A tragic story about Target, a hero dog that was killed in error by a worker in an animal shelter, caught my attention. The story brought to mind my uneasiness with state sponsored killings of all sorts. Additionally, I was intrigued by the way words shape narratives, in this case “euthanize” and “kill.”
Target was a war hero. She was a stray dog who survived gun shots and explosions in Afghanistan. She and two other strays, befriended by U. S. soldiers, deterred a suicide bomber wearing explosives. They barked at and bit the attacker, and in the process spared the lives of large numbers of soldiers. One of the dogs was killed. Target and Rufus, the other dog that survived with the assistance of aid workers, were taken to the U. S. to live with soldiers who had helped care for them in Afghanistan.
Target became famous after appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show. Unfortunately, last week, Target escaped from her backyard. She didn’t have on identification tags nor did she have an identification microchip implanted in her. Someone found the dog and called animal control. While Target’s family continued to search for her, she entered the institutional dog shelter system. Through a series of missteps, the owners didn’t get to the shelter in time.
“Euthanize” and “kill” have been used to shape alternative Target narratives. “Euthanize” and its related terms, “put down,” and “put to sleep ”(or “PTS”) are more comforting, “kill” or “execute” more disturbing. In Target’s case, the later terms are more descriptive of the case. Target wasn’t suffering. She wasn’t in physical distress. She wasn’t aggressive. She didn’t have any severe behavioral problems, and she wasn’t a threat to other people or animals.
Euthanize: Policy Implications
The deconstructed word euthanasia is “good,” “gentle” or “easy” death derived from the Greek. It typically refers to the painless killing of a suffering person or animal which either has an incurable, painful disease, or is in a permanent coma. While Euthanasia is generally considered to be illegal as it applies to humans, it is considered to be humane as it applies to animals.
According to the Humane Society of the United States(an animal-rights activist organization), about 39% of U. S. households have at least one dog. The total number of dogs living with their families is about 77.5 million. Many suffering pets are euthanized near the end of their lives at the request of their families for some combination of merciful and financial reasons. At some point, additional medical treatment may not be practical, or families cannot afford the treatments. In the hands of caring families and responsible veterinarians, “euthanize” is an option which may be in the spirit of the original sense of the word, especially when it involves a critically ill animal. It frequently involves a tearful last goodbye.
In the hands of governmental agencies, the situation is much more problematic. Societal castoffs are objectified and eliminated. Target was caught in this machine.
Each year, 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters–of which 3 to 4 million are “euthanized,” many of which are good natured, healthy animals. Communities make political decisions about how much money will be spent maintaining animals that enter shelters, and unless rescue societies and adopters take the responsibilities for these animals, many are quickly put to death.
Euthanize: Human Implications
Currently, there is a firewall between the way “euthanize” is thought of in the animal and human worlds. In the canine world, the creature is completely in the hands of humans who are presumably acting in the creature’s best interest, the society’s best interest or some combination of both. In practice, there are many institutional flaws, as the fate of Target reveals.
In the human world, the situation is different. “Euthanize” is frequently characterized as being voluntary, non-voluntary or involuntary. While “euthanasia” is usually considered criminal if done actively, it may not be considered criminal if accomplished through passive methods. The criminalization of voluntary human euthanasia is breaking down. (See the NYT Topics page.)
As the battle for resources continues, I wonder what will happen to the less fortunate. How many resources will be devoted to them and what will happen when resources run out? Will practices from the animal world migrate to the human world? Will humans become objectified as resources become strained? What structures will be in place to deal with these decisions? What will the criteria be? Will the criteria be different for rich and poor? What entities will be charged with making these decisions?
PS: My Black Lab Beau
I think about these matters as a lover of dogs and specifically of the dog in this snapshot, Beau, my Black Lab. He is a loyal companion. He is somewhere between two to three years old. Unlike Target, he has been saved. He was taken to a shelter by animal control because he wasn’t being given adequate food and water.
Labs4Rescue, an animal rescue organization, took responsibility for him. He was placed in a foster home where he was nursed back into good health and cared for. Eventually, my wife and I adopted him, and he now is part of our family. Fortunately, for him and us, he wasn’t killed by a shelter. In this instance, Beau was able to escape a “good death” through the efforts of an animal rescue organization and my family. There was a successful hand-off from government to public to private.
Civic engagement helps address serious problems. Inattention and the sloppy use of words frustrate such engagement.