A lingering, unsettled question which keeps arising in the various discussions of California AB 1634 (mandatory spay and neuter bill)* involves the ethics of animal euthanasia.
This goes to the very heart of the debate, because preventing animal euthanasia is the bill’s central goal. Whether anyone agrees or disagrees that there is a “dog overpopulation” problem (and I disagree vehemently), the bill’s proponents define and measure overpopulation by one statistic:
The number of dogs (and cats) which are euthanized at animal shelters.
Yet the California statistics show a steady and dramatic decline in dog euthanasia (despite an ever-growing human population). Why then, is the claim made now that there is an overpopulation crisis?
I think that the reason has less to do with overpopulation than with a dramatic shift in attitudes towards euthanasia — especially by the animal control personnel, and especially in recent years.
Why would attitudes towards animal euthanasia in California have changed so dramatically in the past few years?
A primary reason seems to have been the Hayden bill which the legislature passed in 1998, and Governor Pete Wilson signed. During the arguments for and against the bill, animal shelter workers faced criticism as heartless killers — to which they responded that they took no pleasure in this unpleasant task. Regardless of the truth of these allegations, the intent of the legislation was to transform animal shelters as much as possible from places of killing to places of adoption, by means of state-mandated holding periods, as well as directives that whenever possible, animals be given to various “no kill” rescue agencies:

The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights further argued that the longer holding periods would shift the focus of animal control facilities from capturing and killing to more responsible care and increased adoptions (California Assembly).

As might be expected, the Hayden law caused dramatic increases in operating costs in animal shelters, as well as increased kennel overcrowding because of the required holding periods. Moreover, even animals which were otherwise unadoptable or diseased (and which would previously have been euthanized earlier) now have to be held, given treatment — even if the staff all know they are doomed:

Severe overcrowding has been the most visible problem resulting from the passage of this bill, especially in larger cities. Cage space is at a premium because all animals who are not suffering from irremedial injury or illness, including those who are too aggressive or wild to be adopted, have to be held for three, four or six days–depending on the type of animal and the specific shelter–before they can be deemed untreatable and euthanized (Food. & Agricultural Code ยงยง31108, 31752, 31752.2).

Even obviously feral animals have to now be held:

Another common critique of the holding periods is that they cause suffering for animals such as the maladjusted, frightened pet or the fearful feral animals that have to be held for at least three days but will never be considered adoptable (Morrison, 1999). Not only does having to hold those animals mean using cage space that another, adoptable animal could have occupied, it also means placing the animal in a very stressful situation only to be euthanized later.

What I find most interesting, though, is the bill’s stated goal of ending euthanasia by 2010:

The California sheltering community is united in its agreement with the overall goal to end the euthanasia of “adoptable” and “treatable” animals by the year 2010.

