One day while reading the newspaper, I came across comments from people who were outraged about an article about local animal shelters euthanizing healthy animals because of insufficient funding and too few families that were willing to adopt a rescue animal. They wondered “how could workers who “put animals to sleep” live with themselves?”
I was working as a local television correspondent at the time and had the opportunity to ask an animal shelter worker about this very touchy subject.
While most of her work was extremely gratifying, the worst aspect of her job she and her co-workers dreaded, was dealing with unwanted “holiday gift pets” in the New Year.
That is when holiday pets end up at the shelter. Their prognosis was seldom good.
In the early months of the New Year, parents – without their children in tow - would show up with a kitten or puppy and explain that “things didn’t work out” with the pet and that the family wanted to donate the pet for adoption.
The pet would be handed over, the parents would leave, pleased that they had solved their problem, and the future of the animal was left in the hands of the animal shelter workers.
People who work at shelters do so because they love animals, want to take care of them and find them new homes. The worker explained, “I did not get into this line of work to euthanize animals.” She then broke down crying, and several of her colleagues within earshot came over to comfort her.
I thought back to a childhood friend of mine whose parents bought a puppy for him over the holidays, and then, when they discovered he was uninterested and incapable of taking care of the pet, they brought it to the local shelter. When he later asked them where the dog was, they told him “Don’t worry. We took him to a nice farm where he will be happy.”
There was no farm. Only a cage, and more likely than not, a sad ending to the story.
I then asked the shelter worker if she and her colleagues would like to participate in a story about this for the evening news to raise public awareness about buying pets without giving it careful thought. Yes, they did.
Two weeks later, a cameraman and I took footage in the shelter of the heartbreaking faces of animals looking through the cage bars and a quote in the lobby to the effect that the quality of a society’s mercy can be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members.
Then, we set up the tripod for footage that was very difficult to watch: A beautiful, good-natured dog was lying on a table about to be euthanized because there was no room, nobody had adopted him and he’d been there “too long.”
The shelter’s workers decided to put the dog to sleep in a “humane” way for the camera – with an intravenous injection – not the typical way it is done.
I stood at the door and turned my head away as the dog’s breathing slowed and one of its paws twitched ever so slightly before it went to sleep forever.
We edited the story during what would have been our lunch period. Neither of us could eat.
Then came an important decision: do we show the animal being put down, and if so, how do we handle it?
I decided not to sugar-coat the issue. We showed the final 20 seconds of the procedure from the doorway of the room with the goal of letting parents see what often happens when an unwanted pet is brought to a shelter. No farm like they might have told their kids.
I never watched the story go to air. It wasn’t necessary.
I received two humane society journalism awards for the story, called “Don’t Blame the Caregivers.” I also received many angry letters – not from animal advocates, but from parents who were horrified that I’d expose children to that sort of imagery. This was back in the late 1980s when television was not as bold as it is now.
As unpleasant as it was, the message about holiday pets had been delivered.
If it saved the life of one animal, it was worth it. If it made one family think twice about buying a pet for the holidays without a serious discussion, then it was worth it. If this story you are reading raises awareness about the folly of buying a holiday pet, it is worth it.
If you do decide with your family to buy and take care of a pet, consider adopting one from a rescue shelter. It will make a happy ending to the story.