The caring-killing paradox: people get hurt too

Euthanasia takes its toll on shelter workers

Most people who volunteer or work at animal shelters do it because they love animals. Unfortunately in many cases, due to shelter overcrowding and other issues, these people are often required to euthanize the very creatures they care for and protect. This phenomenon has been termed, in academic literature, a “caring-killing paradox”.

Intellectually, shelter workers realize that euthanasia will be part of the job when they go into it, but that realization doesn’t mean they really understand the psychological impact of euthanasia. Researchers have argued that the daily contradiction between a shelter worker’s motivations (i.e. protection and care of animals) and the reality of having to regularly kill healthy animals creates moral stressors, which are a unique type of workplace stress qualitatively different from other job stressors. This paradox is sustained by a reluctance to leave the job because of fear that the animals will then be euthanized by less caring people.

Animal care professionals who have to kill animals as part of their job (this includes vets and shelter workers) are under-represented in the research on workplace stress however the small number of investigations conducted to date indicate cause for serious concern: thousands of people charged with  performing animal euthanasia in the United States are at risk for a variety of psychological, emotional, and physical ailments such as high blood pressure, ulcers, unresolved grief, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. According to researchers at Purdue and Bowling Green universities, three out of four animal shelter workers exhibit signs of euthanasia-related stress.

The implications of this are far-reaching: in addition to the societal and medical costs, research also shows conclusively that organizational effectiveness is significantly impacted by employee health and well-being – so progress in shelter reform and overall effective shelter management may be hindered by the ongoing moral stressors suffered by shelter workers who are required to kill animals.

Euthanasia-induced stress is worse when the euthanasia technician has grown attached to an animal, and the reason for performing euthanasia can directly affect the degree of distress experienced by shelter workers and veterinarians. Shelter workers report feeling less distressed when animals were euthanized due to failing health than when healthy, adoptable animals were euthanized because they had to make room for new surrendered animals. These are the “unnecessary” killings – the ones that could be avoided if only people would spay or neuter their pets, or if they chose to adopt an unwanted animal instead of buying from pet shops, puppy mills and unregistered breeders.

Shelters and shelter workers have various coping mechanisms to help them deal with euthanasia duty, from praying to being as efficient as possible to reduce suffering, to painting the euthanasia rooms bright colors, and sometimes to adopting (yet another) animal they can’t bear to kill. They try to emotionally distance themselves and to “cognitively reappraise” the situation – that is, to remind themselves that this is a situation caused by society’s irresponsible elements and that in the choice between ongoing abuse and neglect, euthanasia may sometimes be an animal’s best option.

Addressing the companion animal overpopulation crisis is central to mitigating this heavy psychological burden carried by thousands of people around the country – people who may not have access to corporate type benefit packages that include health care and psychological counseling. By allowing this problem to continue, we are not only contributing to the suffering of innocent animals and unnecessarily spending millions of taxpayer dollars, we are perpetuating a health crisis that has very real societal and economic ramifications.

Please support the proposed changes to the Dallas City animal ordinances and help Dallas set the standard in shelter worker conditions! Sign our petition here to add your voice – spay/neuter saves human and animal lives!

Sources for this post:


One Response to “The caring-killing paradox: people get hurt too”

  1. […] for whom the need to euthanise healthy animals poses a very real mental and physical heath risk – see our post on this here. Not to mention the public health risk of the stray and abandoned dogs roaming the […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: