For MSPCA, euthanasia is tough decision
And, it arises daily for shelter's staff
Every day in animal shelters across the country staff make difficult and painful decisions about euthanasia. Although the numbers on Martha's Vineyard are much lower compared to those in big cities or regions, Island shelter workers face the sad reality that some animals with significant medical conditions, injuries, and behavioral problems must be euthanized.
Deciding how long to keep animals and which ones to euthanize is never easy, but it becomes more of an issue for Island shelter workers in the summer months when the numbers go up. Unfortunately, not everyone who surrenders an animal for adoption can expect a happy ending, as Rianna Rosa of Edgartown recently found out.
Ms. Rosa offered to find a home for Phillip, a two-year-old tabby cat who once belonged to the dog trainer in New Hampshire who trained her 15-month-old German Shepherd. At home on the Vineyard, her dog constantly barked at the cat, interrupting her work as a bookkeeper and waking her at night. She tried separating them without success and felt it was unfair to leave the cat outside all day long.
After two weeks, her friend Roberta Mendlovitz urged her to find another home for Phillip right away because of the stressful environment. Ms.Mendlovitz suggested taking him to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Animal Care and Adoption Center of Martha's Vineyard, where she had once worked as a volunteer.
She assured Ms. Rosa the cat would stand an excellent chance of being adopted right away, because he would get good exposure there.
On July 25 the two women took Phillip to the Vineyard shelter, where they filled out a surrender form with Jennifer Morgan, animal care and adoption counselor, and Heather Donnelly, assistant to the MSPCA's director of shelters in Boston.
Ms. Morgan told Ms. Mendlovitz five cats already had been brought into the shelter that morning. She and Ms. Donnelly, who served as a shelter manager in Brockton for 12 years, spent over an hour offering suggestions to the women to remedy the situation with the dog and trying to discourage them from leaving the cat. However, Ms. Donnelly said both Ms. Mendlovitz and Ms. Rosa made it clear they were not willing to take the cat back home.
"Then I began to negotiate," Ms. Mendlovitz recalled, "And I said, could we leave him here, and we'll actively look for homes." Neither she nor Ms. Rosa had tried advertising for a home for Phillip before taking him to the shelter. Ms. Rosa offered to donate $100 rather than the usual $50 surrender fee, to pay for shots if Phillip needed them.
"Philip had a great history coming in," recalled Ms. Donnelly, who has helped at the short-staffed Vineyard shelter this summer. "I'm sure he was an excellent cat at home. We discussed very frankly that we would do our best to find him a new home, but we couldn't guarantee it. It would depend on how he adapted to shelter life."
A failure of communication
Cats are put into an isolation cage when they are first brought into the shelter, to give them time to adjust. The shelter staff understands and expects some cats may be aggressive initially, because they are scared, Ms. Donnelly said.
However, over the next several days, Ms. Donnelly said Phillip attacked her, Ms. Morgan, and another staff person. "I'm sure he was a great cat in Rianna's home, but he clearly had issues with being in a shelter," Ms. Donnelly said. "We try to acclimate each cat in the shelter, but almost a week had gone by and he was incredibly aggressive and dangerous. We couldn't put him where we could let the public see him to adopt him, so we made the decision to euthanize him."
In the meantime, Ms. Mendlovitz put up posters about Phillip around her neighborhood and ran an advertisement. She said four people called, offering to adopt him. By the time she called the shelter to tell them, Phillip was dead.
Both Ms. Mendlovitz and Ms. Rosa said afterwards they had viewed the shelter as a temporary holding place for the cat and would have been willing to take him back. "I feel a tremendous guilt, and I know Rianna does, and it's not going to go away easily," Ms. Mendlovitz said.
Ron Whitney, the shelter manager, was on vacation when Phillip was euthanized. After his return, he explained, "When an animal is surrendered to a shelter, people need to understand they are signing it over, with no guarantee. The surrender form itself explains this so that the person does not have false expectations."
Jean Weber, the MSPCA's Director of Shelters, said she is confident the possibility of euthanasia was explained to the two women. "It's something we explain to everyone - there is no question that euthanasia is always a possibility."
Ms. Mendlovitz wrote letters to the editors of The Times and Vineyard Gazette, and contacted Ms. Weber, protesting the MSPCA's lack of clearly defined policies on euthanasia, among other issues.
In her reply to Ms. Mendlovitz, Ms. Weber wrote, "These decisions are never made easily, and this is by far the most heartbreaking part of our work."
The MSPCA's policy on euthanasia has deliberately been left undefined, Ms. Weber said, so that each animal can be evaluated on an individual basis. The same holds true in the Vineyard shelter. "August is different in a shelter than January," Ms. Weber said. "The number of animals increases significantly, and we don't have the flexibility to hold onto as many animals."
Ms. Donnelly said that age and medical problems do not necessarily disqualify an animal from being adopted, but in Philip's case, "When an animal is posing a safety threat to people, we have to take that really seriously."
Ms. Mendlovitz and Ms. Rosa both were upset that the shelter staff did not call to let them know Phillip was going to be euthanized. To trigger a call, the person surrendering an animal must ask that a "hold/notify" designation be put in the animal's record, Mr. Whitney said. No message was in Phillip's record. Ms. Donnelly and Ms. Morgan say they do not recall Ms. Mendlovitz and Ms. Rosa asking to be notified.
Ms. Mendlovitz also questioned why the Vineyard shelter euthanizes some animals yet brings in others from shelters off-Island. Mr. Whitney explained that the MSPCA operates a transfer program. "If we do have space, we often take animals from one of our other six facilities." He added, "We certainly wouldn't be putting animals to sleep here to bring other animals over."
Ms. Weber said that out of the seven shelters the MSPCA operates, the Martha's Vineyard shelter has the highest adoption percentage, at 71 percent in 2005.
Last year, the shelter took in 750 animals. Of those, 298 were already deceased and brought in for cremation. Thirty-four were brought in by owners requesting euthanasia because of old age or significant medical problems.
Of the remaining 418, 20 brought in as "strays" were returned to their owners, and 295 adopted into new homes. The remaining 103 were euthanized.