What It's Really Like To Have To Euthanize Animals As A Shelter Worker

Image: Courtesy of Shannon Phillips.
The first time I performed an animal euthanasia, I was terrified. Although the cat was very ill and suffering, I couldn't help but feel as though I was making the wrong decision by taking her life. My coworkers tried to comfort me, assuring me I wasn't killing her as much as ending her pain, but the experience still shook me.

Since that day, I’ve euthanized hundreds of animals, but I long ago promised myself that I would never let it become a routine procedure — never let the animals become simply numbers to me. When I have to euthanize an animal (and the reality is that even apart from resource constraints, there are times when humane euthanasia is truly the kindest option, whether because of extreme aggression or medical reasons), I try to make her last moments the absolute happiest they can be. I always take a photo. In fact, I have a photo on my phone of every animal I have ever euthanized. I always play music — “While I’m Still Here” by Nine Inch Nails, the “Howler” remix by Genesis P-Orridge that includes voice samples of his wife's last recorded words before she passed away. I always tell the animal she is perfect and that I love her. I always assure her she is going to a place where no one can ever hurt her again. I want her to know that her life is truly valued.

I always tell the animal she is perfect and that I love her. I always assure her she is going to a place where no one can ever hurt her again.

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But there is a consequence for never letting an animal become a number, for never becoming numb to the loss of a life, and that’s reflected in the mental health statistics of people in the helping professions. A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that "protective service occupation" professionals such as animal rescue professionals, police officers, and firefighters ranked among the highest in on-the-job suicides, with a rate of 5.3 suicides for every one million workers.

If you know anything about animal welfare, you may have heard the terms "compassion fatigue" or "burnout." The former is defined as "fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others," while burnout is defined as "fatigue, frustration or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork or intense activity."

At the shelter, my official title is "Cattery Coordinator." You're probably thinking that I get paid to cuddle with kittens, right? Sure, there are a lot of kittens involved, but nothing I’ve ever done has been more strenuous, physically or emotionally, than my job at the shelter. I oversee the felines that come through our doors, ensuring they are mentally and physically healthy, placing them for adoption, assisting clients with cat behavior issues, building relationships with neighboring shelters, filling three additional adoption centers, and yes, even making euthanasia decisions and performing euthanasia since I was certified to do the procedure in 2013.

Last year at our shelter, we euthanized 244 animals: 125 cats and 119 dogs that, for whatever reason, we could not place in a home. While I wish I could've saved every last one of them, these are not numbers that make me feel ashamed. By healing the sick and finding loving families for the homeless, we saved 3,201 lives in 2014 — 90% of the animals we took in that year.
Image: Courtesy of Shannon Phillips.
A 90% save rate is an important number, since it means my shelter technically classifies as a term you’ve probably heard before: a "no-kill" shelter. One of the most common misconceptions about "no-kill" shelters is that they do not euthanize any animals. What the label really means is that they euthanize 10% or less of their populations. Relinquishing an animal to a "no-kill" shelter will not guarantee her life. Even though we could describe ourselves officially as “no-kill,” we don’t: It would be damaging to other shelters and shelter workers. For every "no-kill" shelter out there, there are countless rural, municipal shelters lacking the financial stability, resources, staff, and volunteers needed to make the "no-kill" dream a reality. So, what does that make them to the general public? "Kill" shelters. Doesn't that sound horrible? There are even people who suggest that workers at these shelters actually enjoy euthanizing animals, or that they're lazy and simply don't work hard enough to find these animals homes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. My fellow animal rescue professionals and I pour our time and strength into helping the animals in our care in every way we can. It’s an often-exhausting career choice — one that can leave even the strongest emotionally burned out.
While work in animal welfare can feel like an uphill battle, for every bad day I have, there are a hundred good ones. Those good days are worth it all. Good days consist of nursing foster kittens back to health, finding the perfect forever home for a once-unwanted animal, and helping other shelters in need. I believe that the more that animal welfare organizations — both open-admission and "no-kill" — help each other, the better the outcome will be for homeless animals. I know that we animal rescue professionals didn't get into this field to finger-point, and it saddens me to witness so many shelters turning their backs on each other because of a label. We need to band together if we’re going to change the current numbers, such as these ones from the Humane Society of the United States: 3 to 4 million animals are euthanized in U.S. shelters every year; an estimated 2.7 million of them are healthy and adoptable. Meanwhile, only 30% of pets in homes are reported to come from shelters.
Image: Courtesy of Shannon Phillips.

If these numbers upset you, I ask you to channel your emotions into something positive. Inquire about volunteering or even working at your local animal shelter. If you have the means, make a donation. Donations don't always have to be monetary, and something as simple as old bedding or laundry detergent is incredibly appreciated. Even better? Adopt your next animal from your local shelter. Whether it's the mutt of your dreams or the purebred you've been coveting for years, you can find her there. We can't do this alone, and we need your help.
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For every bad day I have, there are a hundred good ones. Those good days are worth it all.

When I first got into this field, I fancied myself a machine, ready to take on anything and everything. While I still view myself this way, I now realize that sometimes, machines break and need replacement parts. Though my career eats up most of my time and prevents any semblance of a social life, I try my absolute best to have hobbies outside of animal rescue. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a good support system at home, too, and I am lucky to say that I have someone in my life who is truly supportive of what I do. Without these things, it would be hard to do this emotionally taxing work — the work of saving (and also euthanizing) animals with compassion.

This compassion is beautifully symbolized every year, when our shelter hosts a candlelight memorial service for the animals that didn't make it. Their names are written on hearts and spread out on a table. We gather the hearts and throw them into a fire after saying something to honor each animal. We couldn’t save them all. But we tried.

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