NOTE: I make reference to two graphic rescue scenarios in this post as illustrative points in a larger discussion (no images). I will place them in italics so you may skim past if you are sensitive and would just prefer to read about the issues here without the examples.
I know a lot of Dog People. I happen to be one myself, without any sense of shame or embarrassment about my devotion. Dogs bring out the best in me, eliciting patience, compassion, creativity, playfulness and humor in a way that people simply do not (at least with the amazing consistency with which dogs do it). They teach me, enchant me, challenge me and amuse me. Simple as that. I, and my life, are better for their company.
Being ever more involved in rescue, and seeing the inner workings and emotional landscape of the rescue community (admittedly painting with a broad brush here), I also see places where I diverge from the current zeitgeist. I only say this in the most private of backroom conversations, but I am willing to out myself here on the blog as being not quite as far out on the “No Kill” continuum as many of the rescue folks I know. (That does not mean I am pro-kill. It just means I ask a lot of questions and I admit to more gray than I hear people willing to talk about in a public forum.)
I have very concrete reasons for this, not the least of which is a decade of working as a pain management therapist. I’ve worked with humans who can talk, in no uncertain terms, about the suffering they endure on a daily basis related to damage from injuries that look like stubbed toes compared to what I have seen rescued animals endure. The difference is, animals express pain very differently than people do and I strongly believe people are for the most part blind to its presence unless the animal is howling, writhing or displaying very overt signs.
You can see it happen all the time online. Take an obviously injured animal, of any degree, and add a wagging tail and a face lick from a dog and everyone rejoices,
“They still have their spirit!!”
And the dollars flow. As do prayers and well wishes and Facebook followers and everything else that viral stories bring. We are Americans. We love our underdogs and stories of triumph inspire us. That is not a bad thing. But it can be a slippery slope if we let our hearts cloud our eyes too much.
I watched my own father keep a dog with severe hip dysplasia, who fell all the time in heartbreaking fashion, alive for a very long time because ‘she had heart’. I KNOW that it is hard to determine where the line is. The bond between them was very strong.
And the surge of emotion for rescue animals is very real, as is the desire to help them.
Don’t get me wrong. That outpouring of resources is beautiful to see, but let’s not assume that the situation is simple or that there are not a lot of hard questions that have to be asked.
I will offer two examples that are admittedly dramatic. My intention is not to shock you but to encourage you to think about what due diligence is when you work in rescue. Not just medical due diligence but also your own internal due diligence.
Example #1: Viral donation efforts rally to the cause of a kitten who was beaten mercilessly by kids tossing her up like a ball and using her for batting practice. The bruising was considerable but there was very little public discussion about internal damage, let alone brain damage, on the social media threads because…kitten. Everyone on the thread just knew that kitten deserved to live and be loved. That was the public discussion.
Example #2: A dog has eaten off his own back legs and his tail. His back end is raw and urine burned because he must scoot through his own excrement, utterly lacking his back legs. Despite the horrific situation, he is all wiggles and licks, and is being fitted for a cart so he can one day race around. The fact that he is even alive is a miracle, so with a will like that, it is easy to see why social media support is exceptionally high.
PLEASE BE CLEAR: I want you to consider what such cases mean to YOU. I cannot speak to what happened behind the scenes (or is happening) on either of these animals, not will I suggest that due diligence is not being done on their behalf. Their extreme nature is what is relevant to my point here because stories like this touch all of us. They go viral for a reason.
Here I will speak to what I see unfold on social media on cases like these that garner a lot of attention and commentary, and in the conversations I have heard springing up around them.
There is often a lack of overt discussion about the full impact of the damage animals subjected to blunt trauma, such as the kitten above, have not only in nerve damage, but also brain damage. For the dog in this example, I don’t see any reference to his having the possibility of phantom limb pain, for example, which in humans can be just as debilitating as pain in a limb that is still present. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for helping him but I haven’t seen anyone publicly ask whether he wants to live this way. Not having legs is a considerable degree of disability. I know asking those kinds of questions can get people really upset so it is no surprise that you won’t see this on viral posts. Again, this does not mean to suggest that he should not have been saved, or that he is unduly suffering.
