Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heroic dog's tragic end shows the tragedy of euthanasia

The news from Arizona is grim. A heroic German Shepherd mix named Target, who saved the lives of 50 soldiers in Afghanistan by alerting them to a bomb, was euthanized in a suburban animal shelter by mistake.

Apparently, Target had recently gone missing and was picked up by the pound staff. She was mistaken for a stray and "put down." Ruth Slater, director of Pinal County's Animal Care and Control division, said in a statement: "When it comes to euthanizing an animal, there are some clear-cut procedures to follow. Based on my preliminary investigation, our employee did not follow those procedures." (Source) Target was actually owned by Sergeant Terry Young, who adopted her in Afghanistan. Needless to say, Young and his family were distraught to hear that Target was euthanized so fast after turning up at the shelter. Young reported her missing on Friday. He found out she was at the shelter, but it was closed on the weekend. He raced over there Monday to pick her up. By then, she was dead.

Target was a nationwide celebrity. She appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and her story was known to millions. Her heroism in Afghanistan transformed her overnight into a larger-than-life dog in the United States.

Her death is a tragedy. But, when you think about it, it's no more tragic than the deaths of animals in shelters across the country. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has noted:

"The HSUS estimates that animal shelters care for between 6-8 million dogs and cats every year in the United States, of whom approximately 3-4 million are euthanized. At this time The HSUS can only estimate these figures because there is no central data reporting agency for animal shelters. This overpopulation of companion animals is widely acknowledged across the country by professionals and experts in the animal welfare field. Overpopulation is a tragedy. There are simply not enough responsible homes for all of these wonderful, innocent animals. At this point in time, it would be impossible to humanely house every unwanted animal in the United States." (Source)

That's just in the United States. The scene isn't much more hopeful in Canada, and it paints a troubling picture of throw-away societies that place little value on the lives of animals. Many times on this Blog, I've praised the brave men and women who work in shelters across the country and are given the unenviable task of having to put these animals to death. Make no mistake about it: They don't want to do it. It makes them heartsick to euthanize animals. It is the ultimate act of love and compassion. When I condemn the "throw-away" culture, they are 100 percent exempt.

No, I'm talking about the collective culture of people who are so shortsighted they don't spay and neuter their pets or take adequate care of them. Obviously, Sergeant Young did not fall into this category. He adored Target, and so did his family. And there are countless other animal owners who take wonderful care of their pets.

But there are also owners who can't be bothered to take decent care of their cats or dogs or other companion animals. And there are more than you'd think. Too often, they drop off innocent and unsuspecting animals at shelters across the country and expect others to do their dirty work. Not all people who take their animals to shelters fall into this category. There are a number of pet owners who have legitimate reasons for giving up their animals, and such partings often end up being very painful. Yet there is no denying that there are also many who drop off animals at shelters due to their own responsibility or unwillingness to take adequate care of these family members.

Target was the victim of this widespread irresponsibility. Shelters are filled to capacity due to that irresponsibility. And this heroic dog paid dearly for that. But so do millions and millions of other companion animals, each and every year. Their lives are as sacred as the life of Target, the dog that won so many hearts for her bravery in Afghanistan.

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