This morning’s email brought in a lovely, inspiring post by one of my favorite bloggers, Dr. V. Titled “I have a dream too,” it details Dr. V’s hopes for helping animals in the future. One line stopped me short, though:

I have a dream that we stop putting our heads in the sand as to the fact that 5 million animal souls are euthanized each year and finally look that cold and grey number in the face.

This reminded me of another blog post that made me aware of something I hadn’t considered before: The use of the word “euthanasia” in the context of what happens in many shelters.

Christie Keith wrote:

…. “the last great gift, when you take your animal’s pain and make it your own.” That’s euthanasia.

It is so incredibly painful to hear that word applied to the killing of a pet for no reason except that she or he is homeless. Using a term that speaks to the loving end of suffering, the same mercy I wish I could have shown my mother when she was dying, is cruel and disrespectful to everyone who has ever made that last agonizing decision for a beloved pet.

It’s also disrespectful to the animals being killed, by acting as if what’s being done to them is a gift, or an act of mercy.

And above all, using “euthanasia” when you mean “killing” is a lie.  Just stop.

For the rest of this powerful essay see Stop Calling It ‘Euthanasia.’

I’ve used the term euthanasia a lot because that’s what we’ve become accustomed to doing. And because I didn’t want to make others — especially shelter volunteers who have to face this horrendous responsibility — uncomfortable.

But there’s a reason that the “No Kill” movement has the name it has. It’s not the “No Euthanasia” movement.

So I reiterate Christie Keith’s plea. Words count. We as writers and bloggers can do this one thing that may help change hearts and minds. We can be mindful of our language, and tell the truth about what happens to healthy animals: killing, gassing, giving a lethal injection…even, dare I say it, murder.

But not euthanasia.

Update: Just so you know — I’m listening to my commenters. Although I wonder if it’s not a slippery slope to use certain words for one situation and not another, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that each situation is different. That’s why we have different words. And I would never, ever want to cause further pain to anyone charged with an impossible situation. Eric is right; the replacement of people with conscience with others to do the deed could be far unkinder.

I go along with Diane’s (inadvertent, because somewhat ironic) suggestion: Put down. As I mentioned, we use it to refer to sleep, but we also use it to refer to “downer” cattle. To my mind, it’s not as euphemistic as “put to sleep,” but not as inaccurate as euthanasia.

42 thoughts on “Just One Word”

  1. Agreed. I read her post on the weekend and was shamed as I have used similar euphemisms for things just as terrible. As you say, words matter. We need to stop prettying them up so that others are more comfortable. We should be uncomfortable as it is an awful thing that is happening. We are killing dogs. There is no way around that.

  2. Yes, indeed. Words count. I’ve seen this theme appearing throughout several Blog the Change posts and I’m glad to see and hear the conversation getting louder. I suspect people think these animals just drop off to sleep as when we ease our pets’ suffering at the end of life. Not the case. These healthy animals have a strong drive to live and the methods of killing them en mass do not offer comfort. The animals smell death, they are scared and they are very, very alone. It’s time we start calling it what it is. Yes, murder. Maybe more of the public will pay attention to an honest approach.

    1. Kim, thanks for mentioning those posts. In fact, I wanted to go back to find and credit them, but I knew that would take me all day and I figured I’d better get this out!

  3. I’m totally with you on this. I stumbled on this very issue when I wrote about Clementine, the Australian Cattle Dog who will be performing in Don’t Kill Bill, for Blog the Change for Animals last Saturday. I almost said “Clementine was within days of being euthanized when she was matched with Aly.” But, I changed euthanized to “killed.”

    When I shared Christie Keith’s post on Facebook I did receive a very thoughtful comment from a shelter worker who euthanizes dogs (her words). She noted that the staff is very caring and that it’s terribly emotionally difficult work. My heart goes out to her. I think if I had her job I’d probably end up massively medicated. I don’t think I could handle it, and those that do with heart and humility and compassion, well…I feel thankful because so much murder takes place without a second thought, I’m sure.

    Still as you say, language matters. Euphemisms really matter.

    1. Yes, it’s the caring shelter staff that made me think twice about writing this post. But if we’re going to work towards a world where no one has to be put in that horrible, horrible position anymore we’ve got to start somewhere. And banishing the use of euthanizing where it doesn’t belong is one place to start.

  4. I completely support the idea behind “No Kill” and would love to see an end toward killing for overpopulation in my lifetime.

    But I still fail to see how making shelter workers feel bad, and most likely driving the compassionate ones into other careers helps matters.

    You can be totally correct, or as effective as possible. Pick one.

    1. Thanks for this, Eric. I hate correctness for the sake of correctness. But how about truth, a more admirable word than correctness, with its implications of P.C.? And what’s the answer — do we go on using words that are inaccurate? How do things change, then?

    2. I’m with Eric.

      Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand the point that killing shelter animals is not euthanasia. But I also don’t think changing the word to ‘killing’ does anything other than shame the workers who don’t enjoy their jobs as it is, internalize the pain of what they have to do because to refuse that burden is to leave it to someone who maybe doesn’t care, and make it all that much worse. It puts the focus on the person who is forced to pull the trigger, as it were, rather than the one who put them in the line of fire in the first place.

