By going vegan, I stopped indirectly killing animals. By working at a shelter, I started directly killing animals. These actions are not necessarily contradictory.
As a painfully shy kid who did not make friends easily, I wanted to always be surrounded by dogs and cats. As I got older and learned about the issues of cruelty, neglect, and pet overpopulation, I felt increasingly compelled to protect animals and began volunteering in shelters and fostering pets in my home.
After a about a year, the progression to vegetarianism felt natural. Why spend so much time and money to fix and re-home pets but support an industry that breeds animals just to kill them? Over time, I learned of the atrocities committed by the egg and dairy industries and, for my 2009 New Year's Resolution, went vegan.
It was then that everything intersected: my new cruelty free lifestyle, my work with homeless pets, and my career goals. At 24, I was tired of working at a bookstore and ready to commit my life to my passion. I started looking for work in animal care and ended up landing a job at a local Humane Society. I was apprehensive about working at what I knew to be a kill shelter, but the interviewer reassured me by saying that they only euthanized for behavioral or medical reasons and "never for time or space." The initial job description was basic; I'd be cleaning kennels, feeding, and walking dogs. Had I known then that accepting the position would mean I would end up taking life, I'm sure I would have walked away from the opportunity.
Gradually, I formed an emotional detachment from the animals that allowed me to maintain relationships with them but prevented the distraction of serious grief if they didn't make it to the adoption floor. The shelter was a scary place for animals who had only known one home and few people. I had a bad habit of falling in love with the fearful ones because earning their trust made me feel useful and special. Staff were given opportunities to train some of the dogs while others were deemed unsafe to adopt out. I got used to the euthanasia technicians coming to take my beloved charges.
A few months in, my boss requested that I witness a euthanasia. I watched nervously from the door of the room we called 218, giving myself the opportunity to abandon the experience if I couldn't stand it. There was a long haired tabby on the exam table. One technician held her gently on her side while another bent over her and injected a small amount of blue liquid into a vein in one of her back legs. The cat went from alert to lifeless in seconds. I couldn't believe how quickly and peacefully she passed.
I didn't have to shield myself from it anymore. Someone had told me that the people who didn't want to euthanize were precisely the ones who should be doing it. I didn't want to do it, but they would die with or without me there and I thought I could offer comfort in their final moments. I began practicing on anesthetized animals. It wasn't long before I was certified.
Occasionally, the paradox of loving animals but having to kill them struck me hard, typically over long weekends or vacations when I'd dread going back to work. Sometimes, I took solace in knowing that these animals didn't suffer throughout their lives like animals breed for human consumption. Sometimes, I would be bothered by our use of the term euthanasia, which means "the painless killing to end suffering." Some animals I brought home instead of into 218. Some days were more difficult than others.
Although mentally weighty, euthanasia was not a large part of my job. On any given day, I'd participate in anywhere from zero to ten procedures. When not in 218, I was vaccinating incoming animals or preparing others for adoption. As a whole, it was a fulfilling job and became more so once I was empowered to become an authority on cats. I found ways to make shy cats more comfortable at the shelter. I clicker-trained long time residents that had been overlooked for adoption. I researched adoption techniques for special needs cats and they worked. It was my boss's idea to give a feral juvenile named Emily free rein of the facility's garage. With play therapy and plenty of canned food, I managed to socialize her and adopt her out. Lisa, a pudgy cat who was known for spontaneously biting staff, needed more exercise and benefited from having her prey drive re-directed onto interactive toys.
As the shelter embraced cat enrichment, I spent less and less time in 218. Feline adoption rates increased so much that we started taking in cats from more burdened shelters in order to meet customer demand. I saw the shelter grow in all directions. Dogs, rabbits, and even rats were thriving like never before. Euthanasia did not end, but the practice became truer to its definition.
Shelter workers have been unfairly vilified for doing the dirty work that breeders, buyers, and indifferent pet owners create for them. The truth is, we all get into this line of work because of our love for animals. If you've been considering volunteering at your local shelter but are worried about their lack of no-kill status, please don't let that deter you.
Those animals need you most of all.