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Verner column: Way of death won’t change numbers

When it comes to the euthanasia of dogs and cats at animal shelters in North Carolina, is our motivation for achieving the gentlest death possible designed purely for the sake of the animals ó or are we also trying to buffer ourselves from some unpleasant realities?
No matter how kindly we kill them, about 5,500 dogs and cats are exterminated each year at the Rowan County Animal Shelter and trucked off to the landfill. For the state, the number is around 250,000. And for the United States as a whole, we euthanize 10 million unwanted animals each year.
Believe me, I understand the compassionate urge when it comes to easing our animal friends’ and companions’ passage into that good night. In the past two years, my wife and I have made this sad journey with a dog and cat, each beloved and longtime members of the family. And, yes, lethal injection was the chosen method of euthanasia. Weighed purely in terms of which offers a quicker and more peaceful death, I’ll grant that a heart-stopping shot of sodium pentobarbital is preferable to asphyxiation from carbon monoxide. I’d make that choice every time ó for my dog, for my cat, for myself.
But even if the N.C. legislature mandates lethal injection at all animal shelters in the state, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we’ve made some great stride in animal welfare or elevated ourselves as human beings. All we’re doing is tinkering with the machinery of death. The body count will be just as high, the trips to the landfill just as frequent, the end result the same. Our unwanted pet population will still constitute a furry killing field of appalling proportions.
Changing the machinery of death won’t yield a single additional pet adoption. It won’t provide funding for even one additional sterilization. It won’t take one additional starving stray off the street.
And it certainly won’t add an ounce of responsibility to the animal owners who make this mass extermination necessary in the first place. Unfortunately, there’s no injection that will suddenly instill conscience into the uncaring or bestow accountability on the neglectful. It will simply ease our collective consciences ó and in doing so, counter the very outcome we desire.
In fact, if we really want to increase pet adoptions and put more focus on spay and neuter programs, we shouldn’t change the method of execution. We should videotape the process and broadcast it on television. Some of you may recall that Guilford County Sheriff Billy Barnes did exactly that in 1998. Barnes became so disheartened by all the animals put to death at the county shelter, he videotaped a 4-year-old collie mix being euthanized and showed it on his cable-access show.
Bear in mind that, even a decade ago, Guilford was using lethal injection. So this supposedly was a peaceful death. The dog “swiftly crumpled over, its eyes closed,” one account said. Still, people were horrified. More importantly, they were motivated. According to newspaper accounts of that time, adoptions at the shelter tripled, and veterinarians reported a marked increase in inquiries about spaying and neutering.
“It was born out of frustration,” Barnes said then. “The only thing I wanted to do was let people in Guilford County know they’ve got to do better. I didn’t start out trying to be the poster child for spaying and neutering.”
Imagine what might happen if someone were bold enough to videotape the gas chamber scene at the shelter and air it on prime-time television ó not for the purpose of demonizing the gas chamber or those who must operate it, but to bear witness to the gruesome fact of what is occurring there and at hundreds of other shelters across the country every day. Whether we call it euthanasia or putting an animal to sleep, whether we do it with carbon monoxide or an intravenous chemical, we’re killing animals by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions.
And we’re doing it out of necessity because we can’t or won’t solve the real problem.
It’s not an either-or proposition, I realize. Many of those urging lethal injection are also staunch advocates for adoption, for low-cost spay-and-neuter programs, and for the kind of no-kill animal shelters that have found strong support in our own community. I’m not criticizing them in any way. Their efforts are worthy of all the moral and monetary support we can offer.
But in the debate over methods of euthanasia, let’s not be lulled into the false comfort that a different method of death really changes anything. It may ease our own minds and spare these poor creatures a few final moments of suffering in what has most likely been a thoroughly wretched existence, but that’s all. A better death is no substitute for a better life.
– – –
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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