      I’ve ended more lives than I can count, and even though I believe they were justified, I carry that with me. Death is death and it is a huge burden to carry.

      I wish these blogs were read by the people who needed to hear the message most. But they’re not.

      1. Yes, I’m beginning to see things from a different perspective and backing down from my original hard line stance. The last thing I want to do is shame the workers.

        The only thing I want is to change a horrendous situation. And my question is what will get us there most effectively. Language counts, as every political sloganeer can tell us. I wish I knew the right ones to end the deaths.

  5. How does the use of “killing” or “murder” reduce the number of animals killed in shelters?

    Does it make someone refuse to do it? If it does, does that mean the animal is not killed, or will someone else – someone who doesn’t care maybe – step and and do it?

    1. It keeps people on the outside from being able to rationalize the act with a comforting term that lets them (us) avert our eyes. After all, euthanization is kind.

      I wish I had an answer that was definitive. And I’m not consistent — otherwise I wouldn’t have a series that promotes adoption videos that don’t make you want to kill yourself. Those gloss over the truth — but in the name of (to me) a larger good: more adoptions.

      How are euphemisms that keep us from seeing the truth about killings a good thing? And where do you draw the line? Where is it okay to tell the truth — and where do we stop?

      1. I’m with Eric on this one. Listen. For years people have known that smoking leads to cancer and death, and yet, they still do it. Changing the word doesn’t change the ability of people to rationalize what they are doing. Saying that we are “killing” pets doesn’t change much.

  6. you know, i never even thought of this point before. there IS a difference isn’t there? i shall be more aware from now on, of how i use these 2 words.

    the way christie keith describes euthanesia makes me pause as well. as we wait for rufus to let us know when he’s ready to go, it’s a description i totally agree with.

  7. I agree. Putting a more acceptable label on it surely doesn’t help. Murder is murder. Can’t call it anything else in cases when life is ended needlessly.

  8. Edie, like you, I don’t think the word “euthanize” fits the events at shelters that exterminate animals. However, I would like to think that many shelter workers really struggle with the deaths they carry out. In deference to Eric’s well taken point, how about “cease” or “extinguish”. But a thorn by any name is still a thorn.

    1. As I said in the post, not wanting to make the difficult jobs of shelter volunteers any more difficult was one of the reasons I continued to use the word euthanization for so long. But my question to Eric (and you) is, Where do you draw the line? In which contexts do you use softer words? in which accurate ones? Things get impossibly fuzzy once you start down that road.

  9. Christie Keith is Spot On! I ran a No-Kill shelter – it did not mean, no euthanasia shelter as we never allowed an animal in pain to suffer. To me, putting an animal to death just because there isn’t room for them or, because an “owner” brings them in and tells you to is Killing. Actually, I have way too much to say on this subject but I agree with Kristine, above: we need to stop “prettying up” the words so that others are more comfortable. Are the healthy animals being killed everyday for no reason comfortable? All you have to do is walk into a shelter freezer and see the stacks of animals to know there is killing happening – period.

  10. Some posts in the Blog the Change event did mention it briefly, and I have been thinking about it every day. And changing my mind every day also. I agree on that it should not be “euthanize”. The quote of Christie Keith says it perfectly … an awesome quote btw.
    Yet I am not sure to use “Kill”. Kill is mean and evil. Kill is deliberate. And whatever we are doing with our poor dogs in shelters which is definitely not euthanizing, it also is not done because shelters are mean or evil, nor is it deliberate. We kill/euthanize because we cannot/would not make the change to solve this. It is an unnecessary death, how do you describe that in one word, if possible?

    1. Okay, fair enough. I’ve been thinking about what Clare and Eric said too. I agree there’s a volition that “kill” or “murder” suggests that’s not in keeping with what shelter workers have to face. And it would never be my intention to cause further pain.

      But I still contend that using euthanization does a disservice.

      So what word can we use? Extinguish, Clare’s suggestion, is pretty good, but not likely to catch on. Terminate? All other suggestions are welcome.

  11. I’m moving this comment by Diane Schmidt, who put it on another post, here:

    I didn’t completely follow your discussion about the use of the term euthanasia, but it is very thought-provoking. Someone thinks we shouldn’t use it to refer to animals who are put down in shelters? Oops – ‘put down’ too euphemistic!?!- In a society that is so far into denial of death that it can’t even handle funding for a discussion with one’s own physician about end of life issues, I’m glad any attention is paid to this issue of over-pet-population, by whatever name. Though I agree, the language we use is telling. Meanwhile, the most popular ‘career’ choice for many incoming college freshmen is now ‘CSI’ type work. but they are being told there’s a glut on the market already. This is actually a death-centric culture.

    1. Diane, interesting points.

      I actually think “put down” is a better term. We use it for babies — which freaked me out when I first heard it — to signify sleep.

    2. Diane, as you’ll see, I moved the second part of your comment over to the Just One Word and responded there. Thanks for your insights.

