Let's put this pet theory to sleep

Over the years, we've gotten thoroughly sick and tired of the repeated use of the myths surrounding pet euthanasia as an argument in favor of providing the same "service" for humans. The myth seems to gaining new vigor in recent months. Here, for example, is Dr Gifford-Jones writing in the Edmonton Sun on February 7:

"Who was Debbie? If you missed her death notice, she was the world's oldest polar bear at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo, who died at 41 years of age. Due to a number of strokes, zoo keepers decided Debbie had suffered enough and painlessly ended her life. But unlike the polar bear, a friend of mine recently experienced an agonizing death which has prompted this column.

"I've often written that if I were allowed a committee to oversee my final hours, I'd want a veterinarian to be part of that group. I'm hoping they would treat me the same way as Debbie, or a loving pet." (emphasis added)

In the column, Gifford-Jones mentions being moved by Sara McLachlan's video to raise funds for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Unfortunately, the SPCA spot really does help Gifford-Jones make a case, because in its emphasis on "rescue" of abused animals, it avoids telling viewers the ultimate fate of the majority of the animals that end up in shelters. This open letter from a shelter manager paints a very different picture -- one that McLachlan would be hard-pressed to provide a soothing vocal background for:

"Odds are your pet won't get adopted, and how stressful do you think being in a shelter is? Well, let me tell you, your pet has 72 hours to find a new family from the moment you drop it off. Sometimes a little longer if the shelter isn't full and your dog manages to stay completely healthy. If it sniffles, it dies."

Please note that the author is referring to pets that have been abandoned to the shelters by their owners. There is every reason to believe that pets rescued from abuse have even lower chances of being adopted.

In fact, the statistics on the euthanasia rates of animal rates in shelters paint a grim picture. The reasons owners abandon them there aren't very pretty either: 

* They are abandoned and unwanted. According to the American Humane Association, “56% of dogs and 71% of cats that enter animal shelters are euthanized.”

* They have a personality or behaviour problem. (According to the SPCA, this is the single most common reason for euthanizing dogs accounting for as much as 60% of cases.)

* Their caregivers are no longer willing or no longer able to continue caring for them.

* They are considered to be unattractive.

* They have a treatable health condition but euthanasia is a cheaper alternative. 

* They are getting old.

* They have physical traits considered to be undesirable for their breed. 

* They have untreatable terminal diseases and are in pain. 

In many cases, there is no single, clear reason.

One can already hear objections from Gifford-Jones and people who have approached this argument in a similar fashion. After all, one might object, people who abandon their pets to shelters don't even care enough about their pets to take them to a vet to have them "put to sleep."

In order to answer those possible objections, we'll share the story of a person who did go to a vet to have his pets put down -- a story taken from the annals of the euthanasia movement itself.

Shortly before the piece by Gifford-Jones, the "we're kinder to animals than to humans" nonsense appeared in the Australian press, courtesy of Peter Baume, a former Senator and an emeritus professor of Community Health at the University of New South Wales.

Baume was part of a panel discussion on euthanasia in Sydney, Australia. The panelists were covered and quoted in a way that revealed some pretty obvious bias on the part of the Sydney Morning Herald's Matt Buchanan. Here's a relevant example of the less-than-objective wording describing Baume's remarks:

"Professor Peter Baume, speaking with quiet authority, said: "Dogs and horses have it better than us. We don't let them suffer but we do let humans suffer."

Just to make sure Baume's points were driven home, the Herald also published an essay by him in the same edition titled, "We do not let dogs and horses suffer as we allow humans to suffer." In the essay, he makes the same claim that we don't "allow" dogs and horses to suffer, implying that euthanasia of pets is always an act of relieving the animal's suffering. This is at great odds with the statistics shared earlier.

Baume wouldn't have to ask me for evidence of this. He could have asked fellow panelist Philip Nitschke, affectionately known in Australia as "Dr. Death." He's been leading the public charge for legalization of euthanasia in Australia. As the most prominent pro-euthanasia activist in Australia, Nitschke has been personally involved with most of the figures in the movement -- including Max Bell, who comes close to filling the role of a "martyr" for the movement there.

For a short time in 1996, voluntary active euthanasia was legalized in Australia's Northern Territory. Max Bell, a taxi driver with stomach cancer, contacted Nitschke. Bell wanted to take advantage of the new law. Bell lived quite a distance from Nitschke and had to drive for 6 days to make the entire trip. Below, from an account by Nitschke, is a summary of Bell's preparation for his travel to the Northern Territory:

"So he put his house on the market, had his two dogs put down, organised himself to drive to Darwin and set out."

Given the current context - from Peter Baume and Gifford-Jones, -- Nitschke's throw-away line about Max Bell and his dogs should be examined -- closely.

How do we evaluate the "mercy killing," "euthanasia," "putting to sleep," etc. of Max Bell's dogs? Was Bell the victim of some ghastly cosmic coincidence so that not only he, but his two dogs were suffering from terminal illnesses?

Nitschke doesn't tell us, but it doesn't seem likely, does it?

Here are some alternative explanations:

Max Bell was too sick and pressed for time to find a home for his dogs;

Max Bell couldn't find an alternative home for his dogs;

Max Bell didn't try to find a home, believing that the dogs would be better of dead than having to live without him.

None of this means that Bell was cold or callous towards his dogs, but, like most people, had different beliefs about his commitments regarding animals than he might (presumably) have toward humans.

If we think about it, probably most of the people we've known have had their pets euthanized when they were neither terminally ill nor suffering. They often involved the increased expense and work that can accompany the chronic conditions aging animals develop. Cats that miss the litter box. Dogs that snap at owners when surprised. Expensive medical treatments. Failing hearing and eyesight. They're slower and less responsive to us.

Animals, who live in the moment, don't spend time dwelling on the "good old days" when they could run like the wind, and mourn the loss. That's a human characteristic -- and something we like to project on our pets so we can tell ourselves and our friends that we had them "put to sleep" because they suffered, avoiding the messier truth.

In the name of thoughtful debate and respect for critical thinking, can we put this issue to sleep? Because when intelligent euthanasia advocates like Gifford-Jones and Baume use this argument, only two explanations for the tactic come to mind: they're so entrenched in the myths surrounding pet euthanasia, they've set their critical thinking skills aside; or their critical thinking skills are indeed intact, but use this argument to exploit the lack of critical thinking in others.

Surely they can do better.

Stephen Drake is a research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a New York based disability rights network that opposes legalizing assisted suicide.

Dick Sobsey is the Director of the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre and a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta, Canada


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