People make a thousand decisions every day, mostly about small things – what time to get up, what to have for breakfast, what to wear, whether to take route A or route B to work, none of them momentous. In general most folks aren't called upon to make determinations about life and death, and wouldn’t be able to do so if asked. How do you determine whether someone or something lives or dies? What set of criteria would be thorough enough to ensure that you made the best possible decision, because you can believe me when I tell you that there is no “right” decision. You can only hope to make the decision leading to the least of the bad outcomes.
My friends and I run a dog rescue group and make life decisions every day, decisions that literally mean life or death for another living creature. That it’s dogs rather than people doesn’t make the decision making any easier. We get at least one phone call or email a day from a shelter, another rescue group, or an owner about a dog needing a home. The reasons these dogs need new homes are myriad but it all boils down to one thing: a human got a dog they don’t know how to handle, no longer want or are able to care for, and want to get rid of, usually immediately.
There are six of us running the rescue so the work is spread around, but we always try to reach a consensus about whether we are taking a dog or not, knowing full well that if we don’t the dog will more than likely be taken to a shelter, turned loose to fend for itself, shot (which happens a lot in the rural areas), or euthanized. “Euthanized” and “put to sleep” are terms that are supposed to sound kinder or more clinical and maybe provide some intellectual distance from the act of killing an animal just because no one wants it. They don’t. Every time we have to make the decision about whether or not we can take a dog in, we know it could mean the difference between whether that dog lives or dies. If we take it, then it’s got a chance at a better life and there is more room in the shelter for another dog to use, thereby giving two dogs a chance at a new life.
It’s particularly hard when one of us has had to go see the dog in person to determine if we can take it. If we can, great and everyone is happy. If not, we then have a face and a name to put with the memory of the shelter staff leading the dog away to the back room. It’s why I don’t go to shelters any more and why I have four dogs. I couldn’t stand to leave a dog there knowing that it will die. Everyone I know who does rescue work for any kind of animal has a houseful of critters for the very same reason. If we don’t take it the odds of the dog being adopted out to a good home are small because no matter what you hear on the news, shelters still euthanize more animals than they place.
It’s easy to reach the point of burn-out doing rescue work. In fact there’s a clinical term for it: “compassion fatigue.” Rescue workers of every stripe get it whether they work for the Red Cross saving humans or for the local hamster rescue. It’s another one of those kinder-gentler terms, one that still means your brain and emotions are totally fried from dealing with the constant influx of dogs, juggling foster homes and kennel spaces, transport arrangements, and the stress of making decisions we know could result in the death of another living, breathing creature. Decisions that have to be made quickly and sometimes with little information. That we do it all the time makes it no easier. I’ve had people tell me “It’s just a dog.” That doesn’t make it any easier either.
Yet, we continue to do rescue work because we believe that it’s the right thing to do and, when everything falls in to place properly, there IS a happy ending. It’s those days we all strive to reach. Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. We’re all waiting and working for the day when people here reach that point and the decisions we make on a daily basis are no longer necessary. I think we may be waiting a long time.
Kim Harmeling lives in the Cascade foothills with her husband and as many dogs as he’ll let her adopt. Sometimes she writes something worthwhile, hopeful someone will be interested enough to read it.