An open letter to friends in animal welfare and veterinary medicine about what is “essential”

Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, Director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University.

The running “joke” in my family is I will undoubtedly meet my demise responding to an animal in need.  A few months into dating, my husband witnessed his first event: I threw myself out of the driver’s seat and into the middle of a dark, curvy two-lane road to save a juvenile Great Horned Owl I had hit with my car. That event was soon followed by equally harrowing reactions to a hawk on the side of a highway, a deer in need of euthanasia in the snow, and any number of stray dogs and cats that frequently caused me to screech my day, and his, to a halt. (He married me anyway.) As a shelter veterinarian, I pretty much make daily choices that prioritize animals over people, even while I know the two cannot be detached in our culture and in our work.

In the face of COVID-19, guidelines are coming out from various animal welfare, veterinary, and public health groups, all working incredibly hard to use limited science and policy to make overarching recommendations.  Many of these recommendations go against our practices of more “normal” times – stop performing spay/neuter, stop transporting animals, stop TNR/SNR of stray cats, stop having vaccination clinics. (Whatttt?) Most of these recommendations make ALL of us uncomfortable and unhappy.  As someone who always prefers to mitigate risk rather than follow tight rules, I find myself constantly attempting to parse out exceptions. I know many of you are doing the same.  We want to keep saving animals in the face of tremendous human suffering, and we are often willing to put ourselves and others in harm’s way to do it.

For many regions of the country, including right here in Upstate NY, the pandemic is not at its peak yet. People in animal welfare see this as a call to keep pushing.  I’ve heard many animal care personnel comment they don’t really see the risk or need for a change in current practice in their community – and meanwhile the numbers of COVID-19 cases (and deaths) in our rural areas continue to rise. In Central NY we lie only a few hours from the epicenter of the pandemic, and our neighbors are dying.

Here’s the thing: there is no perfect way to “win” at this situation. And a portion of our truly essential work inevitably puts us at risk, in spite of all of our mitigation. However, the vast majority of activities we continue to do in the name of life-saving in shelters and practices are not truly emergent.  Spay/neuter can be delayed until after adoption. Vaccination boosters are not urgent for animals in stable and safe foster homes. Stray cats doing well in the community can continue to be supported in the community. Every animal entering a shelter creates another point of daily care and puts shelter personnel at risk. And most of the animals are doing very well right where they are, as long as it is not in an overcrowded and understaffed shelter facility.  Undoubtedly, suspending many of the activities we’ve utilized to improve animal welfare in our communities means we have challenging work ahead of us (read u.g.h. kitten season) when it becomes time to “recover” from this event. We will meet that challenge, as we always do.

My ultimate guiding principle for how to keep people safe during this pandemic is this: if performing a procedure or treatment requires a compromise in social distancing AT ALL, for any of our humans (including ourselves), that procedure or treatment must represent an urgent situation which is causing or will cause immense pain or suffering or loss of life for an animal who could otherwise be reasonably saved.  If it does not represent that level of intervention, then I need to reconsider doing it.

I’m trying to hold myself accountable. You should too.

Be safe, my friends.


as always, #ThankstoMaddie

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