“She is a murderer.” I was working a shift at the Animal ER and the young person was talking about me, but she has no clue.
Murder is defined as the intentional, unlawful killing committed with malice aforethought. What does that mean? Unlawful here would mean not legally justified. Since we were discussing the potential kindness of a euthanasia for a cat, that definitely does not apply to this situation. It is legal by definition.

So by definition, it is not murder, but let’s look at malice aforethought. A legal phrase, it means that someone has “the intention to kill or harm.” It is used to distinguish unlawful killing from murder. It does not mean that you have to have acted out of spite or hate, but rather without legal justification or excuse.

The phrase “the intention to kill or harm” has two parts, but I would argue that it is not two separate and distinct parts, but rather that the two parts have to be taken together and cannot be separated. While it is true that I do sometimes, in the course of my job, kill family members, I would never do them harm.

I swore an oath. “As a member of the veterinary medical profession, I solemnly swear that I will use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society. I will strive to promote animal health and welfare, relieve animal suffering, protect the health of the public and environment, and advance comparative medical knowledge.”

Now, I proudly agreed to do all of that, but the portion that says “I will strive to promote animal health and welfare, relieve animal suffering, protect the health of the public” really is the part that is at my core. (I get up in the morning because I make lives better. Human and animal lives.)

Condensing further, sometimes the “relieve animal suffering” is the part that gets me through the day. And the night after. My military training taught me to do what I need to do in the moment, but it didn’t teach me how to sleep that night. Or sometimes the several nights after. There are some really bad people out there and some awful things happen to animals.

This young person might have annoyed me and the staff, but she just hasn’t experienced those awful things yet. Several years ago, I was at a good client, and friend’s, funeral. I asked his wife how she could be better composed than I was. She had clearly loved him and they cared for each other and he was taken in his forties, so it was far sooner than it should have been. The unfairness of the situation struck me hard. Twenty years later, I realize that it was probably not a question that I should have asked a grieving new widow, but at the time I really did not understand. I still remember her words. Barb put her hand on my arm and said “You didn’t see him at the end. He went through so much pain and suffering that I am relieved he is spared any more.” Now, I would not have to ask. I understand.

But since I was looking up definitions, the definition of euthanasia is “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” Strangely, the definitions talk mostly about humans.

Mercy or kindness it may be, but euthanasia is not easy. Everyone remembers their first one. For me it was a dachshund, that was blind and deaf with heart and kidney disease. Toby belonged to an older couple. I asked Lindsay when she decided euthanasia was okay and she immediately said Lola. Lola had feline infectious peritonitis or FIP. It has no treatment or cure and fluid fills up to make it hard to breath and even exist. I think everyone who works in a veterinary hospital has one of these in their memory banks. At the Animal ER, there is usually an example everyday.

My last one of the day yesterday still bothers me. A young and healthy dog had gone to a high volume spay/neuter clinic and gotten spayed. Unfortunately the surgeon did not engage both sides of the fascia of the abdominis rectus muscles. A complete dehiscence and evisceration had occurred because of surgeon error. Now, all surgical complications are not the fault of the surgeon, but I did a necropsy after the euthanasia so I would know. The sutures were intact ligatures in the right side. There was some fat in the ligature on the other side. The owners did not have the money to fix. The ER staff said that this place would not stand behind their work. I am an employee there, they have rules about what I can do, because they realize you have to keep the doors open. Still at first, I refused the euthanasia. The owner, a social worker, told me that there would be worse things for this dog if the surgeon would not fix the dog. With heavy heart, I allowed the barbiturates to be given.

That is how euthanasia works in veterinary medicine. Sometimes we sedate, then we give barbiturates. After they are in a surgical plain of anaesthesia, the animal is given an overdose and the heart stops and the lungs stop. Extremely peaceful in most cases. I have only seen problems when owners are present and unsure and the animal fights it. Most often, it is peaceful and then pain, suffering, and discomfort stops.

As much as that one bothers me, one we did not do bothers me even more. We also saw a 14 year old dog with congestive heart failure. His weight had doubled over the past four weeks because of fluid retention. The heart is supposed to be half of the chest cavity on the radiographs, it was 90%. In between his tests, we kept him on oxygen, so he could breathe. I felt bad for him. In the end there was not enough money to treat him as he needed. Sooner, we might have been able to do more. Now, he needed everything. To be fair, I’m not sure I could have helped with all the money in the world. When I mentioned euthanasia to his owner, he immediately said that I wanted to kill his dog. Devoting my whole life to saving animals, I might have been a tad sensitive. “No, I want to save your dog. I want to be a hero and fix everything. But I do not have G.O.D. stenciled on the back of my shirt and I do not get to pick and choose who lives or dies. I can make the process easier.” I gave the meds that I could, but if they don’t help and if the heart does not explode first or this dog is euthanized, it will feel like it is suffocating or drowning in the fluid. I know, I do not want to die that way. I will protect every animal that I can from pain.

The decision and timing is difficult. It includes, the animal, their quality of life, pain, prognosis, the family’s ability to care (time and money) and other factors. I describe the timing as shades of grey. You don’t want to wait until it is clearly black or white.

Even when it is the right thing to do, it is hard. It is hard on me and my staff. At the ER, it is a daily occurrence. Over my career, I have done too many. I no longer can process them. In two weeks, I have forgotten the euthanasia and remember the pet and their life. People might be upset that I don’t remember putting their pet to sleep, but it seems to be my defense mechanism.

Since this young person decided it was her right to label me a murderer, I did look to see why people killed each other. The reasons listed were financial greed, sexual – or relational – lust, and the pursuit of power. I don’t know of any veterinarian that gets any thrill from euthanasia. Relief or anger are the two things I have felt. Relief that the pet is not suffering. Occasionally, anger that the situation existed. Neither emotion makes me feel powerful or good. Financial greed is a bad joke. Veterinary medicine can be expensive, but many practice owners struggle to pay staff, mortgages, keep equipment upgraded and still put food on their own tables. There were years when I did not get any money out of the practice or took money out of savings to keep it open.

Oh, and there is one more part of the definition of murder: you have to kill a person. I will grant that her cat felt like family, but it will not live forever and she will grieve and recover. At least I hope she does. And I somewhat envy the world she lives in that does not have the pain and suffering that mine does. I work to make the big world of reality better, but my friend, Julia, may have said this best. “Why is being youthful wasted on the young? They don’t know enough to enjoy it.”

I am not a murderer. I make lives better. Sometimes that includes euthanasia.