Back to Basics: There is no such thing as “irremediable psychological suffering”
The No Kill Advocacy Center defines “irremediable suffering” as an animal who has “a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting physical pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care,” such as an animal in multiple organ system failure. But some “animal welfare” organizations have suggested that the definition is too narrow as it does not allow for mental suffering.
Several years ago, for example, the ASPCA authored legislation in New York which would have allowed shelters to kill animals, with no holding period of any kind, if those animals were deemed to be in “psychological pain.” The killing of these animals — officials at the ASPCA argued — was morally justified because it was ostensibly being done in their best interest. Even if we assume this was not dissimulation — although it most certainly was — the argument rested on a premise that had never been properly vetted: whether or not there is such a thing as “irremediable psychological suffering.” Moreover, there were no standards on how a shelter would make that determination, no objective measures on how it should be applied, no mandatory training or credentials on the part of the staff to do so.
Under the ASPCA-sponsored bill, if any two shelter employees — including the janitor, the receptionist, or a kennel attendant — believed that an animal was in “psychological pain,” that animal could have been killed immediately, before the animal’s family came to look for him; indeed, before anyone in his family even knew he was missing. In essence, this bill was designed to allow for the killing of animals by people unqualified to make such a determination, based on unenforceable, unknowable, and completely subjective criteria.*
Since then, others have tried to do similar things in other states. But even if the ASPCA bill and subsequent ones did not have these procedural defects; if they had been written with more rigor — strict criteria, mandated training of personnel, tested tools and evaluation strategies, the involvement of people who understand the science of animal behavior and have an in depth knowledge of the data, the concurrence of a veterinarian board certified in behavior medicine — would that change the primary defect? Can dogs, cats, and other animals be so traumatized that they should not be — would not want to be — alive? In short, is there such a thing as “irremediable psychological suffering”?
There is no such thing as an animal who is irremediably psychologically suffering. There is no such thing as an animal who is so traumatized that he wants to die.**
The view that animals can experience irremediable psychological suffering not only flies in the face of every animal’s instinctive will to live, but to an animal’s own reaction to the perception that she may be in harm’s way — which is not to run towards a threat to her life but to deter it by fleeing or displaying aggression. Humans are the only species in which suicide is documented (and even then, suicide is not performed or sanctioned by the medical community as a means of addressing a diagnosis of “irremediable psychological suffering”). It, therefore, does not make sense to respond to trauma or fear in an animal by doing the very thing a traumatized animal’s behavior demonstrates they are desperately trying to avoid: being harmed.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which one human being could confidently say another human being suffering “psychological pain” would be better off dead and feel justified in ending that person’s life, especially without that person’s consent as is done for animals. Such conditions are simply not regarded as “irremediable” or a death sentence. Instead, when confronted with people suffering psychological trauma, the response is to seek a remedy to help them no longer feel that way. There does not seem to be a justification for a different standard for animals.