No. “Zoothanasia” and “convenience euthanasia” should stop.
Should healthy animals be killed by zoo workers or veterinarians?
Many people are not aware of two practices in which healthy animals are killed. These are “management euthanasia,” practiced as standard operating procedure by some zoos, and “convenience euthanasia,” practiced by some veterinarians. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that so-called “management euthanasia,” usually carried out when a healthy individual animal can’t contribute to a zoo’s gene pool or a zoo needs more space for more captive residents, isn’t really euthanasia, or mercy-killing. Rather, this egregious practice, in which animals are slaughtered, is best called “zoothanasia,” and zoos should stop performing it immediately. (See “Zoos Shall Not Kill Healthy Animals: A Moral Imperative.”) People are surprised to learn that 1000s of healthy animals a year are killed in different zoos, and many to whom I spoke said it should really be called “profit-based management killing” or simply “murder.” (For details see “How many healthy animals do zoos put down?“) The Copenhagen zoo is infamous for killing healthy animals who don’t fit into their breeding program. In February 2014, they killed Marius, a two-year old giraffe, whose genes they couldn’t use and were publicly very proud of it. The huge amount of global criticism and shame from other zoos and numerous people didn’t deter them one bit from once again killing healthy individuals, and a month later, four lions including two cubs also were killed there. Marius was killed although another zoo offered to take him in and let him live. In January 2018, at Boras Djurpark, a Swedish zoo, nine “useless” lions cubs were killed. February 9 is World Zoothansia Day to honor and to call attention to animals needlessly killed by zoos. It’s high-time zoos stop practicing zoothansia and workers who are asked to perform it simply say “No.” (See also “It’s Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain,” “Zoos Shall Not Kill Healthy Animals: A Moral Imperative,” “Different Views on How to Make Zoos More Resident-Friendly,” “A Postzoo Future: Why Welfare Fails Animals in Zoos,” and references therein.)
What if veterinarians just said “No” to performing convenience euthanasia?
Now, I want to focus on convenience euthanasia, and although I use dogs as my main example, cats and other many companion animals often wind up being viewed and treated as disposable objects. (See also essays by Psychology Today writer, Jessica Pierce). Let me begin by stressing that I fully realize that saying “No” to a client asking that a veterinarian kill a healthy animal raises many challenging ethical questions. For example, what does a veterinarian say to a client who says something like, “If you don’t euthanize Jamie, I’ll stop feeding her and just let her go out on her own,” “Ok, if you won’t do it I’ll throw Abbott out of my car,” or “I’ll find someone else to do it?” I recently heard a story from someone who was incarcerated and learned that the people who said they would care for his beloved rescue dog decided they couldn’t handle the responsibility and had him euthanized. Years later, he remains heartbroken.
Among many thoughtful essays on “convenience euthanasia,” one by veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly called “Convenience Euthanasia: Hot Topic du Jour” caught my eye. In her piece we read, “It should be an oxymoron but unfortunately it’s not. Not, at least, in the reality of today’s veterinary medicine. ‘Convenience euthanasia’ is the term we use to describe the euthanasia of a healthy pet whose owner wishes to have him euthanized for personal reasons. Convenience euthanasia applies primarily to those cases where an owner presents himself/herself at your practice and gives a flimsy excuse for wanting their pet euthanized. The most common lines? I’m moving and I can’t take her with me. He’s too big so my wife no longer wants him. We have new furniture. I lost my job and I can’t afford to keep him. It’s my pet and I have a right to have it euthanized, right? (For more detailed discussions see Dr. Jessica Pierce’s The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives and Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets.)
Of course, it’s difficult to know what a human will actually do if a veterinarian says, “No,” I will not do this,” but the life of the individual companion animal is still at stake. I’m not a veterinarian, but I’m aware of the moral and other stresses to which many are subjected daily as they try to practice the best veterinary medicine possible and do the right thing for animals who really are suffering. (See “Veterinary Ethics: Life & Death Decisions in the Real World.”) [Update December 20: “CDC: Veterinarians at Higher Risk of Suicide“]
Of course, there would be stress involved either to saying “No” or “Yes.” Nonetheless, it’s fair to ask, “What if veterinarians just said ‘No’ to performing convenience euthanasia?” Someone asked me if I could find any data addressing what ultimately happened to healthy individual animals who were brought to a veterinarian to be euthanized and they said, “No, I won’t do that.” I couldn’t find any numbers, and perhaps these data aren’t all that important because each situation needs to be analyzed case-by-case. I also couldn’t find any information on whether or not these people eventually brought another companion animal into their homes. In Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do I wrote about a woman who was able to rescue dogs on eight different occasions, much to the dismay of others at a local dog park. Perhaps a registry naming those who ask for convenience euthanasia might help to reduce these sorts of requests. Another question that comes to mind is whether or not people should have to be somewhat “fluent in dog or cat” or literate about the behavior of the companion animal they chose to bring home before they are allowed to rescue or buy them? (See “Companion Animals: Ethology, Ethics, End-of-Life Decisions,” “Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?” and links therein.)
Is it too much to ask veterinarians to stop performing “convenience euthanasia?”
So, is it too much to ask veterinarians to stop performing “convenience euthanasia?” Making decisions about who lives and who dies often is heart wrenching. It’s seems that those who occasionally engage in convenient euthanasia would rather not. If I were a veterinarian, I would make it known that I do not perform convenience euthanasia. In her essay Dr. Khuly writes, “Having absorbed the traded barbs and occasional solid arguments in the recent flare-up of inter-vet tensions related to this topic, I think I have finally found a new solution to my dilemma. While I will still refuse the procedure, I will now take the opportunity to provide a little lecture. While, by nature, I’m not confrontational, I can be when pushed. I now consider each of these cases a great opportunity to practice control over my inner rage for a great cause. And while this may not help the pet in front of me, it might well improve things for the next pet this person takes on (or, hopefully, declines).” (My emphasis)
As The Year of the Dog comes to a close, asking difficult questions about the lives of dogs and other companion animals is most appropriate if we’re to give them the best lives possible. I look forward to more discussions about “convenience euthanasia,” a practice I would like to see stopped, and other topics that center on the well-being of nonhuman individuals who depend on us for everything, ranging from when and what they can eat to when they’re allowed exercise their bodies and their senses, pee, poop, play with friends, and rest, for example, to when their lives will end at our hands. We’re double-crossing them when we choose to welcome them into our homes, and hopefully into our hearts, and then let them down.
We are most fortunate to have dogs and other animals in our lives, and we must work for the day when they’re also most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it and it’ll be a win-win for all.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.