Killing at the pound not only harms the animals who are killed, it harms animals outside the “shelter”* by fueling the puppy mill industry.

It harms volunteers and rescuers, taking a severe emotional toll on them.

And now comes a study that shows it can take “a psychosocial toll on the mental and physical health” of shelter veterinarians resulting in “emotional and physical exhaustion.” According to the study, veterinary shelter workers face “significant mental and emotional risks” and are at an “increased risk” of “depression,” “anxiety,” “substance abuse,” and “suicide” compared to the other professions and the general population.

What are we to make of this?

While the historical narrative of animal shelters as places of refuge would seem to dictate that the emotional toll taken on those who engage in such seemingly admirable work demands our undivided sympathy, the calculus changes when the primary cause of these emotions is considered: “the practice of [killing] healthy or treatable pets surrendered to or impounded by animal shelters.” In other words, the reason these individuals report feeling so many negative emotions is because they are routinely and intentionally inflicting upon others the greatest of all possible harms: killing. This fact, along with the reality that our shelters are far from the safe havens the industry has long led us to believe (an animal entering the average American animal shelter faces a one in three chance of losing his or her life and, in some cases it is as high as nine of 10), makes the study’s recommendations as to what should be done to rectify this emotional turmoil far different than the evidence about what is actually causing it suggests.

If killing causes all these harms — to the animals, to animals in puppy mills, to rescuers and volunteers and to the mental health of veterinary professionals — then the solution seems clear: reform the shelter to stop the killing. As the data nationally and hundreds of communities across the country conclusively prove, shelter killing is a choice. Unfortunately, the study fell far short of embracing this obvious solution.

In a series of counterproductive and morally bankrupt suggestions, the authors of the study argue that the actual problem isn’t the act of injecting healthy animals with fatal doses of poison (even as the subjects of their study reveal that to be precisely so), but, rather, the efforts of people who are working to force shelters to stop engaging in such behavior. In other words, the report blames those who are working for reform for creating pressure that is harming the people killing animals.

To justify this point of view, the authors resurrect many of the antiquated and disproven justifications for killing which the No Kill movement has thoroughly disproven, including:

  • The defunct notion that No Kill leads to hoarding (parroting PETA’s “slow kill” argument);
  • That we can never completely eliminate the killing of healthy animals;
  • That municipal shelters cannot be No Kill;
  • That those who kill animals are merely doing the public’s dirty work; and,
  • That rather than teaching people how to stop killing, we need to hold workshops on how they can cope with the stress and guilt that results from it.

As part of this effort at whitewashing the harm and assuaging guilt, shelters are encouraged to participate in superficial rituals, such as “holding memorials to honor the pets that could not be saved…”; rituals that turn a blind eye to the reality that except for those animals for whom death is imminent due to irremediable physical suffering, there is simply no such thing as an animal who cannot be saved. Indeed, healthy and treatable animals entering shelters are under no threat but the one that shelter itself creates, a threat whose solution is a mere Google search away.

Yet tragically, none of the study’s recommendations involve eliminating the very thing that the subjects themselves report to be the primary cause of their problems: killing. Instead, the goal is, at best, to reduce killing; at worse, to silence critics of shelter killing by making that killing more acceptable to the public and more ethically palatable to the veterinary community performing it by encouraging tactics designed to diminish or obscure humanity’s most precious impulses: compassion, empathy, and when we err, the guilt and remorse designed to force upon us a course correction.

Indeed, it should come as little surprise that veterinary professionals — people who have been trained in a “do not harm” ethos and who chose a career path of helping animals — should feel morally conflicted and therefore emotional pain working in jobs which require them to do the opposite on a daily basis. But is that a necessary outcome, as the study implies, of working in a shelter? Or merely the outcome of working in a shelter that kills?

The study, unfortunately, did not differentiate between the two nor did it attempt to quantify the different emotional states of shelter professionals working at kill shelter vs. “open admission” No Kill shelters, a glaring omission since it admits killing was the primary cause of reported angst. Had the study taken this difference into consideration, it would have almost certainly revealed a stark contrast in the emotional well-being of the shelter professionals working in one setting versus the other.

Consider that in a kill shelter setting, veterinary professionals are expected to subjugate their ability to save lives to their ability to end them. By contrast, a veterinary professional working in at a shelter that has embraced respect for life is expected to use their skills and training for good. This means that they are not only expected to help sick and injured animals recover, but to end lives only when doing so qualifies as true mercy, both actions which are consistent not only with sound veterinary practice, but morality and, therefore, self-respect.

Even though veterinary professionals working in a shelter environment are far more likely than veterinarians in private practice to witness the tragic effects of animal abuse and neglect, they are also in a unique, even heroic, position to do something about it. The emotional reward of participating in efforts to help such animals overcome their misfortunes and achieve a new lease on life should not be underestimated. Indeed, when a shelter is operating as it should, there is no such thing as “compassion fatigue” among employees (the euphemism the study uses to obfuscate the weariness that results from either participating again and again in the intentional infliction of harm upon animals or witnessing such harm and being powerless to rectify it) because success — that is, rehabilitating and rehoming the neediest of animals — fosters enthusiasm, determination and a healthy workplace environment. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges or that the work is not, at times, exhausting, even in a No Kill shelter setting; there are and it sometimes can be. But acting in the capacity of savior rather than perpetrator makes for a better night’s sleep.

In the end, if we want to help the people who work at shelters feel better about the work they do, and, by extension, themselves, we do so by reforming the practices of pounds that kill, firing the staff that cut corners or do not embrace solutions, and by passing laws that prohibit shelter employees from doing otherwise. Not only does doing so protect animals, but it radically transforms the culture of a shelter, making it a safe, hospitable, even rewarding place to work for those who truly care.

At shelters that have stopped killing, there is no need for watering down of ethics, blame-shifting, or engaging in vacuous rituals in a facile attempt to assuage guilt because there is no longer any behavior that makes such responses necessary. As a veterinarian who is a member of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians recently wrote,

Doing so would not only protect the integrity of our oath, it would send a strong message: Veterinarians protect animal life. We do not end it to serve the professed needs of a culture that has not yet become sufficiently enlightened with respect to the welfare of its animals. Until it does, we will not participate in this practice, regardless of what our larger society deems acceptable.

It is tempting to see the study as simply misguided; as falling victim to Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote that, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” But solving the actual problem — striking at the roots — does not appear to be even a ghost of a thought by the study authors. Instead, the study legitimizes the profession’s continued violation of the veterinarian’s oath to do no harm, legitimizes violence towards animals, ignores existing No Kill success, and blames those trying to end shelter killing for making those who kill feel bad about it. From that standpoint, it is not just misguided; it’s actually harmful to shelter animals and harmful to shelter veterinarians.

For what it is worth, the study is available by clicking here.

* The term “shelter” is not accurate for a pound facility that kills animals who are not irremediably suffering physically. Irremediable suffering is defined as an animal who has a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care. Accordingly, I have set the word off in quotations. And while I continue to use it through this article without distracting quotations, I do so only because the term is well known, even if it is factually inaccurate.


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