I work for an amazing animal welfare organization that operates an outstanding shelter and a state-of-the-art medical center. We are not contracted by a municipality, which means we aren't required by law to take in every stray off the street. Instead, in addition to assisting national organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS by taking in animals from hoarding situations, puppy mills, and natural disasters, we have the "luxury" of rescuing animals from neighboring "open" shelters that sadly run out of space for the never-ending population of homeless dogs and cats.
While we often take in dogs and cats with serious medical conditions and provide them with treatment that other shelters cannot, we regretfully but consciously pass over those whose temperaments make them, upon initial assessment, unadoptable or even downright dangerous. Our goal is to place as many homeless animals as possible...and for every animal who passes through our doors to find a loving forever home.
And that's what almost always happens. "Almost" always.
Every once in a while, animals--usually dogs--turn out to have "issues" that, despite considerable efforts by trained behavioral staff and volunteers, make them "unadoptable." The stories vary...from a starved, emaciated giant breed dog, who because of weakness and ill health initially seems sweet and submissive but after a regular diet and good medical care becomes dangerously aggressive, to a young stray who goes from smart, dominant, high-energy pup to smart, dominant, high-energy adult who despite daily exercise and interaction with staff and volunteers develops more and more inappropriate and risky behaviors as shelter life wears away at her psychological core. But the result is the same.
Believing that quality of life is of paramount importance, a committee including the shelter director and representatives of the adoptions, behavioral, and medical staff meets regularly to discuss our animals. If this caring and committed group of people--who know the animals well--decide that an animal is unsafe to place in a home and that continued life in the shelter would in itself be a form of cruelty, they make the incredibly difficult decision to humanely euthanize that animal. This decision is never, ever, made lightly. But it is always made with the animal's well being as the compass point and the sincere belief that as blogger Jessica Dolce wrote, "there are worse things than humane euthanasia."
I have come to know--and have photographed--animals that ended up being euthanized. Although I understand--and usually agree with--the decisions, I still feel a profound sense of grief at each animal's passing because I so want each and every shelter resident to get that second chance...to find their happily ever after. Sadly, unlike in fairy tales, such happy endings aren't universal.
The faces of these animals still haunt me, sometimes when I dream, sometimes at odd moments like when I'm driving down the highway...and I suspect they always will. I am often tempted to delete their images from my hard drive because they are painful to look at it. But that would do these animals a disservice. And, in a way, they are reminders of the enormity of the challenges facing us every day.
The world of animal rescue is not for the faint of heart. But it is a world worth living in--and being strong for--at least for me.