Animal Overpopulation: The Euphemisms of…

BrianAnimal Overpopulation – What Does that Mean?

Bottom line: Animal overpopulation isn’t a dog or cat problem. It’s a people problem.

People don’t spay or neuter their pets and they give litters of kittens and puppies away. “But I found them all homes,” they say. And for each pet that didn’t need to be born, a shelter animal dies.

People buy animals from pet stores and backyard breeders rather than adopting loving animals from overcrowded shelters. In turn, they support the horrific cruelty of puppy mills where dogs are caged for a lonely lifetime churning out babies like machines. And what happens to those cute pet shop puppies who haven’t sold before adulthood? I’ll bet you don’t know – and you don’t want to.

So, what happens when the public creates too many animals? We kill these living, breathing, feeling beings who want to live and be loved, and we do so in a way that scares and hurts them. We kill them en mass every single day and not in that peaceful, comfortable way we euthanize a sick animal at the vet. I read yesterday of a shelter that took 90 dogs to a tin shed on a cement slab. They killed all of them in a single day on a single stainless steel table only to have their cages immediately refilled with more homeless animals as the cycle repeats. (I tried to retrace this article. If it was yours, please post the link below.)

This is the very real face of animal overpopulation – and it’s a people problem.

What do we call it when we destroy that which we create?

In Just One Word, a recent post on Edie Jarolim’s blog, Will My Dog Hate Me, she ponders the word euthanasia in the context of putting down shelter animals.

I’ve used the term euthanasia a lot because that’s what we’ve become accustomed to doing. And because I didn’t want to make others — especially shelter volunteers who have to face this horrendous responsibility — uncomfortable. But there’s a reason that the “No Kill” movement has the name it has. It’s not the “No Euthanasia” movement.

Since her analysis, Edie has been stirring interesting conversations by asking for a term that 1.) might better describe the harsh reality animals experience while 2.) remaining sensitive to the compassionate shelter workers. My question then becomes, can there be a middle ground?

Why the Word Matters

I held firm at the start that “euthenasia” is not mercy killing in the circumstance of shelters. These animals would thrive in a home environment. We kill them because public ignorance and/or lackadaisical attitude has created a grand inconvenience. Killing healthy, active, albeit unwanted animals offers no mercy. Or does it?

I recently watched two shelter workers talk about their job and had a change of heart.

These people are most definitely euthanizers, putting animals out of the hopeless misery we, as a public, create. Could you kill animals day-in and day-out while offering them your heart, telling them they are not alone and that you’ll see them on the other side? After watching these people share so openly, I desperately wanted that middle ground that Edie seeks. I thought hard about how to get there. I want to honor these people and what they so heroically do, but I want to honor the animals’ reality too. I simply can’t see how to do both.

How Words Impact Change

Homeless animals need us to speak their truth. They don’t want to die. They come to the needle seeking the human companionship on the other end. Cats purr. Puppies wag their tails. We must honor their truth, their being, as well as the truth of what we have done to them.

An unnatural death at the hand of another is murder. We must call it killing at the very least.  Those shelter workers who compassionately clean up after a poorly implemented system must also be honest – publicly –  for the animals’ sake. What they tell themselves in private to get through the day, I will never, ever fault them for.

“Euthanasia? It’s just semantics,” some have said, and it’s true. Many words and phrases describe the same horrific action. But if you don’t know what that exact action is, “euthanasia,” “putting to sleep” or “putting down” sounds merciful. Euphemisms don’t raise public awareness about what truly goes on in that back room – the killing, the destruction, the piles of bodies as the result of mass extermination. The public can easily ignore hopeless animals locked in cages with no room to run, the smell of death, the terminal loneliness and fear. They don’t have to think about the injections of a lethal cocktail or the breathing of lethal gas that halts their organ functions as they lay twitching or coughing, their bodies seizing. That’s right. Not all just fall “to sleep.”

Only with honest assessment, and after taking personal responsibility, can we recognize that, while we have created this awful truth, we can also create a kinder, gentler truth. I don’t know about you, but I’m not proud that this goes on in my country and in my name.

