Striking at the root

Worker emotional toll in pounds that kill

The dog stiffened as we approached the kill-room. Fear flooded his big brown eyes and his hind legs started trembling while he sniffed the air. I forced him through the door [this is my job after all] and choked down my feelings at seeing his distress [overriding my instincts to stop].

I chained him to a wall with worn-down hooks from the countless others who had come before. The walls with their old, flaked paint told of past [failed] attempts at brightening the space, maybe in attempts to de-stigmatise and comfort us tasked with the killing. I found a frozen bone for him, actively ignoring body-bags crowding the freezer. ‘My’ dog looked sadly at the bone (not touching it), then at me, betrayed, wordlessly pleading for me to help him, while he shivered on the cold concrete floor. Some would soil themselves in fear, but most got very still like they knew what was coming.

I wish I could take him home, make him feel wanted, that he mattered . . . and not all humans wanted him gone. My colleague ‘finished’ with the dog before us on today’s kill-list, she lay dead, eyes rolled into her head, tongue flopped out. He got the fluorescent syringe ready as I looked away, holding my dog still for the injection. A perfect paw in my hand, vein filling with poison. My supervisor had tried to construct this as an act of ‘kindness’, explaining that death is better than the alternative – being unwanted, caged . . . but I wonder if he’d agree?

Stifling sadness, anger and helplessness, trying to keep calm for the sake of the dog now living his last moments, his body going limp. My dog would now wait for the weekly garbage pickup, as they were dumped into a landfill, as our societal throwaways.

A new study in the Journal of Work, Employment and Society looked at how staff members of kill pounds navigate the “tensions” of working at a place that is supposed to “care” for animals but instead kills them. This contradiction is what the authors call “care-based animal dirty work” or “the caring-killing paradox.” I call it evil.

The study ultimately found that “workers who undertake this task of… societal ‘processing’ of animals [i.e., killing] experience significant dissonance,” and suggested finding ways to reduce or eliminate killing. While the study affirmed many of the concerns advocates for shelter reform have long expressed — that neglect and abuse often accompanies killing; that managers are not open to alternatives to killing and rely on deception and secrecy; that the killing is arbitrary; and that employees are hired or trained to simply accept killing and follow orders — there were significant problems with the proposals to remedy those problems. First and foremost, we know that shelters across the country can and have eliminated the killing for all but irremediably suffering animals. And we know that those shelters which continue to kill do not do it out of compassion or necessary “societal ‘processing;’” rather, they do it out of habit and convenience:

— because they refuse to embrace the cost-effective programs and services which make No Kill possible.

To anyone who has paid any attention to the monumental shift that has occured in the field of animal sheltering over the last two decades, this is a glaring omission. 

The study likewise failed to compare and contrast the psychological mindset between those who work at kill “shelters” and those who work at No Kill shelters, and in not doing so, overlooking the fact that resolving both the emotional toll caused by killing and the deadly toll to animals requires shelters to shift from trying to get shelter employees to cope with killing to actually ending it, a classic win-win.

What did the study show?

The study set out to determine how workers at “shelters” deal with the inherent contradiction between taking jobs where they are supposed to care for animals and instead kill them. The authors found that — unlike slaughterhouses where workers are specifically hired to kill animals and trained to look at them as “commodities,” “input,” and “raw materials” — “shelters” try to convey the image of compassion for animals; of being “ideological and caring, focused on intrinsic valuations of animals rather than [being] profit-driven…”

The study, however, found that not only was the killing not compassionate, conduct that was tantamount to neglect and sometimes abuse often accompanied it: 

One of the worst cases I’d witnessed was a feral cat who’d been left alone choking and gurgling as the dose hadn’t killed her. As I refused to administer the injections [although this was part of my job], a vet was summoned who ‘finished’ her off. But who knows how long she’d been left suffering? When I reported this, my concerns were silenced: ‘cats are difficult’ [due to their small size] with jokes of the ‘fighting spirit’ of feral cats (!) rather than investigating whether this was acceptable from the organisation’s animal welfare perspective.

This was not an aberration: “Noticing animal distress and fear was a normal work experience leading to dissonance” and such dissonance leads to “an emotional toll.” They also found that pounds that kill tend to operate based on deception and secrecy in order to keep the public in the dark.

Why the neglect?

The study determined that new staff tend to rebel at policies that favor killing and unless they are eventually able to rationalize it, they quit. That leaves animals at the hands of longer-term employees who either do not care about animals (hence, the neglect and abuse) or who may have once cared, but subsequently become reconciled with the killing by normalizing what is not normal. (It is impossible, for example, to similarly imagine Child Protective Services taking in abused, abandoned, or homeless children and then killing them.)