  12. Giving it a lot of thougth I also think “put down” is the best we can come up with. It is cold and in sharp contrast with the warmth of euthanisia. It also adresses the dilemma we are dealing with god forbid, if we like it or not (auch did I say that).

  13. I really object to the term “put to sleep” or even PTS. We can argue about the validity of the euphemism “euthanized” but why shelter professionals continue to use “put to sleep” baffles and even angers me. Most child psychologists agree that the term is frightening for a child (“If I sleep, will I die?”) and the degree of denial it allows is far too much. (Ironic, too, that the oft-used abbreviation “PTS” is so close to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t disagree that staff or volunteers suffer vicariously through compassion fatigue. But thinking of yourself as “the angel of death” instead of “cat killer” doesn’t address the much larger problem of homeless animal supply and distribution.) I would like to keep “euthanasia” as being much more direct than “PTS” and not quite as in your face and potentially alienating as “killed.” Maybe as a middle ground, we could try “ended his/her life”–even if it lacks grammatical elegance. For example:
    “We couldn’t find a suitable home for Rex after 3 months in the shelter, so we killed him.” versus “We couldn’t find a suitable home for Rex after 3 months in the shelter, so we ended his life.” Not really much better, I guess, especially for something like “Fluffy has been hissing and swatting, so we killed her” versus “Fluffy has been hissing and swatting, so we ended her life.”

  14. Wow… I’d never spent much time thinking about this before. Words are so powerful, and I think that the commenters here have made a lot of valid points. It’s hard to find a word that isn’t charged in some way or another – or notable for its lack of a charge.

    1. I’d thought about it when I first read Christie Keith’s eye-opening post — and then several Blog the Change posts brought it back to my consciousness again. If nothing else, I will be super conscious of my use of words from now on.

  15. I switched to calling it killing years ago because euthanasia is the wrong word. That and I’m with a no-kill shelter. Kill is a loaded word and as Leo mentioned at Kenzo_HW, it is a word associated with purposeful evil intent. But what *do* we call it? Words matter. Again.

    I don’t care much for political correctness, I do care for people’s feelings, but not to the point of becoming a co-dependent in denial. I thought this over for a time and decided that since my mission is to unearth truths that serve animals’ welfare that means no pussy-footing. I reminded myself that if the no-kill movement was no so named, we would not be seeing the change we have today. I believe that.

    At the same time I also want to have people hear the message, and not just shut off their listening faculties. Continuous stridency loses more audience than it captures. And we do want our numbers of supporters to grow.

    I thought about this in respect of employees at ACC. They hated the no kill shelter thing because they felt it was so unfair that we would choose and they would take whatever came to the door. Yet that is the charter of the organization they signed on for.

    Transferring animals out of an ACC that is properly managed to keep disease transmission down is a good partnership to form…push the killing down to single digits until no healthy adoptables are killed. We save animals and help lift that horrible burden.

    I think it’s right that we call by name what’s actually happening. Slavery, genocide, killing fields…what would our world look like if slavery was called “service” and other awful, terrible things were made to sound pretty or at least not bad.

    This is not to hurt the people working with the animals at ACC, but to jostle awake those tax-payers whose money is being used for this purpose. I see no wide-awake incensed or intense reaction to a placard saying “euthanasia here – every day!” Where would the end of killing begin if there were no dirt to plant seeds of thinking differently?

    1. Trust you to cut to the chase, Mary.

      After going back and forth on this issue — I love that I have so many passionate, articulate people weighing in here — I will defer to your experience, and leave you with the last word.

  16. You hit the nail on the head. Yes, it is “murder”. Until all states have a “no kill” policy, I will not rest. How dare we do such a horrible act and turn our heads from it….

  17. Wow! I somehow missed this whole discussion!

    I haven’t read Christie’s piece yet, but I will. I struggle with this one on so many levels. While I agree with Mary that we need to be truth-tellers when it comes to animal welfare, I don’t know that using the word “kill” or “killing” will change people’s minds about giving up their pets.
    On the other hand, I started using the term “blood pups” for a reason. To get people to associate the cute little puppy in the pet store window with the pain and suffering of the parent dogs sitting in some nasty puppy mill somewhere.

    Maybe “killing” is the correct term but let’s not kid ourselves, there will always be people who will drop their pets off at a shelter knowing their dog could die there.

    1. That’s true, Mel, there will always be the half wits who dump a dog or cat off because it didn’t go with the decor. Yes – we’ve actually hear that one!

      An added aside: There’s concerted effort these days by some open admission shelters who are receiving money from Maddie’s fund to get tough with people who are giving up their dogs. I got a complaint call from someone who did not have the several hundred dollars intake fee at PAWS Chicago, and so went elsewhere where they met with the intake person, who was a “euthanasia” tech! That’s a hell of an approach and a new one me! The euth tech told him his dog would likely be euthanized. The guy was speechless. But he had no where else for the dog. He left him there.

      1. Wow. I thought you were going to end with “so he took his dog home”. How sad that it wasn’t what happened. I just don’t get people.

  18. Pingback: Animal Overpopulation: The Euphemisms of...This One Wild Life

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