The Easy Path to No Kill
A Certified Euthanasia Technician (CET) recently talked to me about the euthanasia decision process at the shelter where she works. She described it as a choice made by various people at different levels in the organization, and without a structured approach as to exactly how or why it is to be chosen. She said it was a decision that could be made by the veterinarian, the shelter manager, any of the veterinary technicians or even the euthanasia technicians. In fact, she said it was commonplace for people in all of those positions to be making end-of-life decisions for pets. Furthermore, she said there was little or no guidance from senior leadership about basic things, like, for example, what alternatives are required to be explored prior to ending the life of a pet.
Many people I know are surprised to hear that an animal shelter would let a broad group of people make what is arguably one of the most important decisions at an animal shelter. They are even more surprised to learn there is little direction on how the decisions are made. It used to surprise me, too. It doesn't any more. In fact, it is rare if I ask an animal shelter to show me their Euthanasia Determination Protocol that they can actually produce one.
A Euthanasia Determination Protocol is one of dozens of standard operating protocols (SOPS) that shelters should have written down, trained their staff to follow and actually then enforced. I know that to many people, that sounds like "Management 101." But, the fact of the matter is many (most?) animal shelters either do not have these critical protocols written down. Or, they are written down, but not followed.
For many reasons, decentralized, unstructured euthanasia determination protocols don't work, because they leave no one person accountable for them. The following story is true and helps to make the point:
A new executive director was hired to reform a troubled animal shelter. The shelter had been in the press for wrongfully killing multiple family pets that had been brought in as stray animals, without holding them for the legally required hold period. The new director told staff that no animals were to be euthanized without her personal approval. She also told them that before requesting euthanasia for an animal, they needed to verify a number of things had been done, including contacting the shelter's rescue partners to see if any were willing to take the pets. They were also required to seek foster homes and other basic things you would expect from shelter staff.
The next day, staff came to her requesting to destroy several pets.
"Have you contacted our rescue partners?" she asked.
No. They had not. Had they looked for foster homes? No.
The new director required that staff contact the rescue partners, and within hours all of the pets were out of the shelter and safe.
The moral of this story is not that those were bad employees. Though it is true that some of them may have not been ideal candidates for their roles, the issue was with management and leadership. Historically, the euthanasia decisions were made by too broad of a group and without sufficient guidance or structure. This is far too common. Too often animal shelter Board members and even other executive staff will cite a general "trust in the staff" to "make those difficult decisions" without being able to articulate what is required to make them.
Furthermore, I like to say that the euthanasia determinations should rest entirely in the hands of the shelter director and no one else.
By centralizing and structuring the euthanasia determination protocol, discussions around euthanasia become objective and rational. Questions like, "was this part of the protocol followed" instead of "did so-and-so make the right decision."
In short, what I am saying is this: If you oversee an animal shelter in any capacity and you don't have a document that clearly describes your euthanasia determination process, and one that you would be happy to show to your most vocal critics, you have some work to do. The good news is that ensuring an organization has all of their SOPS in order and that they are being followed is easy. Typically, when they are in order, the outcomes speak for themselves. In short: the easiest and fastest path to No Kill is relatively simple with good management.