People, this is our problem.
Let’s do something to change it.


  1. One of the things I value so much about the community of pet bloggers I've become part of is that it is not knee-jerk. The people whose writing I value most don't just take a position and stick to it for the sake of being right all the time — they listen, argue, listen, think… and then draw a well-earned conclusion based on intelligence and compassion.

    So thank you Kim for continuing this conversation. I've been thinking about it too, and in an article I'm writing about BSL I've had no qualms about using the word "kill" (we'll see what the editors say). But really, in that case we're talking about taking cherished pets away from their homes and killing them, thus destroying at least two lives in the process. I'd call it premeditated murder if I thought I could get away with it … well, I will on my blog.

    • Indeed, Edie. I am so grateful for this (and not only this) conversation with you, Deborah Flick, Mary Doane, Hilary Lane, and so many others.

      Thank you for making me look deeper into the way we talk about the system – to really think about why we choose the words we do. While I had considered myself pretty aware of the plight of shelters and their animals, the video above also taught me things about the people who work there that I didn't know – but need to. We should never stop looking deeper, no matter how much we think we know.

      I look forward to your piece on breed specific legislation and I have no doubt your word choice will always be well thought out.

    • I agree Edie. The thinking and sharing as we all move through the pet blogger community is invaluable. I always know I will have something to think about when I visit your site, Kim's Debbie's, Mary's, etc.

  2. I propose that it would not matter one bit which word we use to describe what happens in the shelters; the people who are forced to do what our society leaves for them already seem to know and struggle to deal with it. We need them to speak to the rest of us, to point out that it's not okay. The video is excellent. And we need to stop sweeping this subject under the rug.

    Kim, you hit the mark – it's time to take responsibility and behave in a way that creates a better reality. I look forward to Edie's article, too; as in "a rose by any other name is still a rose", killing is just that – killing.

    • Thank you, CindyLu. I find it interesting that such a turbulent topic is drawing very little discussion here today. Plenty have clicked onto this post but just we 3 are commenting. Seems par for the course. Nobody wants to talk about it. I suspect it’s because engaging makes us think about it. And that just doesn’t feel good.

      • I think the reason for the quiet is that we're all softly sobbing while snuggling our pets just a little bit tighter after watching that video through to the end… I know I am. I think that, given some time to shake off the "loss for words" feeling, this post will elicit some very thoughtful and emotional responses.

        • Hi AJ,

          I've been hugging my pals a little tighter today too. When I wrote this post, I was exhausted at the end. It took several hours to get it down in a way that I hoped made sense. So yes, I'm sure you're right.

  3. Quite possibly; but since when did facing up to ugly truths feel good? Sometimes we have to, we must. Call of duty. No change comes easily, and not changing is easier.

    Perhaps, also, there are many who just don't know what to say about it. We need a global conversation, regardless.

  4. The video has left me pretty speechless. I wasn't going to watch it because I knew it would be hard. But I am glad I did.

    Now I just don't know what to do with myself or what to say or what to think. How do we get others to see this? How do we reach people? It's a question I have been asking for a long time.

    If we change our language, will that help? Because I am starting to wonder. The public calls it euthanasia when we all know it is killing. But it is also horrifically unfair to the individuals who have sacrificed themselves to do this job – how can we call such compassionate people killers? Even if that is what they technically are.

    I'm not feeling very articulate at the moment but I think that's a good thing.

    • This is a tough pill to swallow – even when you know in some general sense that this killing goes on. Seeing it for real had me bawling. I always knew, but I've never seen. I think that's what makes the difference.

      When I was a flight attendant and witnessed 9/11 in person, I went into a downward spiral of debilitating depression for 2 years. My company didn't allow airline personnel to speak publicly about any airline incident or accident. I had signed a contract saying as much. And so I remained silent about my fears, my peers' fears, and what I knew about failed security after the fact. After all, who would fly if the flight attendants showed fear?

