Dogs available for adoption at the Aurora Animal Shelter. Photo by Geoff Ziegler/The Sentinel

Words really do matter, and animals shelters really do kill discarded dogs and cats, millions of them.

The word that animals shelters use, and most people, too, is “euthanize.”

The word literally means, “good death.” There is nothing good about the 400 or so dogs and cats each year that Aurora’s animal shelter kills because nobody wants them.

Currently,  city officials are reviewing every single line of its animal control legislation. Myriad changes are being proposed. One would no less remove the ban on pit bulls, yet another controversy. But one of the most egregious proposed changes is to systematically remove the words “destroy” or “kill” from the city animal code and replace it with “euthanize.”

The word is a euphemism for what happens day in and day out in animal shelters in Aurora and across the country. Shelters in big cities fill up quickly with dogs and cats who are picked up by dog catchers or dropped off by people. Many of these owners offer one of a small repertoire of excuses.

“We can’t keep (Insert name of dog or cat here) anymore because:”

• We’re moving

• We’re allergic

• We’re having a baby

• He/she barks

• We can’t afford it

And so Boots or Bubba join the endless supply of other unwanted pets in Aurora and at pounds everywhere. A few will find new homes. Most won’t. They won’t be euthanized. They’ll be killed.

That’s created controversy here in the newsroom over the years. Not the killing. Everyone I’ve ever known agrees that the destruction of millions of unwanted dogs and cats each year is appalling. The controversy, even here, has been what to call it when you inject a lethal substance into the vein or heart of a cat or a dog because no one wants it.

At The Sentinel, the words I insist on are “kill” and “destroy.” “Euthanize” is a political word created by shelter officials and others to minimize the horror of what really goes on, which is the wholesale killing of unwanted pets.

There is actual euthanasia at these shelters. Police or others compassionately stop to retrieve dogs and cats hit and injured by cars. They take them to shelters, where it’s easy to determine that the animal will suffer until it dies from its injuries. It’s often swiftly injected with sodium pentobarbital. The animal collapses and dies just as swiftly. Like shooting a horse injured in a race, this is where the expression “putting him out of his misery,” comes from.

The euphemisms for that euphemism have mostly been parked over the years. “Putting him down,” “putting him to sleep,” and “taking him out,” have given way to “euthanize,” which has a much more medical ring to it.

Even fans of dubbing animal destruction “euthanasia” agree it’s too conspicuously deceptive to say you’re sending an unwanted dog off to Slumber Land for all eternity.

“Euthanasia” elicits respectability and compassion, and it’s not as conspicuous a deception. It’s totally inaccurate, however.

There’s nothing compassionate about killing dogs and cats to make room for the next wave of unwanted dogs and cats that will also be killed. It’s hideous, and soft-peddling it as anything other than appalling is just a lie.

While the lethal injection is better than gas chambers or a misaligned bullet to the head, these deaths are not sweet nor easy.

Dogs are smart and instinctive animals. Already out of sorts or just plain terrorized by being trapped in a shelter, they’re often fearful when they take the walk to the injection room.

I’ve watched this process in a few shelters. It’s hideous, gruesome work that never gets easier. The shelter employee has to find a vein, do the injection to the often trembling dog, and then it collapses. Its body is usually stored in a walk-in refrigerator until there are enough of them to churn an incinerator. A chilled chamber piled with dead dogs does not bring “compassion” to mind.

Cats are the worst. They are far more perceptive and far less obliging than a dog. They fight and can be dangerous. A gloved handler places the cat in a special cage that allows another shelter employee to press two grate-like devices together, squeezing the animal tightly like a slice of bread in a toaster. Immediately, the cats usually scream or yowl. They bare their fangs ready to fight but are immobilized and terrified for the last few moments of their lives. The shelter worker jabs a hypodermic needle into the heart of the cat and injects it with the sodium pentobarbital. The cat dies immediately. The process is cloyed with the smell of fear, urine and feces.

There is no mercy here. There is only industrial, systematic death so that thousands of unwanted dogs and cats don’t wander the streets of Aurora, and communities like it across the country.

To their credit, shelters like the one in Aurora and thousands more work together to shuffle unwanted pets around, giving them more time to find homes. But in the end, about 6 million dogs and cats are left at shelters each year across the country, according to a national database, and about 1.5 million of them are killed

In Aurora, about 4,000 animals a year are taken in, and about 400 of them are destroyed, according to shelter statistics.

Calling this “euthanasia” makes it a little easier for people who don’t care that their cat or dog never came home. It makes them feel a little less guilty about dropping their pet off at a shelter. It makes the people who work at shelters seem less like cartoon dog-catchers or like the heartless people that they really are not.

Mostly, it makes the horror of who we are as a society seem a little less disgusting than we really are when it comes to wasting and then ending the lives of millions of dogs and cats each year.

So I recommend the city follow the lead of The Sentinel and call it what it really is, killing. Maybe being a little more honest with ourselves might reduce how much killing we have to do.

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