Half-dead vs. All-Dead vs. Discomforted but Alive


Author’s Caution: This article is not for the faint of heart or part-time animal lover. It is rated R for adult situations, illusions to graphic violence, personal sorrow and the meaningless but avoidable death of healthy, normal animals.

In the movie, “Training Day”, Denzel Washington plays a very rough, bad cop who has a signature question for the various thugs and lowlifes he meets in the course of his day. “Do you want to go home or do you want to go to jail?” This simple dichotomy cuts through all the nonsense and the street-people know exactly what he means. I was once given a similar dichotomy to choose in an unexpected setting. “Would you rather half-kill a dog or kill it all the way? “

A long time ago I was a young man rapidly becoming a shelter manager. Once hired, I had a week to work with the former manager while the director was on vacation. The former manager was a kind, quiet, morose kind of fellow with some personal problems and an air of resigned sorrow. Consider his task. A big part of running a shelter is the warehousing and killing of perfectly healthy animals. The vast majority would make great pets. At one level this is no different than owning a factory where the majority of goods go to the landfill though they are perfectly formed and useful. The simple waste is enough to make you depressed. That these are living creatures adds another level of difficulty. Having to actually kill the animals, store them in a freezer and deliver them to a truck from the rendering plant escalates the issue to a life-changing level. Now teach someone to do that job in a week.

On the second day of my crash-course in shelter management a dog jumped up frantically on the manager – a common occurrence in a shelter. He brought his knee forward swiftly and blasted the dog in the chest. The dog instantly sat. The manager slipped out of the kennel and then slipped back in, again. The dog started to jump up again and the manager blasted him again. On the third repetition the dog sat instead of jumping. I am sure that my face revealed my emotional reaction at such harsh treatment in a place called a “humane” shelter. The manager’s comment was curious and dark to say the least.

“I would rather half-kill a dog to get it adopted than kill it all the way.” He said it with a hint of forlorn sorrow.

That was it. No fancy explanation. No long-winded philosophical justification. In the same matter-of-fact tone of a tough narcotics detective instantly knowing the fate of a meth addict. The shelter manager was speaking volumes with only a short sentence. He sensed that my emotional reaction was inescapably a criticism of his behavior. I couldn’t help it. It’s the same reaction that goes along with telling someone you spent years killing animals in shelters. “Oh, I could never do that” is invariably said with a subtle hint of repugnance and condescension that cannot help but offend. After all, people who destroy animals can’t possibly be animal lovers. Having experienced this delicate exchange hundreds of times in the last 25 years I have became educated about my long-ago faux pas, but only after I was the target.

In this case, the shelter manager was emotionally beyond all that. He didn’t even bother to Jeopardy-like phrase it as a question. He didn’t care what I thought. He’d been the butt of that exchange too many times. He was simply trying to prepare me for the reality of my new world, impossible though that might have been. Imagine the actual context of his comment. I was unintentionally questioning his morals, never having been faced with the real-world decisions he’d been making for several years. My bad. I hurt his feelings by grimacing when he blasted the dog in the chest. I did him an injustice. He was a kind, strong, emotionally drained human being – beaten down because of his love of animals and his strength to do humane things even if they were hard.

I am assuming that you are currently horrified by this casual and apparently calloused indifference to harsh treatment. Surprise! You have just found the conundrum of the humane movement and modern dog training at the same time. Humane workers do far worse to dogs than half-kill them – the really do kill them all the way. They also cause pain and fear in the process of rescuing and housing animals. I once pulled about 75 porcupine quills from a dog’s nose, sans anesthesia. He tried to bite us during the procedure and then licked our faces when we were done. Look up Androcles and the Lion from Aesop’s Fables for a similar tale. Aesop knew more about behavior than Dr. Phil.  Social animals are capable of experiencing tough situations and maintaining their good nature.

