As I (Henri Bianucci) entered the surgery treatment area, the tension was palpable. The attending veterinarian’s expression combined stress, sadness and resignation. The faces of his assistants were equally grim, clearly reflecting the desire to be elsewhere.
The only being in the room that looked happy was the subject of the situation: a 10-year-old cocker spaniel named Chuck. As he wiggled his chubby body onto a technician's lap, his little nub of a tail wagged, he licked her cheek with playful affection, and her eyes filled with tears. At the same time, the clinician relayed the owners wishes to his staff. “They are euthanizing him. They want him cremated, and do not want the ashes back.”
All of the elements seemed disconnected. The dog appeared to feel great, despite his injury. Everyone seemed to feel genuine affection and compassion for him, and he for them. We are animal health care specialists and Chuck's issue is completely within our capabilities to treat. The hospital is full of patients with much worse prognoses than his, yet we will provide them every available measure of treatment. We will be emotionally and professionally invested in their outcomes. We will lose sleep and commiserate with the families of those who don’t survive, and rejoice over the ones that do. But by some combination of circumstance, Chuck falls outside of all that. These same people are willing to accept that although treatment options exist, the course chosen for Chuck is euthanasia and incineration.
In the veterinarian's oath, we pledge to relieve animal suffering, yet we use live animals in experiments and teaching laboratories. It’s a paradoxical profession, and we learn and, to varying degrees, accept it from the start. A privileged set of animals will be well cared for, and receive medical care, and others will not be so lucky. The primary factors are whether someone cares for the animal and has the means to provide for it.
We aren’t exactly taught this, but the indirect messaging is there. We go from the teaching laboratories, in which live dogs are still used for instruction, and then euthanized, into the teaching hospital where pets are provided with medical care on par with human medicine. I suppose this prepares us for the realities of veterinary practice, and actually reflects the inconsistency of our relationship with animals as a society. We accept that dogs are a part of the family, and we can establish deep emotional bonds with them. Yet this same society accepts that the cats and dogs euthanized every year in shelters number in the millions.
It’s beyond the scope of this column to outline all of the things we could do to limit homeless pet euthanasia, but the fact that it happens on such a scale and it is accepted or willfully ignored helps to explain Charlie’s plight. We simply don’t value each dog or cat equally, but we should. They are all individual sentient beings with emotions, memories and feelings. It’s important that we see all of them that way to realize just how unacceptable it is for any animal to spend its life neglected, subjected to cruelty or euthanized alone in a shelter.
Chuck had a serious injury that his owners simply felt that they could not manage. They made a sad decision that many are forced to make every day. Whether its financial, physical, or any of life’s myriad limitations, sometimes continued care is no longer an option.
I can’t judge them for their decision. But now the choice was ours. We could assume responsibility, fix him and place him in a new home, or we could put him to “sleep.”
To me, not trying on Chuck would diminish the meaning of all that we do for our other patients because, ultimately, the reason would be that nobody was going to pay us for it.
Chuck was clearly a wonderful dog, who could be fixed. His importance should not be determined by whether he has a paying or otherwise capable sponsor. He deserved our efforts as much as any patient in the hospital.
So, we adopted him and spent the next three hours repairing his fracture. Contrary to what some believe, it’s not always “all about the money.” Chuck is now in foster care and expected to make a full recovery, as he awaits the opportunity to be someone's very special dog. That’s what it's all about.