That being said, I know from human pain management experience that we don’t have a machine that measures pain and we never will because pain is a subjective experience. Assessing pain in another being (of any species) is exceptionally difficult. I’ve known many human amputees and spinal cord injured individuals who present an exceedingly positive face to the world but who privately confessed to chronic pain conditions that significantly impact their quality of life.
I know a dog who had reconstructive surgery with vets stating strongly that she was not experiencing pain. Months later, despite running around like a nut and appearing ‘fine’, she developed almost seizure-like episodes that were later attributed to what is now believed to be extraordinarily high levels of pain.
We sometimes forget what we don’t know. Behavioral observations can be deceiving. Vets are not necessarily any more accurate than human physician’s at assessing pain, let alone resultant suffering.
Why am I concerned about the public discussions as seen on social media? Because they can make things look a lot simpler than they are and they can actually dissuade people from tackling difficult situations head on for fear of social ostracism.
I’ve had rescue people tell me that the do not ask questions about things like whether it is better to save one dog or ten for the resources used within their own rescue groups because they don’t want to ‘sound like an asshole’. I hear that quite a bit, actually. People afraid to admit that they don’t always know how to navigate those gray areas. People afraid to say they don’t know how to make certain tough decisions, even if they have the emotional strength to do so. People afraid to ask questions to help them figure out where they stand on important issues which face every rescue.
It is a simple fact. The decisions we make for animals will ALWAYS be best guesses. We will ALWAYS be standing on one side of a bridge that we cannot ever truly cross. We have to acknowledge that.
Let’s assume in both these cases above that every effort to accurately assess the situation is being done behind the scenes. Let’s say that the teams in charge of determining the right course of action are doing a pretty good job of it (in that parallel universe where we can know those things with certainty). Let’s span out now that you have a couple examples in mind.
Think about how YOU would make decisions when faced with severely traumatized animals. How do you determine acceptable level of disability for an animal? How would you know if you were making the right decision? How would having a decision like this placed before you affect you emotionally and how would that affect your decision making process?
If you are part of a rescue team already, how do you imagine the conversations would go on how much to do, what resources to devote, how to know whether you are doing what is truly in the animal’s best interest? What questions are safe to ask? Which are not? How does your group navigate gray areas?
It would be a lot easier if I didn’t write them here, believe me. BUT if we don’t ask them, we do each other a disservice. When we don’t have those discussions, or share our thoughts and wrestlings, we can inadvertently communicate that this should be easy. All animals deserve a second chance at life, end of story. That IS the overt social media narrative.
Of course, you could simply say, “Our rescue would not take on certain cases. We are just going to stick to what we know we can handle and focus on that” Okay, fair enough. But what if you have a situation like these that is actually an adoption return? What if the animal already WAS yours and you got it back? It is a rare case, but one I have seen play out in several different rescues. Just as rescuers do the best they can to assess their animals needs and provide for them correctly, they also do their best to assess the fitness of potential adopters. Sometimes things get missed. Rescuers are humans with big hearts but they are not omniscient. This can keep rescuers up at night.
This is why it is so critical that rescue workers know themselves exceptionally well. That public discussion DOES influence our private thoughts. Our self-esteem, our self-confidence when making tough decisions can all be affected. The responsible animal welfare worker MUST ask in animal rescue efforts where heroic measures are called for, whether there is a point where the animal’s need has fallen second to the intense (though well-intended) desire on the part of rescuers to rescuer.
Entire movements have sprung up around dogs who have become iconic due to the severity of their injuries or the discovery that they were terminally ill. This can be dangerously seductive for rescue groups looking on who see the following, donations and media response that results and see a growth opportunity for their own organizations. This is NOT to imply nefarious intent. But intense emotional online support, jumps in followers and freely flowing resources along with animals that touch that part of us that represents the very reason people go in to rescue…that is not neutral. It’s potent psychological stuff on many levels.