      Do shelters require a contractual gag clause well to keep support rolling in? I honestly don't know. But I have never seen shelter workers come forward like this – and these two no longer perform their duties. If more spoke about what they do, shared video like this… I don't know. It opened my eyes and I'm involved with rescue. More people need to see the truth.

      • I don't know if there is a gag clause in shelter workers' contracts but it is worth finding out. Perhaps they just don't want to talk. After leaving such a harrowing job, I can understand not wanting to face it. I wouldn't. But then, I would probably be an alcoholic by that time as well.

        I am feeling a little more lucid today and am doing a lot of thinking. I don't have any answers, if anything I just have more questions. It's not just making people see the truth, we also have the hurdle of making people care.

        • Yes, they do have gag orders for shelters workers in NY and Chicago and probably elsewhere. I think Mayor Bloomberg told NY's ACC to reverse that rule after volunteers were "fired" for talking about poor conditions, bad management, etc. I did a story on the incompetent management of Chicago's ACC not long ago, offering video to show what I was talking about.

          City governments do not care that their citizens do not want budgets slashed every year at the Animal Care and Control facilities their tax dollars pay for. Cities are out of money, and each year take more out of ACC's budgets. To top it off, they pay excessive salaries to the Executive Directors of these places when resources to care for the animals properly are in short supply. These places become killing machines.

  5. Dear Kim,

    Thank you so much for sharing this video. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch. I think the 2 people who had to daily come in to this horrendous job, did the best they could, as compassionately as they could. I can only be grateful that they took on the burden.

    How DO you encourage people to neuter their pets? I still meet people who think it may be fun to have a litter or 2 of pups, just to see what it's like. Maybe even make a buck or a few hundred from the "experience" if their dog is a pedigree. I've met people who go "ouch" at the thought of snipping their dogs' balls, very often, I have to say, men. There are still many more who believe neutering will make their pet slow, lazy and stupid. Where does all this ignorance come from, in this day and age?

    All the dogs we've had in the last 20 years have been from the pound. We keep telling people who're looking for a pet, that they can get any "type" they wish, even pedigrees (because so many people, for reasons best known to themselves, crave pedigrees.) from the pound. But even in our limited experience, we know people who still buy from petshops and breeders, waiting sometimes for months for that elusive perfect dog of their dreams.

    Why? WHY? I don't think we're ever going to get an answer. We humans are already too used to treating other forms of life with nonchalance.

    That video has made me angry and weepy. I felt every head that went limp. I know what it's like because we lost Jordan almost exactly 2 years ago to the needle, and I was holding him when he went away. What a waste of so many lives.

    • People think it would be a great teaching experience for their kids too, Georgia. Don't you love that one? Sure, it seems innocent and educational enough, but what it really means is that those teaching adults could use a learning experience themselves. And I too have noticed the same about convincing men. How do we replace these thoughts with awareness? I wish I had an answer.

      I too am angry. I am angry with the ineptitude of our human race and yet these are the very people we need to work with to make a difference. We have to find the lowest common denominator and make an impression upon them. When I'm so busy hating, I don't know how I could ever reach out. I suppose that means the first part of my battle is to get over myself.

  6. Have you ever read a very old SF book by Arthur C Clarke called Childhood's End? There was a part in it where the aliens had warned humans not to ill treat animals, in this case, by engaging in bullfighting. Of course, the humans paid no attention and went ahead. What happened then was the stuff of my animal-besotted childhood fantasies – every time a knife went into the bull, every single person in the gallery felt the animal's pain. Needless to say, bullfighting came to an abrupt end.

    I remember thinking how completely wonderful that was, justice at last! And if I only I had that kind of power!

    I'm not a tree hugger or a rainbow warrior or even anthropomorphic (though my name is little pea, it's true!), Just another disillusioned person, sitting on her couch, wondering why we have so little respect for our fellow animal travellers. It's a good thing there are people like you around who actually do something about it.