So I will take a moment to ask you the hard question – would you half-kill a dog to get it adopted or would you rather all-kill it? 1 This is not a hypothetical. You can warehouse dogs and not attempt to change their behavior all you want. The majority of shelters do. They are more humane than I ever was, apparently. However, that decision means the dogs in your care will go to the landfill. Period. Be forewarned that if you adopt out a dog with a behavior problem, it will likely be returned. Worse, it may be turned loose on the streets or simply taken to another shelter. Far worse, your shelter will get a reputation for adopting out dogs that can’t live with people – then you have to kill more dogs as your adoptions wane. Regardless, if you avoid fixing the problem because of some ethic or ideology you have not given the dog a better life, merely a slightly longer one.

It’s Not Necessarily All or Nothing:
If you are still up for some soul-searching questions, how about these? If you won’t go for ½ killing a dog, how about 1/10th? 1/20th? What if it wasn’t a percentage of killing the dog, but merely a matter of triggering a fearful reaction? i.e. What if you could stop a lethal behavior (jumping on potential adopters) and the only price to pay would be the dog being a little confused and cautious for a couple days? What if by inhibiting the behavior the dog actually came to love you more? (That is what happens, by the way. Dogs are social, group living animals who “suck up and get straight” when they are punished by someone in their group.) What if by scaring the dog it stopped doing the bad behavior and therefore had more time in its adoptive home to adapt to new rules? What if your action caused a life-time adoption?

Real as Real Can Be:

Now we come to Cindy. She was a high-school girl who cleaned the kennels and cattery on the weekends. One day, a very large Chesapeake jumped up on her as she entered his kennel to fill his water bucket. The kennels were housed in a WWII vintage building with sharp edges, exposed nails and all kinds of things OSHA would have considered dangerous. If you got knocked down in a kennel you stood a good chance of being injured. As the dog jumped up, I saw Cindy do what virtually all kennel people know how to do – she blasted him in the chest with her knee. If you have kennel experience you know what happened next. He hit the ground, hard. Then he rolled to his belly, spun around and shot forward toward the author of his discomfort. He got so close that his chest was touching her knees – that is because he was offering the prettiest sit I have ever seen, wagging his tail, furiously and gazing into her eyes. The next day, the dog was one of two that was adopted. The family said that he was the only dog in the kennel that didn’t try to jump up on them. Eight other dogs died. That mirrors the national average. Would your humane self have grimaced at Cindy’s solution or offered a “humane” non-punishment, non-solution. It might well have turned out that nine dogs died that morning instead of eight. Those are the rules in the humane business. You will never have perfect. You have to play the odds.

Just as the manager I replaced, I came to a decision regarding this question. I learned that it’s always a personal choice and that what I do or don’t do is not a reflection on anyone else. Besides, the humane movement is filled with people who prefer to all-kill dogs for behavioral reasons and yet put them through all kinds of hell for medical reasons. (That is a result of the philosophy of Cartesian Dualism. Descartes and those who follow his reasoning believe there are two sets of rules; one for the body and one for the mind.) So, think about it. Do you prefer death to discomfort for homeless animals? The death of an animal merely requires that you do nothing. Truly saving a life is often tough. If you are interested, I personally choose life – but I will not half-kill a dog to do it. I don’t have to. I created solutions that are less aversive than merely putting a dog in a shelter. Here’s an example. You will note that the dog wags its tail throughout the process of learning not to jump on people. It’s tough to claim this is abusive when the dog’s tail is wagging, but some people do. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGS1Kmiz66k


1You may not know that euthanasia is a euphemism. Sometimes the process of killing an animal is, to paraphrase W.T. Sherman, “all hell.” Meaning there is no guarantee that the death you offer any given dog is going to be good. That may be because the dog was poorly socialized or the dog likes to bite people. Sometimes it is really, really bad. Blood, poop and anal gland secretions are common. All the while you have to try to keep yourself from being hurt by an animal whose teeth are designed to slice through skin, flesh and sinew – usually for close to minimum wage. When this kind of “euthanasia” happens you harbor it when you go home. Even if it only happens once in a 100, it bothers you. In a high-volume shelter, 1:100 means every third day. Try that for a few years and see how your perspective changes.



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