Again, this is not to accuse anyone of malintent. Rescues struggle to garner resources so that they can save animals. High profile cases help bring in those resources. And yes, some people do get hooked by the Big Save. I have heard this directly from many a rescue person. It’s like rescuing shih tzu puppies doesn’t really count…it’s not really rescue in the same way that rescuing a bait dog is. There is psychological pressure on so many levels in rescue it can make keeping ones sense of center VERY hard to do.
Here is something that might help…two things actually.
First, let’s look at the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, initially developed in the UK in the 1960’s and now held as the standard for animal welfare worldwide:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
This is a good litmus test and these are valid points for discussion. To avoid discussion is to rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn how to deal with the complexities of life and death. In the insecurity that goes with the guess work we must necessarily do, we can sometimes retreat into a simpler narrative. We are ‘No Kill’, period. We risk placing issues of quality of life below our own need to know that we have saved a dog from death, which we have somehow decided is Enemy #1. Is euthanasia really that? Always?
Just go back to this list every once in a while and make sure you feel really confident that you haven’t lost sight of these, even if that means you are going to have to face a hard decision. This is not about being pro-death, it is about being pro-discussion. It’s about trying to remember what we do know and what we only think we know. It’s about staying open and alert to any signs that might tell us when a situation is changing. It’s about keeping an eye on that sometimes moving target of what the ‘right thing’ to do is. Of what it means to be good and who defines that.
If this sounds hard…of course it is! Don’t feel bad about it being jumbled in your head. Rescue is messy. Humans are messy. Animals can serve as magnifying lenses for our internal (and inter-organizational) struggles.
People sometimes avoid messy things, especially when they think talking about them is dangerous or blasphemous.
Animals can be confusing. Profound suffering can take place even in the middle of belly rubs. My cat purred in my lap all morning the day the vet told me he was seriously ill and to delay euthanasia would soon place him in a very profound state of suffering. We are forever weighing what we do know against what we don’t.
But just as most people will admit to wanting the right to be self-determining in the degree of suffering they will endure (as evidenced my medical Advance Directives and Do Not Resuscitate orders), we need to consider animals may wish for the same.
But that line is admittedly extremely fuzzy. Suffering is subjective. Humans can barely relate to each other’s suffering.
Bridging a species gap? How do we even begin to do that?
Even the Five Freedoms outlined above are a human construct based on what we think the minimal requirements are for animals to have a sense of well being.
It’s a good list, but it is OUR list.
I won’t claim to have deeper insight into the suffering of any animals than anyone else. I just know that we are always estimating. I’ve seen estimates sometimes be off…by a lot. I can’t tell you how to navigate all that, but I DO know this:
We need to know ourselves and what the animal bond means to each of us as individuals.
Our self knowledge is a critical component in determining our effectiveness in animal rescue.
And that brings me to the second thing that might help you navigate these waters…
Do yourself a HUGE favor and pick up the book, Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp. It was published in 1998, so I’ll bet you can pick up a used copy for not much money. (Not that I don’t want the author to sell new books but I know rescue folks tend to not have a lot of money.)
Knapp does a laudable job of discussing the complexities of the human animal bond, specifically focusing on dogs in this book. From comparing to past generations and how dogs fit (or didn’t) into our families, to the current trends of including them with increasing intimate relationships with us, there is much food for thought. Knapp is very open in her discussion and lays out scenarios that I am sure will have many of your shaking your head as the mirror is held up for your contemplation. With compassion and openness, she invites us to consider our human selves, with our messy huge hearts, complicated psyches and our endless wrestling with all things in that area called “Gray.”
I highly recommend this book to all who rescue as well as to those who find themselves occasionally surprised by the strength of the attachments they feel to their adopted pets. It offers excellent food for thought that it would do us all a world of good to digest for the sake of the animals whose quality of life depends so heavily on the quality of what WE bring to the table.