”
vigils in late summer 1992. Meant to publicize pet over-
population, these vigils were widely misperceived as
attacks on shelter euthanasia––as they were in some cases,
where the participating activists were at odds with local
shelter management. But Ellis badly lacks perspective if
she’s basing her opinion of the animal rights movement on
this one fiasco and fails to understand that many leading
animal rights groups including People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals are not anti-euthanasia.
Ellis does discuss one much-needed goal, “to
develop uniform standards of euthanasia technician training
and certification and recertification,” and “to mandate cer-
tification in every state.” According to Ellis, this “big pro-
ject” will be unveiled by the end of this year, and involves
the joint efforts of the American Humane Association and
the Humane Society of the U.S., which she claims “have
been working together to produce a single book outlining
animal shelter euthanasia services that are practical, cost-
effective and legal.”
Reflecting her concern “about the way society and
the media treat animal shelters and its employees,” Ellis
promises to donate a portion of her book’s proceeds “to
establish a Wellness and Recognition Fund and award for
animal welfare workers.”
But the good intentions and smatterings of sound
advice in Paws For Thought are overwhelmed by its divi-
sive, us-against-them tone and mediocre writing. Paws
For Thought gets up on the wrong side of the bed and stays
cranky and groggy throughout.
––Donna Robb
[Robb, now a freelance journalist, is a certified
animal health technician and former humane officer.
Asked why she didn’t make note in her review of her own
experience with euthanasia, she responded, “My personal
experience is from veterinary clinic settings where I’ve
euthanized very old, very ill, or very injured
animals––easier to deal with than euthanizing healthy kit
tens and puppies, except when the illnesses or injuries are
due to owner neglect, e.g. animals so infested with mag
gots that no treatment is effective. My personal experi
ences are why I don’t seek shelter work; I know I couldn’t
deal with it. Also, in the clinic setting, the grieving owner
is a distraction from the actual death. You end up fussing
over the owner, and feeling bad for him/her. The grief
isn’t so focused on the act of injecting death. My coping
mechanism was to cry as I drove home, forcing myself to
come to terms with it by the time I hit the driveway.]
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