Let's End the Killing

The Richmond SPCA has been the only non-governmental, non-profit animal welfare agency in the region that euthanizes animals.

It was also the only private agency that accepted every pet brought to its door.  We had become the place of last resort -- we were the ones held responsible for putting to sleep innocent lives simply because people have treated their pets irresponsibly. It had become too easy for the community and our governmental agencies to ignore the role they play in contributing to overpopulation and the need for euthanasia.

On January 7, 2002, a new era began for the Richmond SPCA – an era that we have long planned and enthusiastically anticipated. This new era requires significant changes in our daily operating procedures.  These new procedures involve all members of our community in the responsibility to care for and protect our companion animals.  The changes that have gone into effect are an important step toward the fulfillment of our overall plan to make this community a national humane leader.

We are now in the midst of the transition period that is contemplated by the partnership agreement adopted in Summer 2001 with the City of Richmond.  This transition period gives us the chance to work out any kinks in the operating system before we move into our new humane care and education center this fall.  It is important to recognize that, until we move into our new facility, we cannot make substantial progress toward the partnership goal of ending this community’s dependence on killing for pet population control because, as of yet, our basic resources have not changed. 

Our staff members currently go to the Richmond City Shelter each Tuesday and Friday to bring available animals back to our shelter for adoption.  Members of our staff temperament test every available animal to help us understand how the animal is best placed in its next home.  We make those test results available to other humane groups to the extent that they wish to use them. We are delighted for other humane groups to choose animals for transfer from the Richmond City Shelter ahead of us and we encourage them to go there for that purpose on Mondays and Thursdays. 

Also on January 7, 2002, we instituted an appointment system for the acceptance of owner relinquished animals directly from the public at our current shelter.  That appointment system will allow us to do a professional job of assessing each pet’s behavioral and physical needs and our ability to meet them. Since January 7, 2002, the Richmond SPCA has not accepted an animal if that acceptance would mean that another healthy animal that we have already accepted for sheltering would have to be killed due to lack of space.   We take very seriously our commitment to the animals that we accept to see that they are afforded the chance for a new life that they deserve. 

We also take seriously the responsibility of every pet owner to treat his pet’s life as a precious thing, not something to be cast aside lightly.  To that end, we are began a program with our other partners called Project Safety Net.  This program provides owners with an array of resources to address problems with their pets in a responsible manner.  These resources include professionally managed behavioral retraining assistance and behavior hotline, information on pet friendly housing, information on spaying and neutering for both owned pets and feral animals and assistance in re-homing their pets themselves. Project Safety Net is an essential part of our efforts to shape more appropriate behavior on the part of pet owners and other community members with respect to caring for our animal companions.

Until now we have justified the killing of animals by saying that it is a necessary evil, and that if it must be done, at least we can assure that it is done humanely. We strive to make each animal's final moments as peaceful and gentle as possible. The experience is similar to what would occur if your own pet were taken to a veterinarian: someone holds the dog or cat while another gives an injection of pentobarbital sodium. The pet is usually dead before the needle has been withdrawn from the vein. What saddens us so deeply is not the way in which the animal dies, but the loss of an innocent creature so capable of love, devotion, and joy. We mourn the loss of another beautiful animal with glistening eyes that speaks to us, telling us of how much he wants to play or snooze or love us instead of being tossed aside.

We accept the need to euthanize animals who are suffering - ones who've been so neglected or become so sick or injured that ending their misery is clearly the most humane course to take. Others we feel must be put to death for public safety - aggressive animals who have been trained to fight or have been so ill-treated that they are no longer able to live with people safely. Obviously there are times when euthanasia is needed.

What we can't accept is ending the lives of animals who would make loving companions if only given the chance. The price the staff pays in killing such animals is high.

People take on the job of euthanizing animals because they love them and want to provide as much comfort as possible, says Stephanie LaFarge, director of counseling services for the American SPCA in New York City.  LaFarge says society places little value on the job, and those who kill animals often become pariahs at their own shelter. "Everyone at some level feels an anger at those who do euthanasia,'' she says, adding that it would be unnecessary if pet owners would spay or neuter their animals.

The American Humane Association estimates that seven million pets and strays are put to death in shelters each year, almost all of them killed by people who love them. And it has its consequences. Dealing in death can produce nightmares, flashbacks, sleep disorders, obsessive thinking and depression, says Teresa Wagner of Osterville, Mass., a mental health counselor who conducts workshops for shelter workers across the country. Shelter employees who euthanize animals "take the brunt of everybody's guilt and blame,'' Wagner says.

"I don't believe that controlling the animal population through killing them is morally acceptable,'' Executive Director Robin Starr says. "This is not euthanasia. Euthanasia is mercy killing. We're killing them because we have too many animals.'' Grief is only one emotion shelter workers face, Starr says. There's also their anger at "incredibly unconcerned'' pet owners who nonchalantly turn over their animals knowing full well they may die. "The deepest anger for me is people who bring in a sweet and faithful pet who has become aged and is not fun anymore, and make him face the end of his life alone.''

Euthanasia is the price we all pay for pet overpopulation - and it's a price that we must collectively decide is too high.


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