The refuge where I volunteer is a no-kill refuge, meaning only dogs who are very sick face euthanasia. This situation is fraught with ethical issues and I know I have wondered at times whether it is kinder to euthanise than it is to keep dogs in enclosures. Having just finished a Coursera course about animal welfare ethics, I think I am more firmly in the camp that euthanasia should not be an option, even for dogs who have had a very long stay in the refuge.
What underpinned the course was the notion of five freedoms of animal welfare:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst – to include access to fresh water, and a healthy diet.
- Freedom from discomfort – to include a comfortable sleeping area and a place of shelter from the weather.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease
- Freedom to express normal behaviour
- Freedom from fear and distress
There is no doubt that for many dogs out in the real world, many of these freedoms are not met. I am currently involved with a situation in my own village where a few dog biscuits and some water are the only comforts two dogs have. Unfortunately, that is enough to mean they are not mistreated, in the eyes of French law!
For this reason, the refuge can meet many of these needs – but perhaps not all, for all dogs. All dogs have access to food and water, have a sleeping area, have shelter, have vet checks. Our vet assistant Marie is constantly on site and knows the dogs inside out – especially the poorly ones. There is a small isolation room, a room for operations, a hospital recovery wing and an outdoor area for dogs in recovery. The dogs are vaccinated regularly and sterilisations happen on arrival for many dogs who have been used in the puppy farm industry. Of course, there are occasional outbreaks of kennel cough, always from newer arrivals, and dogs who arrive in a terrible condition are treated immediately and fostered.
This is often the heart-breaking bit, because these needs are not always met in the outside world. Perhaps these dogs have been deliberately mistreated, willfully neglected or have been straying for a long, long time.
This is Justin. He arrived a couple of weeks ago. As you can see, his ribs and hips are very evident, as is his head-ridge. No first freedom for Justin, sadly. At least at the refuge, he will get that need met, poor babe. Two months ago, a dog was brought in that had collapsed on a path in the forest in front of some walkers. “Rescue” weighed half of her normal body weight. She couldn’t even be treated until her weight improved. She was quickly adopted, luckily, and has gone on to regain all the weight she had lost.
The third freedom is also a freedom often neglected.
This little deaf and blind poodle came to the refuge a couple of weeks ago.
He arrived with fly strike to the wound on his head, filled with maggots. He’s been cleaned up here, poor lad. The lady who “found” him in her garden, most likely the owner, was going to leave him to die. Well, he’s still alive and now looking for a foster home or home.
The photo above is the inside of a cocker spaniel’s ear, also hit by fly strike, with the most appalling infection. She has been cleaned up and is no longer at the refuge. She was reserved last time I saw her, so I assume her owners have now claimed her. I worry about Tilly’s ears, my American cocker spaniel, but this really puts my worry into perspective.
Whilst wounds are one thing, basic grooming is another. Many dogs arrive in a real state of neglect, and part of the refuge job is to get them cleaned up and sorted out.
The hard freedoms to express in a refuge are the fourth and fifth. There are open spaces where the dogs can roam off-lead and where they can play, and the walking is a fundamental part of ensuring they get to see lots of different sights and sounds. There is a guy called Louis who comes in most days to pet the dogs, our very own ‘Petting Therapist’ and we try to ensure that some normal doggie behaviours like playing and rolling about in dirt are behaviours that are encouraged! It is not easy though. For most of the time, the dogs are just in holding cells and can’t be left toys or chews because they can cause fights.
And although the dogs here quickly learn to be less fearful, indeed, many of them go on to have some rehabilitation and learn that they are safe, cared-for, fed, sheltered and healthy, for some the refuge is distressing. Many dogs here bide their time. Many are actually in a much better place than they have ever been. A few find it very tough. The poodle above is finding it very tough. He is disorientated and confused enough. My friend Christa is fostering another dog, Arnold, who was very distressed by refuge life. By and large, though, the refuge is not a place of fear for the dogs. It’s a stepping stone where at any moment someone might step in and take them away to a happier (I hope!) life. They don’t understand that, but we do, and they understand there is love and care here. They will always be someone’s favourite. This week, a girl popped by and stopped in on Heaven. Brigitte, a dedicated volunteer, pointed me over to Fidele and asked for better photos and a write-up for him. Johanna has fallen in love with Kayseur and Gipsy, a rottie cross and a setter. Sarah sat in with a setter puppy for half an hour yesterday. Leon and Naomi practically bit my hand off to walk Drack and Amine, two rottie crosses, and the huskies. Jess and Emily love Shadow and Cleo, Harold and Granola. Everybody loves Usty. Mireille adores Cimba to complete distraction. My favourite right now is Justin, with his sad eyes and xylophone ribs, and Victor, an old breton spaniel. Everybody’s favourite is different. Then they find homes and you are happy for them, move on to another favourite as another van-load come in.
So for most dogs, the five freedoms get met in the refuge, despite concerns about quality of life “behind bars”. It must be remembered too that the refuges are monitored by vets and by department sanitation as well as any other number of officials to make sure standards of care are met. But for some, the refuge becomes their home.
One of those dogs was Smoke. With 11 years at the refuge, it seemed like he was a hopeless case… but more about that next time! I just wanted to put his stay in context and to give a bit of objectivity to what is a very emotive story.
Come back tomorrow to read about how this little fella found a home after 11 years of refuge life.