I know a woman who sits with the condemned and comforts them in their final hours. She’ll cook a chicken breast and visit with them while they savor it. She’ll take a long walk with them or play their favorite game. And then she talks sweetly and reassures them as they take their last breath. She is an angel of mercy, and she is a volunteer dog-walker at the local animal shelter.
Nobody asked her to do this. Shelter euthanasia is usually carried out unceremoniously. Not callously, but matter-of-factly. At least that’s how it was when I worked there, and probably most shelter workers still try to take it in stride, with as little sentimentality as possible, as if it’s another workday routine like washing food bowls and scooping dog poop. It’s necessary for their own survival. When you work around death every day you develop ways of shielding yourself as much as possible.
Not so with this angel. She doesn’t shield herself. By the time a dog is euthanized she’s often invested weeks or even months – walking him, training him, promoting him on her blog - trying to get him adopted. Most do get adopted, thankfully. When they don’t, it’s because there’s a health problem, a behavioral issue, some post-traumatic fallout from whatever circumstances landed the dog in a shelter in the first place. Then the woman who’d hoped to give them a new life resigns herself to giving the only thing she can: a gentle goodbye.
I don’t think I could do it.
Normally I roll my eyes a little bit when people say that. There’s a little tsk-tsk under my breath. People are wimpy, I tell myself. And that’s true, in a way.
I heard a talk by Dr. Robert Roop, a scholar on the subject of compassion fatigue, who acknowledges how often animal activists hear people say they just can’t get involved because it’s too hard. He agrees that most people couldn’t do animal rescue work. “Damn right,” he says, “Damned good people do damned hard work, because they have the heart.” People like to be protected from the hard stuff, but activists are cut from a different cloth; they’re willing to get involved when others only avert their eyes.
Perfect example: the volunteers with Compassion Project. They enter a Manhattan shelter in the evening, where they spend all night with dogs who will die in the morning. The dogs get playtime, a favorite toy, a special meal, a long walk – whatever makes them happy in their final hours. In a fair world, – a better shelter system, a more humane community – the dogs wouldn’t have to die for lack of adoptive homes. But if they’re going to die, we owe it to them to make sure they leave this life having known joy, play, affection.
The Compassion Project does important work, and if we owe it to the dogs, then somebody’s gotta do it. But I still don’t think I could do it.
Maybe I’m being wimpy like the people who shy away from virtually everything that’s sad and shameful and unfair. It is, after all, unbearably hard. But there’s another reason I’d have a really hard time sitting with condemned dogs. One of my friends had to do it recently, and I think I’d feel the way she felt: angry.
My friend does outreach to families with chained and neglected dogs. Like me, she tries to build fences to unchain the dogs, and then educate the family about appropriate dog care. Most of the time it helps a lot. But sometimes the families just aren’t up to the task. In one of my friend’s cases, the dog had spent years locked in a small, dank kennel covered in tarp and plywood, getting nothing more than an unreliable supply of water and cheap kibble. After months of patient persistence, my friend convinced the family to let the dog find a new home. We all celebrated.
The celebration turned to worry when even a professional trainer couldn’t manage the dog. Years of neglect, fear and isolation had traumatized him. There was no safe place to keep him. Having exhausted all options, my friend loved on him, gave him his special treats, and said goodbye.
Her anger turned to the family, and justifiably so. They sure didn’t care. They sure wouldn’t spend any sleepless nights grieving the dog’s death, doubting the decision, wondering if there could have been one more magic trick to try so the dog could be spared. In fact, they probably don’t even know the dog is dead. Essentially, they suffered no real consequences for what they’d done.
That’s why I couldn’t do this: the rescuer becomes a proxy, taking on the grief, the worry, the guilt that rightfully belong to the people who caused the problem. Meanwhile, the people who caused the problem can pretend the dog went to the shelter and lived happily ever after. Even worse, they’re free to get another dog and start the cycle again. It is such a serious injustice that I wouldn’t know how to contain my outrage day after day, year after year, suffering the consequences and watching dogs pay the ultimate price for people who couldn’t care less.
So this is something I ponder a lot: how to show irresponsible guardians the consequences for their actions. Every social change movement somehow has to convey the problem, show people the cost, and even exact a price that forces people to change. That’s how we got tougher drunk-driving penalties. That’s why recycling is usually free and trash disposal is more expensive. That’s the reason my dog license fee is half price because my dog is spayed. Communities decide which behaviors to punish and which ones to reward.
The author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tells of one innovative punishment in the war against human trafficking. Instead of punishing prostitutes – who usually got there through abuse, coercion, or desperation – some courts are going after the johns. Guys who buy sex like to think they’re commiting a victimless crime. Now, some of them are forced to attend a sort of diversion program where former prostitutes tell of the violence and intimidation that controlled them. The program makes johns confront the consequences of their wrongdoing, the suffering they caused, or the injustice they supported.
We have a long way to go, even in holding people accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted on other humans. Animals likely will be last on the list. Until then, I grieve for the animals who die for people’s irresponsibility or indifference. But now, just as much as that, I grieve for the angels of mercy who take someone else’s burden and do what the rest of us can’t bear to do.