Euthanasia: A sensitive topic

Euthanasia: A sensitive topic


Having worked in humane societies both in Singapore and Australia for a good decade, and having euthanized countless animals even to date, I have finally decided, as a vet and a conservationist, to put pen to paper to dispel some of the myths, allay some of the fears and indeed, challenge some of the values and misconceptions surrounding euthanasia.

I am of the opinion that in our day and age, euthanasia is a barbaric solution to a problem that has its roots in human selfishness, irresponsibility and indifference, and having said that, working towards a more humane and rational solution is the only alternative- beginning from the premise that preservation of life should always be the primary consideration over destruction of life.

Methods of Euthanasia

Webster’s defines euthanasia as an ‘act or practice of killing individuals who are incurably ill or injured, for reasons of mercy’. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition is ‘a gentle and easy death: bringing about of this especially in the case of incurable and painful disease.’

Accordingly, a method for euthanasia should fulfil the following criteria. It should:

  1. Be humane or unassociated with pain, fright, discomfort such as struggling, muscular spasms, duress, or crying
  2. Be safe for attending personnel
  3. Be easy to perform
  4. Be rapid in action
  5. Be economical to use
  6. Not produce changes in tissues which might camouflage findings or recropsy
  7. Be efficient or irreversible

(Ref: Clifford, Donald. Textbook of Veterinary Anaesthesia)

Euthanasia or ‘putting to sleep’, is a sugar-coated term replaceable by killing, termination or slaughter, should never be taken lightly or treated on the same level as an alternative, (to other options).

Killing an animal should be treated with gravity and should only be considered when all other options are exhausted, especially in the case of ‘healthy’ animals. Even when an animal is sick and euthanasia is recommended, people should seek a second opinion in order to satisfy the fact that there are no other viable options.

Euthanasia is not a breezy alternative, it is an end in itself. Preservation of life is a strong instinct in all animals and no animal, unless in severe mental and physical debilitation, will readily succumb and accept it. Because science has made it so easy and painless, often it becomes a ‘thoughtless option’, undermining the fact that it is still a wanton action of the destruction of life- a life that carries all the potential of love, emotions, and a lifetime of experience that will always remain a part of the living world.

When we make a choice for animals, we are sentencing them to a finality of no return- a choice they have not been consulted on. What would happen if we asked them and they could speak? (What reply do you think you would get?)

When one concedes to the option of euthanasia, one is in effect betraying the animals’ trust. We are no longer treating animals as our companions and friends. We are assuming that we own the animal’s life and hence, are at liberty to take it away at our own time and choice.

Some of the reasons cited for the option of euthanasia are as follows:

  1. Social-competing for same space and food.
  2. Economic-overproduction of livestock: Oversupply of companion animals, cant afford to keep or treat them.
  3. Religious-sacrifice, religious scorn.
  4. Medical-incurable disease, source of zoonoses.
  5. Fashion-coats, breed standards (e.g. white boxer puppies are destroyed at birth).
  6. Custom, culture-certain species are regarded as noxious
  7. Arroogance-selfishness when we assert that we alone are capable, an attitude of ownership and lordship that renders the philosophy of the SPCA redundant- and when we cannot, the animal must die!
  8. Food
  9. No reason

Very often pain is cited as good excuse for euthanasia even when the pain is transient and the animal has a good chance of returning to a normal life. Pain is first of all very subjective- a bitch in labor experiences pain; do we euthanise her? The degree of pain depends on species, background, genetics, extent of injury. To say that excessive pain calls for euthanasia is, to say the least unqualified and dangerous. For many modernists, pain has no value and the experience of pain is not necessary; whereas nature has instilled pain as a necessary response to protect the animal and to also act as a learning mechanism.

As a veterinarian who performs countless cases of euthanasia, it must be said that yes, it is easy to slip into the danger of being callous but what saves us from ourselves and allows us to remain in the realm of humanity is to constantly remind ourselves that the procedure is a terminal one; we are ending life. There is no return and if we do not treasure life, then we are in the wrong profession and the wrong world. All euthanasia cases must first be properly evaluated and if other less drastic options are available, they must be pursued.

We live in terrible times when life is cheap; we barter and trade in life and extinguish it as easily as we extinguish our cigarettes, be it animal or human.

Life-all life-is the only precious commodity that gives a rich vibrant quality indescribably beautiful to an otherwise inanimate impassioned world. (Look at a toy dog and compare it with a living puppy and you will know what I mean).

Unfortunately for many of us, because we do not perform the destruction, we do not also share in the responsibility and the vet or euthanasia personnel or lethalizer alone carries the burden of this act.

The true beauty and magnificence of life is not realized until the day when our own life is threatened and we experience this ache for and desperation to be given a new lease. Alas, for many, it is a realization too late.

This article is to be read with a reassuring mind and not meant to declare that there are no justifications for euthanasia but that it should not be taken lightly, and the decision to euthanize an animal should be exercised with great deliberation and concern. Personally, I will continue to seek other options and alternatives, where possible, paying special attention to my own motives in the process.

I hope this article has the desired effect to inform, challenge and help us look once again at our value systems and to speed us towards trying to achieve those goals when the excess destruction of animals, especially healthy ones, becomes increasingly diminished through education, care, and concern and the philosophy propounded by the SPCA.

Article Credits: Euthanasia by Dr Jean-Paul Ly April/May 1991 SPCA Bulletin

Image Credits: Pexels

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