Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Hardest Topic For Animal Caretakers

I have a problem.  And I know that the first step towards a solution is to admit that I have a problem.

Okay.  Here it is:

I cannot, under any circumstance, walk into a book store without buying at least three books. 

The diagram of my life

Please tell me that many of you have this tendency.  Please tell me that many of you wince at the number on the register as you purchase 700lbs of Must Have reading material but it still doesn't stop you from buying them, even if that means you can't afford to buy groceries later and/or pay your electric bill on time.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a bunch of books on training, one on killer whales, and one that is totally sinking me into a pit of despair, but making me think a lot.

The book is about caring for animals as they are dying.  :(  The topics include palliative care, hospice, and euthanasia.

Oh no.....not this awful topic

I hate talking about euthanasia.  Or just about animals passing away in general.  I'd rather not think about it...almost like if I don't take the time to think about it, then it won't happen.  And even though it's a really sad topic, and none of us want to face it, that's precisely why I bought the book.  And precisely why we are going to talk about it in this blog today.

Whether you're talking about companion or non-domesticated animals, in many cases they live long lives.  Many species of wild animals (marine mammals included) have a much easier time reaching or surpassing their average life expectancy.  Since all of us animal lovers always want More Time with our animal friends, this lengthened life span is awesome.  But, it has a price.

I swear I will break up the sadness with cute animal memes

Many of us care for (or have cared for) geriatric animals.  We know what a labor of love it is to care for an old guy or gal, and it's even more intense when that critter has a terminal illness. Or, when a young animal gets a diagnosis like that, that's an entirely different sort of pain.  Regardless of the situation, old or young, it is awful, it rips your heart out....and that's just thinking about losing them.  Add onto that the question of whether it's up to you (or your management) to euthanize or allow a "natural" death, and you've got a quagmire of lots of sads.

If you're thinking of skipping reading this blog now that *%#( just got real, please don't.  Because this is the sort of thing we need to talk about.

Let's just lean on each other to get through this

In my personal experience, I thought about this a lot when I was at a facility that had a number of very old sea lions (25+ years).  Both in the wild and in human care, it is very common for California sea lions to get cancer.  They can live with it for a while (and in aquariums, top notch veterinary care can successfully treat many forms of cancer), but eventually it catches up with them. 

All but one of the sea lions I cared for who passed away had terminal cancer.  Some we knew about, others were so badass that they partied hard right up until the end...and we only found out during the necropsy what was going on.  The one who did not have cancer had another age-related, terminal condition. 

Within three years, our team had to face the dreaded topic of euthanasia multiple times. 

We're gonna need a lot of comfort food to talk about this

I had a really thoughtful conversation with one of the trainers (we'll call her the Cat Whisperer, because she totally is one) about differing philosophies about choosing when and how an animal will die.  We were watching one of the sea lions who we knew was not going to pull through his medical condition.  And we talked about The Right Time....when the hell is it?  When is the "right" time to end the suffering of someone you love?

In fact, everyone on the team had valid, thoughtful questions about this.  And many of us had different answers.  Imagine being the veterinarian and manager who has to make the final decision.  You're not only shouldering the weight of taking an animal's life, but your team probably has totally different opinions about IF or WHEN it should occur. 

So why don't we talk about this more?  We ought to.  I don't just mean in the moment.  In my experience, veterinarians and managers always had respectful, thoughtful discussions with the staff when it become evident an animal was facing the end of his or her life. 

I'm talking about when it's not a pressing matter.  I'm talking about how we raise new animal care professionals to think about end-of-life care, or assessing quality of life.  I think it's valuable to treat this extremely delicate but critical part of our responsibility as keepers as a part of our development.  


One of the things that plagues me is thinking....what if I made a decision (or contributed to a decision-making process) that results in an animal dying when in fact, they would've healed?  What if they would choose to keep living?  That seriously torments me.  My cat was put down almost eight years ago, and I still wonder if I betrayed her trust.  She had end stage renal failure, couldn't eat, couldn't walk.....but I still wonder if she had the choice, would she have preferred to go on her own?  What if she could've had a few more days of love from her family? Yes, I trusted the vet.  He was amazing.  But my brain still tortures me.

With the sea lions, I secretly wished they would painlessly pass away in their sleep.  No one wanted to make the decision, because that question of "Is This The Right Thing To Do" sticks in your head and around your heart and never leaves.  No matter who is reassuring you.

When we have companion animals at home, the decision isn't easier per se, but it's definitely simpler.  The only people involved in the decision making process are: you, the vet, and other human family members.  In a zoo or aquarium, you're dealing with a LOT more people.  And unless you are a vet or part of management, you don't have control over the final decision.  It feels out of your hands, which is a really emotionally challenging thing if you disagree.

If you wanna cry like I do, just look at this snake with a  little top hat for a while.

That's why I really think it's valuable to have uncomfortable conversations (if you're not already, that is) because it ultimately means the best possible care for our animals.  Many of us are beyond the "euthanize them because they're old" mentality.  We are now providing palliative and in some cases, end-of-life care to our senior citizens.  In some cases, we are in uncharted waters as more and more species reach ages we've never had experience with, or observed in the wild. 

Worse yet, some of us feel that we can't show emotion or say how we really feel about this sort of situation.  Some of us may feel that it's "not allowed."  I think that as long as everyone is being respectful, open-minded, and they are genuinely coming from a place where the animal's best interests are always kept as number one priority, it's necessary for people to emote.  Cry, talk, get quiet....whatever. 

Smile! This axolotl loves you.

I know some zoos have quality of life protocol.  I think that's really helpful, provided it really considers the individual animal and it's coming purely from a loving, respectful place.  A friend of mine outlined her zoo's quality of life watch, something that is not a final decision, but is a way to outline when to start talking about when an animal is suffering.  This quality of life watch is personalized for each individual animal, not generalized to the species or grouping.  It takes into consideration the opinions of the entire team. It seems like a really great (albeit sad), respectful system.

But not all of us work for a place that has such a system.  

Let's honestly talk about our personal feelings on death if we don't already.  Do we even agree with euthanasia?  If we do, when is it "time"?  What does "quality of life" mean to us?  What do we think it means for the animals?  And when we share these thoughts in this discussion, we must keep an open mind.  We can't judge.  I think we'll all see no matter how we feel about this topic, our opinions are rooted firmly in a deep love and respect for the animals as individuals. 

The more we keep quiet and avoid this topic, the harder it is on your staff.  The harder it is for them to grow into leaders and make a decision, and incorporate their teammates into what it's like to care for animals at the end of their lives. 

I'm so sorry to make this blog on such a dreary topic!  But let's create something good from it.  We can lean on each other, we can learn from each other.  And ultimately, it's all for the animals!

Phew.  Glad that's over.

1 comment:

  1. My heart is unfortunately, a fragile thing, despite a lifetime of working with, loving and having animals. It breaks everytime. Sometimes it seems desperately so. I always agonize over the euth decision, even if one part of me absolutely knows it is my responsibility and my gift to end the suffering of an animal I love. The other part painfully questions the decision, same as you. Was it time? Would he have wanted more days? I feel like I betrayed them, each, in the end. It's a terrible feeling. There is no easy way, no perfect time, no feelings that aren't okay, but I know not everyone supports those who struggle, either professionally or personally with these moments. Thank you for being willing to discuss it.