As a new member of the Board of Directors of the local animal shelter, I am asked to partake in several activities designed to give me a deeper understanding of the shelter’s operations: I ride with an animal control officer on the streets; I watch staff wait on the public in the front office. And, I witness euthanasia.
Three to four million animals a year are euthanized in our nation’s shelters, one every nine seconds. On the day I witness, there are two dogs and an infant kitten who will be put to death. The shelter workers have reached the agonizing decision that there is nothing more they can do for these animals; it is a decision they must make on a daily basis.
The first dog is young, healthy, and beautiful. His fur is a deep red ticked with black, reminding me of a fox. He is, as millions are, a lost dog with no I.D.. He is no longer able to handle the stress of the shelter and has become hyperactive, “kennel crazy”, as it’s called in shelters.
The workers kneel, petting him, telling him he is a good dog. One quickly shaves a spot of fur from his front leg while the other holds his head. The needle is pushed into his vein, the plunger depressed.
The dog’s eyes swing around the room, scared, until they come to rest on mine. I look into his eyes, and he into mine; I watch until I see the light dim and go out. A black pain settles around my heart.
I’ve always loved animals, but I believe this is about more than that… it’s about fundamental ethics, and how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It’s about what it does to us as a society and as people, to have the daily life of our communities include the institutionalized killing of our “best friends”. It’s about how we all make excuses for it, or how we just don’t look at it, because it’s too painful to face.
All of these make us a lesser people, and since I looked in the eyes of that red dog, I can’t do any of them anymore. They damage the best parts of us, choke out our humanity and compassion, pave the way for us to care less about many others, not just the lonely, unwanted animals in shelters.
But I also believe that tucked away in all of us are deeply caring, compassionate hearts, the desire to live our lives in ways that don’t harm others. Though that sad scene haunts me, these beliefs give me a hope that guides me.
I believe it’s all about compassion, and love, and that these things make us better people, if we just listen to them. I believe we have it in us to create a just society that values all living beings, beginning with the precious ones “right in our own backyards.”
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