"Loving Them to Death: Blame-Displacing
Strategies of Animal Shelter Workers and Surrenderers"
Authors of original article: Stephanie S.
Frommer and Arnold Arluke
Originally published in Society and Animals
Volume 7, Number 1, 1999*
The authors examined how animal shelter workers at a large
shelter in a major U.S. city and people who surrendered companion
animals to the shelter managed guilt over animals' deaths. Of the
nearly 7,000 animals the shelter received in 1995-mostly cats and
dogs-2,195 were adopted, 2,422 were euthanized after a holding
period, and the rest who were not dead on arrival were returned to
their caretakers, sent to the city's animal control facility, or
euthanized immediately at the caretaker's request. After
interviewing 8 paid shelter workers and 10 surrenderers, the
authors described strategies they used to cope with guilt over the
killing of surrendered animals.
Some surrenderers resisted self-blame by blaming others. If
someone forced them to give up their companion animals, they could
claim no alternatives existed. A landlord did not allow companion
animals; a spouse insisted a man surrender the couple's dog;
undefined others failed to take responsibility for animals,
necessitating their euthanasia: These were among surrenderers'
Some surrenderers passed the buck, claiming, for example, that
shelter workers were at fault if adoptions did not occur, since
surrenderers built strong cases for animals' adoptability by
emphasizing their youth, playfulness, and other appealing
characteristics. Some passed the buck by explaining why the
shelter they chose was the most likely to place their companion
animals. Some blamed the animal victims by pointing to their
perceived needs: Death was preferable to a lower quality of life
than the animals had come to expect or to being a stray. Some
pointed to a possibility that, if not euthanized, an animal might
present a danger to human beings-by biting someone or by fighting
with another animal and injuring someone who tried to break up the
Shelter workers, too, blamed others, especially surrenderers, in
whom they sought to instill guilt. Shelter workers held
surrenderers responsible because they created the problems leading
to the deaths or had failed to meet their responsibility. They
extended blame to the general public by recognizing that most
killings occurred because there were not enough good homes for
animals. By blaming surrenderers, shelter workers set themselves
apart from and above surrenderers, claiming the moral high ground
and better enabling themselves to judge surrenderers as not having
tried sufficiently to maintain appropriate relationships with the
animals. Shelter workers also blamed the animal victims:
Euthanasia was preferable to a bad life or a painful death. Some
thought of the animals' deaths as inevitable or already underway
so that they were just facilitating the process.
The authors point out that shelter workers and surrenders share a
common concern for animals but by blaming each other for animals'
deaths they prevent improvement in animals' well-being.
Understanding each other's feelings of guilt about euthanasia and
each other's feelings about the animals could lead shelter workers
to devise more effective educational programs on responsibility
for animals and could lead animal caretakers to work out better
solutions than surrendering animals, but investing so much energy
in avoiding guilt precludes such progress.
*Available from Psychologists for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals, P.O. Box 1297, Washington Grove,
MD 20880-1297; 301-963-4751.
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