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Thinking About Buying a Holiday Pet? The Unspoken Truth

People who work at shelters do so because they love animals, want to take care of them and find them new homes, not to euthanize them.

One day while reading the newspaper, I came across comments from people who were outraged about an article about local animal shelters euthanizing healthy animals because of insufficient funding and too few families that were willing to adopt a rescue animal.  They wondered “how could workers who “put animals to sleep” live with themselves?”

I was working as a local television correspondent at the time and had the opportunity to ask an animal shelter worker about this very touchy subject. 

While most of her work was extremely gratifying, the worst aspect of her job she and her co-workers dreaded, was dealing with unwanted “holiday gift pets” in the New Year.

That is when holiday pets end up at the shelter. Their prognosis was seldom good. 

In the early months of the New Year, parents – without their children in tow - would show up with a kitten or puppy and explain that “things didn’t work out” with the pet and that the family wanted to donate the pet for adoption.

The pet would be handed over, the parents would leave, pleased that they had solved their problem, and the future of the animal was left in the hands of the animal shelter workers.

People who work at shelters do so because they love animals, want to take care of them and find them new homes.  The worker explained, “I did not get into this line of work to euthanize animals.”  She then broke down crying, and several of her colleagues within earshot came over to comfort her.

I thought back to a childhood friend of mine whose parents bought a puppy for him over the holidays, and then, when they discovered he was uninterested and incapable of taking care of the pet, they brought it to the local shelter.  When he later asked them where the dog was, they told him “Don’t worry.  We took him to a nice farm where he will be happy.” 

There was no farm. Only a cage, and more likely than not, a sad ending to the story.

I then asked the shelter worker if she and her colleagues would like to participate in a story about this for the evening news to raise public awareness about buying pets without giving it careful thought.  Yes, they did.

Two weeks later, a cameraman and I took footage in the shelter of the heartbreaking faces of animals looking through the cage bars and a quote in the lobby to the effect that the quality of a society’s mercy can be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members.

Then, we set up the tripod for footage that was very difficult to watch:  A beautiful, good-natured dog was lying on a table about to be euthanized because there was no room, nobody had adopted him and he’d been there “too long.”

The shelter’s workers decided to put the dog to sleep in a “humane” way  for the camera – with an intravenous injection – not the typical way it is done.

I stood at the door and turned my head away as the dog’s breathing slowed and one of its paws twitched ever so slightly before it went to sleep forever.

We edited the story during what would have been our lunch period.  Neither of us could eat. 

Then came an important decision: do we show the animal being put down, and if so, how do we handle it?

I decided not to sugar-coat the issue.  We showed the final 20 seconds of the procedure from the doorway of the room with the goal of letting parents see what often happens when an unwanted pet is brought to a shelter.  No farm like they might have told their kids. 

I never watched the story go to air.  It wasn’t necessary.

I received two humane society journalism awards for the story, called “Don’t Blame the Caregivers.”   I also received many angry letters – not from animal advocates, but from parents who were horrified that I’d expose children to that sort of imagery.  This was back in the late 1980s when television was not as bold as it is now.

As unpleasant as it was, the message about holiday pets had been delivered.

If it saved the life of one animal, it was worth it.  If it made one family think twice about buying a pet for the holidays without a serious discussion, then it was worth it.  If this story you are reading raises awareness about the folly of buying a holiday pet, it is worth it.

If you do decide with your family to buy and take care of a pet, consider adopting one from a rescue shelter.  It will make a happy ending to the story.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Karen's Dog Training Blog December 06, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Wish it would be shown on TV stations countrywide ...people need to have a reality check.
Jim G. December 06, 2012 at 02:49 PM
This is why many states have outlawed "gift pets" like rabbits and chicks around Easter. Much harder to enforce with ordinary pet animals... but then, the intersection of pets and stupid people has always been a fertile place for rage.
Joseph Rider December 06, 2012 at 08:30 PM
For people who wish to give a gift pet this year, please boycott those puppy mill mall stores and visit your local animal shelter or rescue foundation, there are hundreds of homeless four legged bundles of joy who wonder what they have done wrong in life, they are smarter than most people give them credit for, all they want is to be loved and to have a forever home, euthanizing or gassing these poor souls is not always the answer, when there are alternatives in making the right decisions, instead of a death sentence,
Howard Schwartz December 07, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Many thanks for your input. Hopefully this will help the people who need to understand what is at stake. Best, Howard
Betty December 07, 2012 at 03:46 PM
You can find a rescue pet by visiting Pet Finder, before you do remember it is a lifetime commitment. If you are not prepared to make the commitment, make a donation to a shelter, volunteer at a shelter, offer to foster an animal in need, or buy a stuffed toy. http://www.petfinderfoundation.com/
Roland Chinatti December 07, 2012 at 03:57 PM
You organized the story 20 years ago... and the story continues...and we adults continue the need to be reminded of the responsibility and commitment we adults have to take and make in order to give our children the opportunity to build a relationship with another sentient being. Thanks for the reminder of the decisions the shelter workers face every day, and of what it takes, even for the reporter and camera person, to tell the story. May the compassion you reported surround you and all you love for a very long time, beyond the current holiday season.
Karen's Dog Training Blog December 07, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Never buy an underage puppy or kitten (under 8 weeks old) it is illegal for good reason
Genevieve Triplett December 10, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Thank you so much for posting this, the idea that living animals are treated like "things" is very scary and sad. We live in a great community that does a ton of rescue work, I have two. Educate, spay and neuter. The local Groton Animal Food pantry seeks donations of food for cats and dogs to relieve people who are having a hard time buying pet food. Make a donation to them this holiday season and help keep even more dogs and cats out of shelters. Thanks again for the educating story!
Amanda Bowes Smith December 12, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Thank you for writing such an honest article. I have a hard time watching Animal Cops, so I can't imagine reporting a story like that. One of my cats is a Humane Society rescue, and she is the sweetest, happiest cat you'll ever meet. She was 10 months old and had only been there for a week when we adopted her, and for anyone wondering if it is humanly possible to return a purring ball of long white fur to the cage from which it came, it is not. She loves me more than I knew any creature was capable of, and while her sister would often like to remind us she was NOT consulted on the matter, I cannot imagine how anyone was able to give her up and I'm so grateful we were in the right place at the right time. I have a magnet from the Waterford Animal Shelter that says, "Second-hand animals make first-class pets," and I can't think of a better way to describe it. I hope Santa finds all of the animals in shelters homes with people who love them as much as I love my girls.
Andrew Ziemba December 12, 2012 at 07:00 PM
I still think the best pet we ever had as a family was a middle aged rescue kitty who had no teeth. Best lap cat ever. Rescue animals are very grateful to have a home. My family pets are all extremely in love with all of my family members, you can tell.

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