  7. Ahhh yes, the great teaching the kids responsibility reason to get a pet.

    While we're at it, I think every animal movie that comes out (Snow Dogs, 101 Dalmations, Nemo, thank goodness Willy was too big for a home aquarium) should have a warning at the front and back about rushing out to get one of these as pets.

    E.g. How many people knew what they were getting into when they rushed out to get a cute rascally little Jack Russell just like the one in the movie, only to discover that it is a fierce hunting dog that requires a lot of exercise and discipline, and is not at all suitable around toddlers and children. Off it goes to the pound. Sigh.

    I HAVE to get off the soapbox and my high horse now. Sorry for venting.

    • Georgia Little Pea – Well said in both comments.

      P.S. I like the book you mentioned. How appropriate that the spectators should feel the bull's pain.

  8. an excellent piece & important point: words and labels do shape debates in profound ways

  9. Amen! Kim – I completely agree and support all that you said above.

    Having known some of those shelter workers who do this job day in and day out, I can tell you that they do it (euthanize, kill, or whatever we decide to call it) with love and kindness and with a whole lot of sadness. I have seen how it tears at their hearts. Some can only take it a while and leave the job, some turn to alcohol or drugs to get through the day, and yet others somehow find the strength to do what they do because they simply love animals.

    The truth is "we" as Americans, as humans, make this happen every day. Our need for the immediate gratification of getting a puppy "now". Our view of dogs and cats as accessories. Our inability to take the time to actually train our pets or spay and neuter them. All of this leads to what you described above. It IS time we take responsibility.

    I will pass on your post, but I can't watch the video. It's too close to home for me. I know what happens and what shelter workers do every day. I don't know how they do it, but I wish we would stop demonizing all of them (I'm not talking about you, but others who do) and change what "we" do so they don't have to do it.

    Thanks for writing a powerful post Kim.

  10. Really thought-provoking post. I've been pondering this question since Edie posed it as well. It's hard to figure out where the middle ground might be… I think it's even harder for me now after watching that heartbreaking video.

  11. I am so glad to see this conversation grow and I appreciate all of your well thought out responses. I wish I could continue to partake but I am leaving the country for a week and will have little to no internet connectivity. Rest assured, I am eager to rejoin you when I return. To all of you who have shared here and shared this post with others, I thank you. See you soon.

  12. When I adopted my first dogs from the Philadelphia SPCA 20 years ago, the experience was dreadful. The stresses of the shelter environment led to a cacophony of sounds and and dozens of dogs acting neurotically. They were not happy there. And in that sense, when they were killed (as I'm sure most of them were), it was euthanasia.

    We have made a lot of progress although we need to do so much more.

    Our Ithaca shelter became no-kill a few years ago when Nathan Winograd was its director. A fancy, new facility that makes pet adoption more attractive and provides a less stressful environment for the animals is key. In addition, the shelter has lots of foster families providing socialization and training for dogs who respond better to a home environment. It would never remain no-kill if not for the foster program.

    After 20 years of only adopting shelter dogs, I recently brought home my first purebred dog from a responsible breeder. I wanted to see what I could do with a dog who had the very best start in life and whose breed characteristics included friendliness to people and other dogs. I had hopes that Honey would partner with me in doing some type of volunteer activity that involved dogs (an impossibility with my previous reactive dogs).

    I was thinking it would either be service dog puppy raising or taking in foster dogs. I think your video just made the decision for me.

  13. Kim, A thoughtful post! It's a hard issue, and I get emotional about it too. I am often baffled on how to handle the thoughtlessness of so many backyard breeders. I won't even go to a breeder when our shelters are so over crowded. Two educated people that I know-that have rescued dogs–were at a party with their dogs. The dogs started humping, and well one thing led to another and a few months later one of the dogs had a litter of 4 puppies.

    One of these women asked me to put an "ad" on my blog stating that these puppies would be free to a good home. I refused. I was–and still am–so mad at these two women for their "Oh, let them just have some fun." These are educated people.

    So educating the public about pet overpopulation is just part of the equation. I don't know if it should be mandatory to spay/neuter a pet. There is a bad side to that too.