Unfortunately, managers tend not to be open to reform: “attempting to find alternative methods to this type of unwanted animal ‘solution’ really was seen as challenging the dominant paradigm” and discouraged. As such, managers tend to want — and hire — people who do not care for the animals because caring workers do not last: “I find the best employees here are the ones that have done some normal work outside, like worked for McDonald’s [and] realise, ‘Hey, you do as you’re told, you get on with it, you follow the procedures, and you don’t make up your own mind [about how to do the work and whom to save]’.” In other words, they seek slaughterhouse workers. And that’s how long-term workers and workers who view poundwork as a paycheck and nothing more (like McDonald’s) tend to respond: by looking at animals not as individuals but as “inputs.”

The study also determined that most pounds were haphazard in terms of which animals they killed: temperament test results were arbitrary, guidelines did not exist, and often depended on the whims of individual staff, some of whom looked for reasons to do so: “I cried, cradling the puppy as he’d been given his death sentence [due to an underbite]. My colleague had taken him away [killing him] while I was at lunch so I couldn’t protest anymore [having unsuccessfully campaigned for him to my supervisor who’d said: ‘there are plenty of “perfect” puppies to choose from’].”

Finally, it found that managers and staff rely on euphemisms in order to downplay the gravity of the killing, such as “euthanasia” or “put to sleep”: “Such perceptual reframing not only buffers from taint, but also regulates emotions by normalising the ‘extraordinary’ act.” Indeed, one pound manager once went so far as to argue, “We are not killing [animals in shelters]. We are taking their life, we are ending their life, we are giving them a good death, we are humanely destroy — whatever… but we are not killing.”

The authors of the study admitted that these euphemisms are dishonest: “‘euthanasia’ implies terminating life with consent based on compassionate reasons, such as ill health.” With (healthy and treatable) animals “there is no consent given.” And as a No Kill advocate correctly argued elsewhere, these terms “cannot provide a thick enough gloss to conceal the disturbing, awful truth. Animals who are euthanized or ‘put to sleep’ do not wake up, ever. Whether they are [killed] by lethal injection, gassed or destroyed by other unspeakable means, they are no longer with us when the process... is complete. They cease to drink, cry, bark, meow, play and feel. They are gone.”

What are the study’s limitations?

While the study reaffirmed what advocates for reform have long argued about rampant neglect, intransigence, deception, uncaring, and arbitrariness in pounds, the authors ignored the reasons of what can be done about it. 

First and foremost, they falsely stated that embracing a No Kill orientation requires limiting admission  — turning animals away at the door in order to increase placement rates. In reality, a No Kill shelter can be public or private, run by a humane society or by a municipal government, be “limited admission” or “open admission.” And there are plenty of No Kill animal control shelters and thus No Kill communities to prove it. In fact, using the term “open admission” for killing shelters is misleading as they are closed to people who love animals. They are closed to people who might have lost their job or lost their home but do not want their animals to die. They are closed to Good Samaritans who find animals but do not want them killed. They are closed to volunteer animal lovers who want to help save lives but will not be silent in the face of needless killing. As such, they actively turn away the very people who make a No Kill community possible.

Second, while the authors suggest that “worker wellbeing [could potentially] be enhanced” and “alternative solutions [potentially could] be found if these killing processes and worker challenges become more transparent,” they fail to recognize that a solution is already available, well-known, and widely successful.

To stop the killing, we must change how shelters are run — by pressuring (and ideally, passing legislation requiring) shelters to implement the programs and services of the “No Kill Equation” and by firing managers who refuse. These programs have led to a 90% drop in the killing of U.S. dogs and cats in “shelters” since the 1970s. Despite a doubling of the number of animal companions, the number of dogs and cats killed has gone from roughly 16 million to less than two million. It has been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement”:

Instead of “hacking at the branches of evil,” this approach focuses on “striking at the root.”

Doing so would also allow for resolution of the equally preventable emotional toll of workers. Success — rehabilitating and rehoming, rather than killing, animals — fosters enthusiasm, determination and a healthy workplace environment. At shelters that have stopped killing, there is subsequently no need for compromising ethics, blame-shifting, rationalizing violence, embracing euphemisms, or engaging in vacuous rituals in a facile attempt to assuage guilt. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges or that the work is not, at times, exhausting. But acting in the capacity of helping rather than hurting animals makes for a better night’s sleep. 

The study, “Killing Them ‘Softly’ (!): Exploring Work Experiences in Care-Based Animal Dirty Work,” is here.