Minimizing the Effect of Euthanasia on Staff

Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.

When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:

  • I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
  • I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
  • I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
  • I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
  • I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.

Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual.  The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff.  By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.

The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.

Hiring New Employees

You would think that having a love for animals would be sufficient to work in an animal shelter; however, much of the work we deal with involves working with people. A high school level of education is sufficient, but I have watched employees struggling with simple math.

I would suggest that you offer an examination that tests applicants on people and math skills. It is not necessary that a person loves animals to be in our field, they just need to appear that they love animals in all that they do.

I always told my staff that when dealing with a person, pretend that they are talking with the Mayor. When dealing with an animal, pretend that they are dealing with my pet.

No Room for Mistakes

This afternoon, I was reminded that as humans, we are susceptible to making mistakes.  Arriving home from a drive thru, I was shorted medium size tatter tots.  Most mistakes are innocuous and cause little or no harm.

One of the greatest stresses of running an animal shelter is that you’ve entered a profession that has little room for mistakes.  Mistakes can throw off drug counts, cause the over (or under) vaccination of an animal and can even cause the death of an animal.  You cannot “undo” many of the mistakes that are available to us in this profession.  As an old carpenter would tell you, “measure twice, cut once.”  It doesn’t hurt to have three eyes on everything that you do.

There is nothing worse that to accidently euthanize an owner’s pet.  For that reason, I would not allow any animal to be euthanized until I looked at the animal and checked it against our records.  We live in a business in which there exist so many similar looking animals, that you can NEVER be too careful.

Moral Obligations

With increasing pressure to maintain high release rates, many animal shelters will fail to report prior dog bites to prospective adopters.  This became such a problem in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a law had to be enacted to force shelters to come forward with an animal’s previous aggressive history.

I experienced this myself, working in Virginia, in which volunteers would attempt to bully me and my staff into ignoring the behaviors that we witnessed, so as to keep the animal on track for adoption.  Because I felt I had a higher calling to protect the public from aggressive animals, the volunteers pushed for my removal.

I am dumbfounded by the thought process that would hide such information from a perspective adopter.  Commonsense should have prevailed in warning a person about a pet’s previous behavior.  But, when it comes to saving animals, commonsense is not so common.  Animal Advocates believe that the life of an animal is a higher priority that the safety of a person, family, or the community.

I find it extremely troubling that it was necessary to force a moral obligation on animal shelters; however, I applaud the Commonwealth for making it necessary for shelters to do the right thing.  Think of the legal ramifications and potential loss of life if shelters were allowed to continue pushing aggressive animals to people.