"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
— St. Francis of Assisi
There’s a crisis at the Buncombe County Animal Shelter. There are animals there today that will be euthanized tomorrow unless someone adopts them. Most of them are sweet, loving dogs and cats who want to live and love someone and be loved, but they’ll be killed for the crime of being homeless. On a typical day, five to 10 animals are killed. We call it "euthanizing," but euthanizing means killing hopelessly sick or injured individuals to relieve suffering. And while some of these animals may fit that description, the biggest problem most of them have is that they’re homeless, and too few people are stepping forward to adopt them. Each year, about 2,000 dogs and cats are killed at our local shelter; nationwide, the death toll stands at 4 million to 5 million.
This is a tremendous improvement over the 10,000 that were killed each year before the Asheville Humane Society began managing the shelter about 20 years ago, and a great improvement over the 5,000 killed each year just five years ago. This progress is due to the tireless efforts of the Humane Society and groups such as Brother Wolf, the Animal Compassion Network and the Humane Alliance’s Spay/Neuter Clinic. Still, 2,000 a year is not acceptable.
We are all responsible for these animals’ deaths: not just the owner whose dog or cat has litter after litter, or those who abandon their animals, or landlords who ban pets, and certainly not just the shelters that do our killing for us.
Killing animals for "practical" reasons, or out of "necessity," is still killing. How arrogant we humans are, that we can imagine we have the right to decide whether a cat or dog should live or die. If they could understand us, would we explain to them that even though they’re full of love, curiosity and excitement for life and are eager to explore the world and meet new people every day, they can't do these things because no one wants them — so we’re going to kill them?
Dogs and cats may not understand abstractions such as politics or county budgets, but they do understand joy, fear, love, loyalty … and betrayal. Animals often have more emotional capacity than humans, and each has a unique, complex and individual personality. Yet across our nation, we kill them every day.
In a very real sense, these companion animals are our children. Through thousands of years of human-directed breeding, we’ve given them childlike qualities — they are loving, trusting, innocent, playful, and they rely wholly on us for protection. When we neglect them, when we kill them, we betray that trust — and, in so doing, we betray a part of our own humanity, killing a precious part of ourselves.
Movie sets often have an animal-rights representative on-site to ensure that no animal is harmed. Yet animals brought to a shelter drop into a black hole of secrecy from which many never emerge. We are able to live with this killing since we’re not the ones being killed. It’s a cruel irony that we should put our own Humane Society in the position of having to kill thousands of animals each year. If you wouldn’t kill a dog or cat, you shouldn’t expect a Humane Society staffer to do it for you. And it’s precisely for you that these animals are being killed — in your name, for your convenience and with your tax dollars. If these were our own pets, the killing wouldn’t be tolerated. If we can’t feel compassion for homeless cats and dogs in our own community, how can we be expected to have compassion for endangered wild animals or, for that matter, human beings suffering from famine or war?
We say we’re killing these animals so they won’t suffer, but it’s actually so we won’t have to see them suffer — and feel we should do something to help them. If you were hungry, would you want someone to decide they should kill you?
When pro football player Michael Vick killed his pit bulls for not performing well, it sparked a flood of outrage, but when dogs and cats are killed at animal shelters, there’s only silence. No one wants to look at it or talk about it, since there’s no apparent solution. But there is a solution: We can adopt these animals. Every animal adopted is a life saved, and I know from experience that even seemingly difficult cases are unique, feeling individuals who could be someone's most loving and loyal friend. Or they could be killed. We must take the responsibility for making that choice, since they cannot.
— Rusty Sivils, a former volunteer at the animal shelter, lives in Leicester. He invites comments from readers at 683-6859.