    It's a problem that doesn't have a clear answer.

    • Michelle – I can so relate. I had a long-time high school friend tell me she was going to breed her Labs and sell the puppies. We had an extensive discussion on why she shouldn't do this. When I left I thought she had changed her mind. So imagine my surprise when she sent a mass e-mail out to her friends and family announcing the arrival of the puppies and the message that you could claim one now. I sent an e-mail back saying no only would I not be claiming a puppy when so many pets were sitting in shelters looking for a good home, but I also would not be sharing this info with my friends or clients. I would rather they adopt. She got the message. I was as mad as you were about it. Ugh!

  14. I knew this would be hard to watch and it was very, very hard.

    Knowing what goes on in shelters in one thing, getting a first hand look at the trusting eyes of a pet being prepared to die is another!

    How can we get this video to go viral in the hopes of waking up a lot more people to the horrific results of frivolous breeding and the thousands of pets that become innocent victims of public indifference.

    At this point, it seems it will take Draconian measures to save the animals.

  15. Somebody mentioned that every time there is a movie about a dog, people go in droves to get that breed of dog. I know how powerful the media is… I grew up with Lassie, and yup, my first dog as an adult was a collie. There are plenty of reality tv shows out there that speak to the animal overpopulation problem, but they mostly preach to the choir. I suggest some of you awesome bloggers out there pool your resources and write a feature film movie script to bring this story to mainstream America. I remember a packed movie theatre of people sobbing at the end of Marley and Me. Just imagine if our Pal Marley had found himself in a shelter… just imagine a story following that "free to good home" puppy to his first home where he's so cute and cuddly that the audience falls in love with him, then follow through his journey into adolescence (funny bits of young dog being bad!), then the family rejecting him into the backyard and from there, well, you get the picture. Or a script about rescue dogs and shelters, cleverly hidden into a love story… I'm not trying to be flip here, I really think it has to go mainstream before the message will ever hit home. America likes movies, so why not get Jennifer Anniston to help you out here and write a great script…. what do you think?

  16. Ashley Taylor says:

    I've seen that video before. It's painful to watch. My own dog (as I'm sure it is for everyone else commenting) is a direct result of human negligience and ignorance.

    A young female was picked up stray very very pregnant and very very skinny. They were going to euthanize her before her pups were born. Our rescue took her in – and 3 days after her arrival she had 10 puppies. 

    One of those puppies is my girl, Tahsis. 

    It could be argued that we should have not let those puppies be born. I know very well that they did take homes from other wonderful shelter dogs who have since lost their lives. Perhaps in that respect we are just the same as the backyard breeder or the owner who doesnt speuter. We just couldn't see these little lives and their mom never get a chance to live through no fault of their own. At least we 100% know where these puppies are, how they are being handled and cared for, and that the adopters are required to return them to us if things go wrong…

    A wonderful, insightful discussion, despite being painful. Thanks for writing.

  17. I definitely feel for the shelter workers, and would not want to do anything to make their jobs harder than they already are. But, is it possible that in attempting to gloss over the killing of these animals to make it less atrocious for the general public, we are also making it worse for the shelter workers? If I had alzheimer's disease, would you be doing me a favor by referring to me as "forgetful?" If I were an alcoholic, would it be compassionate to refer to my condition as something less? Our words really do matter and we need to use them with compassion. By denying what these people are actually asked to do, are we helping them or hurting them more?

  18. I really appreciated this article – thank you for your insights! My boyfriend and I are not ready to adopt a pet yet, because we are too chaotic with our schedule, housecleaning, and may be moving in the fall. However, we have been thinking and dreaming about a cat and dog combo when the time is right. We will definitely be going to the rescue shelters – my childhood best friend was a rescue cat we adopted, and I will always miss and love him.

    In response to the question, "What do we call it when we destroy that which we create" I can only think of one word: abortion.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


  1. […] one doubts that language counts. We’ve been having a thoughtful conversation here and at This One Wild Life about the terms that should be used to discuss killing dogs at shelters, terms that would allow for […]

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