Monday, January 4, 2010


The following comes from, a blog written by a good friend of mine who left a career on Broadway to work for the nation's largest no-kill animal sanctuary. I've copied and pasted the post directly from his blog because it's really worth the read.


"There is no disease or condition of companion animals that takes more of their lives than euthanasia."
-Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, Professor of Epidemology at Cornell University, Director of Maddie's Fund Shelter Medicine Program

This quote has been floating around the 'net today, and I find it disturbing. Dr. Scarlett has a very impressive resume and seems to have spent a great and admirable portion of her career working to end the deaths of animals in shelters - certainly Maddie's Fund has been extremely important and influential in that respect. Assuming the quote is accurate, however, it's an exercise in defeatism.

Dr. Scarlett does not seem to be referring to euthanasia here, she is referring to shelter killing. Euthanasia is a term co-opted by apologists for shelter killing to make it seem more palatable to the general public - necessary and noble, even. It is language used to make the slaughter of innocents seem like a good and positive thing.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, euthanasia is defined as "the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy". Killing for space is not euthanasia. Killing because no one has adopted an animal in a predetermined length of time is not euthanasia. Killing because an animal has an easily treated disease, like kennel cough or an upper respiratory infection is not euthanasia. Killing for old age or minor behavioral issues is not euthanasia.

Dr. Scarlett has even written articles for an audience of fellow veterinariansdecrying the number of animals killed in shelters and asking for their help to try to reduce it as much as possible; but isn't a good first step towards that goal to stop using a term popularized in order to make the killing of animals more acceptable to the general public and calling killing what it is?

Language is important. If you want to make the point that the needless death of animals is, in fact, a bad thing, can we all stop using language designed to make it seem like a good thing?


traceytoole said...

A very moving article. My boy Homer would have been killed because he ran out of time, 10 days. He is the most loveable and friendly furball. I think I tell him everyday I love him. Many pets are lost and the people to blame are their guardians who gave them up because a baby was born or a divorce occured or some other ridiculous reason. These animals don't have a chance once they enter a shelter.

Harry Kaplan said...

I'll be accused of splitting semantic hairs, and for the record I feel as strongly as anyone above about shelter killing. However, words shift in meaning over time as their popular usage changes, and I think that's what's going on with "euthanasia." For some reason it has stronger pull than the more literal "shelter killing," and thereby may be more effective in bringing public attention to the problem. Why else do you think someone like Dr. Scarlett, whom you all respect so much and who is in the middle of this fray, would choose the word?

There's an interesting new dictionary-like site called that stresses usage over pre-formulated dictionary definitions, which by necessity lag change in real-life usage. To quote from Wordnik's FAQ:

"I looked up a word in Wordnik that I know isn't right, and you have tons of sentences for it. What gives?

Here at Wordnik, we show you what people actually do with language, not what we'd like them to do. We think it's important to show real information about every word—even the ones that aren't considered standard. However, just because a word is in Wordnik doesn't mean you have to use it!"

Post a Comment