It happened to me for the first time when I was only a month into my first job as a newly minted veterinarian. There I was, flying solo on an overnight shift, unblocking the variously obstructed and ministering to the mysteriously urticarial. I was finally getting comfortable living the satisfyingly routine life of an ER doc when one fine night a cat owner claimed to offer me a “simple” problem: “I just need you to put him to sleep.”
This woman was the first in what proved to be a long line of similarly minded, morally challenged individuals seeking my services as executioner. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this crass breed: They’re the would-be pet owners who want little more than to tax our hard-won skills only as far as our way with a syringe-full of pink juice is concerned.
Interestingly, I’ve found suburban versions of this individual to be surprisingly uniform in a couple of ways:
1) They inevitably supply one or more reasons for taking such drastic action.
In this case, for example, the predominant complaint was that the cat urinated on everything and—sin of all sins—refused to live outdoors on her “cozy porch,” preferring to screech at the door to regain entry.
“I’ve tried absolutely everything to give him a good life outside, Doctor, and he simply does not want to enjoy his freedom.”(Now, why a cat would want to be let back into a household willing to do away with it is beyond me, but I’m given to understand that abusive relationships are complex beyond most uninitiated people’s ability to fathom.)
2) They almost always seem to seek some kind of professional absolution.
As in, “I know you’d feel the same way if you could walk in my shoes!” and “You have no idea how much we’ve suffered before arriving at this difficult decision.”
For this example’s elimination disorder patient the not-so-veiled assumption went like this: It’s not just your job to put my cat to death; you’ve got to make me feel better about my wanting to do it, too.
For the record, I tried my idealistic vet’s best to change this woman’s mind, then left her to stew in the exam room to reconsider her decision. (At this point in my career I still believed no sane human being would want to end the life of her perfectly lovable and impressively robust 2-year-old cat.)
In the end, however, she slipped out without settling her bill for my therapy session, leaving the cat behind in his box for good measure. That was the last time I ever tried to preach mercy to anyone dead-set on death.
After all, people who are willing to consider it seriously enough to bring their pets to the vet to have them executed are beyond my ability to fathom. What’s more, they threaten my ability to recruit any empathy in their favor because—let’s face it—they are the antithesis of veterinary medicine’s fundamental principles.
They represent our exact photonegative, the very darkest manifestation of our profession’s role in society.
What makes them think they can lay it on us, anyway? Why would we carry out their arbitrary sentences? To expect us to do so is not only an abuse of their dominion over animals, it’s a complete abdication of their responsibilities as pet owners and a maddening display of disrespect for our role of a sworn defender of animal life.
Sure, the above may sound unduly harsh and overly judgmental, but it’s my honest opinion that so-called “convenience euthanasia” puts our oaths on the line and sucks mightily on our souls.
Yet plenty of us cave to these situations routinely. Some among us won’t even bat an eye, referencing ubiquitous shelter realities and the incomparable cruelty of outright on-the-street abandonment, which I can understand to some extent.
Still, to my way of thinking, piss-ant problems like the one referenced above are no excuse for whipping out the Euthasol willy-nilly. Consider that if more of us refused to entertain such requests, the parties concerned would be more likely to experience the inconvenience of another trip and the stress of having to face the reality of shelter relinquishment.
Moreover, what does it say about a veterinarian who executes the healthy on demand, who delivers death “conveniently” upon request?
Watch Your Language
All of which is why an increasing number of us make a big distinction between the term “euthanasia,” a word that as you’ll recall stems from the Greek for “beautiful death,” and “killing,” one that confers no artificial niceties and means exactly what everyone thinks it does.
Unfortunately, our profession has condescended to devote diluted language to these transparently immoral calls for death. “Convenience euthanasia,” our profession’s preferred terminology, may not be pretty, but it’s still a far cry from the more appropriately caustic “selfish kill” that I’m more inclined to apply.
Such straightforward verbiage is preferable to veterinary sensibilities that decry those who would dispose of their animals on command.
To be sure, there are exceptions, as in the friend- and family-less elderly client who asks that you agree to euthanize his impressively geriatric pets when he passes. Then there are gray areas, as when your end-stage cancer-patient client wants her middle-aged and mildly healthcare-challenged dogs euthanized if they can’t be placed together in the same home after she dies.
Most of us would agree that even the gray areas are way different than the true, I-don’t-want-it-anymore scenarios.
But what about the most common version of convenience euthanasia? What about what happens in our municipal shelters every day in this country? Here, much though we’ve come to accept the term “euthanasia” for these instances, nothing less than killing for expedience is what’s taking place. After all, how can you call it euthanasia if it’s an ugly act born of one our culture’s most abject failures?
Not that killing animals in shelter settings is morally unjustifiable in all instances. Indeed, I don’t believe it is. But it’s killing nonetheless, and I’ll argue that processing our language to make it more palatable is helping no one but those who, like the cat owner in the example above, require absolution for their acts.
And it’s certainly not helping the animals who suffer from the heightened acceptability of their circumstances as a result of our mealy-mouthed, misleading vocabulary.
There really is nothing worse than the version of killing that owners demand of individual veterinarians. Do they think animals are disposable when they become inconvenient? Do they think veterinarians are there to A) do their bidding and B) pat them on the head for good measure?
Indeed, the whole concept disgusts me so much I can’t help but long for a time when to even advance the possibility of such a craven act out of convenience would be considered pariah-worthy, if not deserving of law enforcement action.
Until then, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with reading them the riot act and showing them the door. Which is undeniably where I went wrong all those years ago. Good thing it didn’t take me but that one time to learn my lesson.
Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Vetstreet.com.