With that as a goal, little wonder that right now there’d be a huge push for new legislation.
But, laudable as the goal of ending euthanasia might be, should that be allowed to bootstrap the push to end euthanasia into a claim that there is an overpopulation crisis?
Once again, I think that the evidence is overwhelming that the goal of AB 1634 is to relieve animal control worker stress.
They simply don’t like euthanasia.
And who could blame them? As I explained, I fully sympathize, as I can think of few things in recent years more stressful than euthanizing my dog Puff. However, having gone through that experience, if a friend or a neighbor couldn’t face the prospect of doing it and asked me to help (say, by driving his pet to the veterinarian for the fatal shot), I’d help out. It would be far, far, easier than participating in the death of my own dog, because the less I knew the animal, the less emotional attachment I’d have, and the easier it would be to help.
Now, I’m not accusing animal control workers of being cruel, or callused, or heartless (and how could I look into their hearts?), but common sense suggests to me that their position would in general be far more analogous to my taking the neighbor’s dog to the vet than tearfully holding my own dying dog. Perhaps even less so, because I know my neighbors and am at least familiar with their dogs whereas the animal control workers are dealing with dogs belonging to strangers.
Familiarity is the key here; the more familiarity, the more pain. More than once I have heard people who grew up on farms tell me that there were rules against too much familiarity with animals doomed to be slaughtered.
Like “Never name the pigs!” Why? Because, by naming animals, and by getting to know them, you develop an attachment to them.
I’m wondering (just wondering), might the Hayden bill be a primary cause of the increase in stress among animal workers? Surely, something has to explain why a decrease in the euthanasia rate would be accompanied by the shrillest claim of “overpopulation” in recent memory. I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me that the longer you care for an animal, the more stressful euthanasia would become. Might the state-mandated emphasis on adoptions, on rescues, on ending euthanasia be factors contributing to animal worker stress?
It certainly looks that way.
Anyway, considering the amount of time I have spent contemplating the stress on animal shelter employees, isn’t it fair to take a look at the animals themselves?
After all, animals are what this is supposed to be about, right?
Using my dog Puff as an example familiar to me, even if I engage in the most extreme anthropomorphic projection imaginable, there is no way that I could make the claim that Puff, intelligent and sensitive dog though he was, could possibly have been aware what it meant to euthanize him. I was sitting right there, and the dog had been experiencing regular pain and discomfort, and I’ll never forget how happy he was when that shot tranquilized him. He wagged his tail and just went to sleep. There was no awareness of death at all. I was the one experiencing that — and it was all on his behalf. I was stressed (and extremely so), whereas Puff’s stress had come to an end.
From where derives the burgeoning idea that a death like that constitutes animal cruelty? It might be people cruelty for those who are present, but even if I search within the depths of my soul, there is no way I can imagine it to be animal cruelty.
But let me back up, to when Puff was a young and healthy dog in the prime of his life, say, when he was four years old. Of course I would never have euthanized him, but let’s assume that he’d taken off chasing a bitch in heat or something (this never happened, as I didn’t allow him to roam, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible), and let’s assume that he managed to get totally lost and was picked up by a stranger or something, and later found himself in an outlying jurisdiction many miles away only to be turned in by some kind-hearted person to a local animal control shelter. Naturally, I’d have spent all my time looking in local shelters, and it might occur to me to put posters up. (I had a dog stolen years ago, and I got him back that way.) Assume the holding period in the shelter wherever Puff was passed, and that they had a policy against adopting out “pit bulls.” Or suppose he had eaten an indigestible object which lodged in his gut, causing a massive blockage only curable by expensive abdominal surgery. (Such things happen all the time.)
So anyway, there’s poor Puff, aged four, facing a lethal injection, without his master there to save him. (Again, horrible as it sounds, these things happen all the time.) Puff would have had no more awareness at that age than he did a decade later. Again, the pain and stress would have all been mine, and possibly, that of the animal control workers. To the extent Puff would have been stressed, it would have been during the holding period before his death. As I raised him from a puppy, and he grew up with his father and grandmother, his real stress would most likely have been wanting to find his way back home to familiar surroundings, so even if he’d been adopted out to a new owner, he might have wanted to escape. So it’s arguable that depending on the circumstances, euthanasia might have been less stressful for Puff even than an adoption.
I say this because I’m wondering about the philosophical objections to animal euthanasia. Aside from the stress to the people who perform the euthanasia (and the owner of the animal), I find myself wholly unable to find any legitimate moral or philosophical objections.
However, there is a term called “convenience euthanasia” which is floating around, and it’s examined by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association:

Pets are occasionally presented to veterinarians for “convenience euthanasia.” The following are examples of reasons given for euthanasia: A new roommate is allergic to the pet, a new apartment does not allow pets. Veterinarians have been known to find new homes for these animals without notifying the original owners. Is convenience euthanasia a welfare issue, an ethical issue, or neither?

There are various ways to approach this issue. The most obvious is by asking the question if death harms an animal. Clearly, inflicting pain causes harm and, thus, raises ethical questions. On the other hand, would killing an animal painlessly, albeit prematurely, constitute harm? On one view, which I and others have defended, it does not appear that animals possess the cognitive ability (lacking language) to grasp either the concept of life or the concept of death. It is hard to imagine, therefore, that in lacking this idea of life and its end, animals value life in itself. Therefore, I have argued that an animal cannot choose to trade off current pain and suffering (say from cancer treatment) for future life, as people do; thus, we must think seriously about causing them suffering, since for them there is, as it were, no light at the end of the tunnel.
On the other hand, other philosophers, such as Steve Sapontzis, have argued that one does cause harm to an animal even by killing it painlessly, since one is forestalling its future pleasures. This may indeed inform our commonsense moral intuition that even painless euthanasia is wrong when a healthy animal is killed for convenience, when we have every reason to believe that it could have enjoyed a happy life had it lived. Other philosophers respond that the notion of possible future pleasure is too obscure to be helpful.
In my view, one need not decide between these competing theories to firmly conclude that the killing of healthy animals is morally wrong, for whichever of the foregoing positions one chooses to believe, such action can be condemned on the basis of what the Greeks called issues of “virtue.” On this view, one judges actions by comparing them with the sorts of character traits one wishes to promote in a good society. Consider the following case: a very rich person decides to burn his Van Gogh paintings. They are his possessions; he has paid for them. One may condemn him for this by saying that he is thereby depriving others of the chance to see these paintings; that is partially true, but it is not the whole story, as he is not condemned as deeply if he keeps them locked away in his apartment and no one else can view them. The difference seems to be the primordial sense of horror at someone who would destroy something beautiful for fun. I think we would feel something similar towards a person who wantonly trampled a field of wildflowers even on his own property. Moreover, we certainly feel that way about a person who would kill or abandon an animal that has been a loyal companion and is possessed of special beauty. We are uncomfortable around such people — “What will they do next?”
If one adopts this sort of view, one can morally condemn acts of convenience euthanasia strongly on the grounds that they evidence the sorts of character we emphatically do not wish to cultivate or even tolerate in society, even if such an act does not, in an ultimate philosophical sense, “harm” the animal. If nothing else, we would reasonably fear that such a person would likely escalate to harming people, since he or she is of a makeup that we cannot empathize with.

