Editorial: No place for a saint

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1993:

Almost every day we hear from an animal rescuer in desperate trouble. Today it
was an elderly woman who had to relocate, and couldn’t take 50 feral cats she’d been feed-
ing with her. Only a handful of the females had been neutered; she lacked the funds to fix
the rest. She wanted us to recommend a shelter that could take them all in, guarantee they
would be socialized, and see to it that they were adopted into good homes.
“I don’t believe in euthanasia,” she warned us.
A few days ago there was the woman who’d purchased a farm and kennel with the
idea that the kenneling operation would support an all-species no-kill sanctuary. She got as
far as obtaining nonprofit status and acquiring a menagerie of 15 dogs, 14 cats, and 150
chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea hens before discovering that her income couldn’t come
close to meeting the mortgage payments. “All I need is $150,000,” she begged. “But it’s
coming down to where I have no choice but to put the animals down, and I know that when
I do, I will have a stroke and die.”
And then there was the 60-year-old man who called on the eve of the bankruptcy
of a business he’d put his life into. He’d resigned himself to that, but wanted to know who
could make up for the $75,000 a year he’d no longer be able to give to an unincorporated
no-kill shelter––a former boarding house bursting with about 150 dogs and cats, with goats,
ducks, geese, and chickens roaming the yard.
Each of the callers believes in miracles. Somewhere, they’re sure, some founda-
tion or wealthy individual has funds to invest in endlessly taking in and looking after the ani-
mals no one else wants.
In truth, the foundations and wealthy individuals who assist animal-related chari-
ties are scarce, over-solicited, and often over-extended. Because even the yield on a multi-
million-dollar endowment fund is only a fraction of the cost of caring for all the homeless
animals among us, the wisest donors to anti-pet overpopulation programs reserve their fund-
ing for innovative efforts to attack the problem at its origins, e.g. neutering clinics, neuter-
ing information hotlines, research into injectable sterilants, and attempts to influence the
behavior of pet owners. Just as few shelters promise to do anything for animals in bad
health or beyond the most popular age for adoption (under three years of age), few funding
sources will even consider investing in operations whose only accomplishment is to tem-
porarily spare a mere handful of animals from the needle.
Amid an economic climate causing the cancellation of the acclaimed 20-year-old
Los Angeles city neutering clinics, cutbacks and cash flow problems for the 10-year-old
New Jersey neutering subsidy program, the layoff of half the Chicago animal care and con-
trol staff, and numerous other reductions of service at major pounds and shelters both public
and private, there are no miracles.
There are simply those who take on only what they can handle, and those who try
to do more, become overwhelmed, and eventually see their effort go for naught when they
can’t pay the bills or lose their health or run into legal problems.
Compassionate people by definition have a hard time saying no, they can’t take in
just one more orphan, and have an even harder time saying some animals must die in order
that others will live, or have a better life. The problem is compounded by the villification
some otherwise compassionate individuals direct at those who do say no and do euthanize
healthy homeless animals, often at tremendous psychic cost, because they understand that
whatever their emotional inclinations, they really can’t save every creature or even make a
significant start in that direction. As we discovered when ANIMAL PEOPLE p u b l i s h e r
Kim Bartlett suggested euthanizing feral cats might be more humane and practical in many
situations than neuter/release, after extensive experience coordinating a regional
neuter/release project, the mere mention of such an idea brings a barrage of allegations of
heartlessness, sometimes accompanied by direct threats.
Certainly, for all of us, there are those occasions when we must say yes, despite
the inconvenience, expense, and other difficulties involved in picking up another stray.
Our own lives are enriched immeasureably by our many successful rescue projects. At the
same time, the rescuer who cannot either say no or say goodbye stands a good chance of
eventually becoming an animal collector. Sharing feces-strewn quarters with impossible
numbers of starving and diseased dogs and cats, collectors typically live under the illusion
that they are in fact sheltering strays and ferals, whom no one else can possibly love and
care for as much. Most often, collectors don’t even recognize the problems for which they
are prosecuted, when and if humane authorities become aware of them. They never under-
stand that compassion alone is no guarantee of humane treatment, and that misdirected com-
passion can sometimes cause more suffering than casual indifference.
Every rescuer needs a dash of humility. Refusing to take in needy animals may be
morally wrong, as may be euthanizing healthy but unadoptable animals, but so too is taking
in and keeping so many that none are helped effectively. It is worth remembering that the
classic definition of a tragedy is a situation where an individual proud of his or her own
virtue must make a fatal choice in a situation with no right answer; calling pet overpopula-
tion a tragedy is not just a figure of speech.
The few among us who feel uniquely privileged to avoid making tragic fatal choic-
es will undoubtedly go on reminding the rest of us, who do, that we are imperfect and mis-
erable sinners––until their pride in perfection yields to reality and an empty bank book,
and/or an eviction notice, and we get another of those heartbreaking calls from a one-time
would-be saint for the animals whose good-faith efforts have become a disillusioning
descent into an emotional, physical, and spiritual hell.
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