By Debra White, published on November 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
The liquid eyes of the animals in ASPCA ads attest to the painful plight of discarded pets awaiting euthanasia. What the ads don't depict is the heavy emotional toll on the people who put such animals to death.
Shelter workers who have to euthanize animals as regular part of their jobs suffer a wide range of distressing reactions, including grief, anger, nightmares and depression, according to a study I conducted with a fellow social worker, Ruth Shawhan. People are drawn to shelter work because they love animals, and to have to kill hundreds of young, healthy and potentially adopt able pets can be agonizing. "I have a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of crying," reads one of the essays we collected from 200 workers nationwide. "I've had breakdowns in the euthanasia room because I feel so helpless," confessed another.
Deciding which animals live or die is particularly harrowing. Such choices are often based on how much room is left in the kennel or how likely an animal is to be adopted. "It bothers me to decide to kill an animal just because it's a black dog and we already have three black dogs waiting for homes," one worker remarked. Anger at thoughtless or callous pet owners was another frequently reported emotion. "I am tired of being responsible for society's carelessness," one employee complained.
Shelter workers may try to protect themselves from the emotional fallout of their work by rationalizing why euthanasia is necessary. "It's unfortunate, but it has to be done" is a refrain we frequently encountered. When the animal is sick or injured or has long endured the cruelties of existence on the streets, workers can tell themselves that they are ending its pain. "A calm, fast, humane death has to be better than the lives most of our strays were living," declared one worker.
Though few of the people we surveyed had sought counseling to deal with their turmoil, many said they had been helped by a seminar or support group offered by their clinic. Others rely for comfort on co-workers with whom they bond in shared sadness. Some workers find solace in praying for the animals they put to death and many said that they lavished their own pets with extra love and attention.
Not everyone copes so well, however; a significant number of animal workers reported that sorrow led them to abuse drugs and alcohol, to overeat or to take out their feelings on other people. "I have been here long enough to know not to get attached to the animals," one shelter worker wrote us, "but sometimes I still do."
Adapted by M.S.W.