I find it tough to square the latter view with the reality of slaughtering farm animals for meat, but I find myself wondering about ethics. How can a veterinarian make a judgment what constitutes “convenience,” much less decide the relative degree of evil in a particular instance? We might all share feelings of disgust over someone who has her pet euthanized because her new boyfriend “doesn’t like dogs” — but does the dog understand the difference between this type of owner inconvenience and the sort of inconvenience presented by, say, the owner’s inability to afford veterinary treatment?
If a dog gets hit by a car or swallows a collapsed tennis ball, treatment can easily run into the thousands of dollars. For many people, such a high cost is so inconvenient as to be impossible.
What, if any, are the implications to veterinary ethics? This is explored in “A Right to Die” in a veterinary magazine:

Social forces are also at work asking, in some cases requiring veterinarians to become more of an advocate for the pet, reports Dr. Annette Rauch, a clinical assistant professor at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
The result creates conflict.
“What is best for the animal is not what is always best for the owner,” Rauch says.
“There is a big range of what individual veterinarians feel comfortable in doing. It seems that younger veterinarians are falling on the side of limited to no convenience euthanasia.”
According to multiple sources, the newest generation would much rather serve the pet if it came to a question of convenience euthanasia — a change in attitude from the generation of veterinarians, who were taught to serve the pet owner.
But the ethical dilemmas posed by euthanasia, Rauch reports, are nothing shy of gray and inherently unique to each case.
“Some people are legitimately poor,” Rauch says. “They can’t spend $3,000 on veterinary care. So, we come into conflict. The animal could benefit from the surgery, yet the owner simply doesn’t have the means to do the right thing.”

Might an emerging form of veterinary ethics be involved in California’s AB 1634? The California Veterinary Medical Association is one of the sponsors. And “convenience euthanasia” is a hot topic, both in veterinary circles, veterinary ethics classes (one of which mentions euthanasia of a “grieving dog”), and of course the general animal rights community.
To give an idea how importance of convenience euthanasia as an ethical issue, veterinary ethicist Jerrold Tannenbaum defines veterinary ethics and cites it as the very first example:

1. Descriptive: values or standards of the profession outlining what is acceptable behavior determined by peers. The Veterinarian’s Oath is an example.
2. Official: values formally adopted by organizations composed of members of that profession. The AVMA Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics is an example.
3. Administrative: rules set by governmental bodies that regulate veterinary medicine. Licensure requirements or Drug Enforcement Agency registration protocols define this category.
4. Normative: the individual’s attempt to discover what he or she believes to be the correct moral standard and norms for professional behavior and attitude.
A practitioner’s stance on convenience euthanasia is an example.

Is this emergent veterinary ethics issue taking the form of manufactured morality under AB 1634?
I can think of few clearer examples of “convenience euthanasia” than bureaucratic necessity.
But what is convenience? Is there, or should there be, a different standard of what constitutes “convenience euthanasia” depending on whether the animal is owned privately, or in the hands of animal shelter workers?
I don’t know, but I suspect that the ethics of euthanasia go to the heart of AB 1634. The idea is to end euthanasia by ultimately eliminating most dogs, with the animal bureaucracy simply shifting its ethical burden to ordinary pet owners. The hope is that the public will be tricked into believing that euthanasia is caused by overpopulation despite evidence to the contrary, and despite common sense and simple logic.
Just as there are unwanted and uncared for animals, so there are unwanted children, poverty, homelessness, and prisons. While society does not perform euthanasia on unwanted people, even if it did such a monstrous thing, this would not mean that there was “overpopulation” — only that the people in charge simply found the unwanted people to be bureaucratically inconvenient. That there is such a double standard between humans and animals is not unfair. It is the basis of the distinction between humans and animals.
To illustrate, assume you have a dog that is suffering from a horrible, untreatable disease causing intractable pain. To not euthanize the animal would be a form of animal cruelty. But if you have a child suffering from an incurable disease with identical symptoms, euthanasia would be murder. Yes, it is a double standard, but it is one grounded in our humanity, and in the difference between humans and animals.
I know this has been a lengthy essay, but I don’t think I have been able to discern any valid philosophical or moral objection to animal euthanasia. (Perhaps readers can enlighten me.) Even the moral objections to “convenience euthanasia” are at best judgments against the perceived heartlessness of the owner — and have nothing to do with actual suffering of the animal.
In short, I am unable to find any basis for AB 1634 other than the relief bureaucratic stress and the manufacture of new morality.
*Previous posts on AB 1634 here, here, here, here, here, and here.