But please don’t ever think any rehabber makes that decision lightly or isn’t deeply affected by having to choose euthanasia for an intake. We use clinical terms—intake, humanely put down, end its suffering, etc.—to offer ourselves some emotional distance, to make killing that animal easier. And yes, euthanasia is at its simplest killing the animal. There’s no mincing words about it.
The difference, however, between euthanasia and other forms of killing—hunting, outright murder for sick jollies, accidental (hitting the bird with your vehicle, for example)—is that when a rehabber chooses death for an intake, it is after weighing the options. Would the bird suffer needlessly if it were allowed to live? Would the stress of captivity be too much—could the bird be happy and fulfilled as an educational bird? Would the additional suffering and pain caused by an attempt to treat the bird be worth it in the long run—in other words, would it result in release back to the wild?
Euthanasia comes from the Greek words for “good death.” Is there such a thing as a good death? In our society we often emphasize life at all costs: pain and suffering be damned as long as an individual can be kept alive via whatever measures necessary.
Thankfully, when it comes to animals, pet owners and wildlife rehabbers have the option to consider quality of life rather than “life at all costs.” And all too often rehabbers have to euthanize—offer a “good death,” a dignified death—to animals whose injuries would render them nonreleasable and whose personalities render them unsuitable for educational birds.
That in itself is a hard enough decision, even knowing it’s the right decision.
But what of the young bird with an injury that means no chance at release but whose temperament would suggest a future as an educational bird? That’s when the proverbial gray area looms large and rehabbers consult each other, have long discussions with their vets and lose sleep as they debate the right course of action.
Why the long philosophical discussion?
Because that very scenario reared its sleep-robbing, emotionally draining head this past week.
Last week, Steve Hicks of Bubba & Friends raptor rehab got in a young red tailed hawk, female, probably early second year. She was found at the American Legion hall in his county, following people around, hopping up on trailer hitches of trucks to perch and generally not acting like a wild bird. When Steve arrived, he offered her a mouse on the glove he was wearing, and she hopped right onto the glove and inhaled the mouse.
Anybody see a problem there?
Since Steve was in the hospital himself, having had a mild heart attack right after getting this girl in, I opted to hold off on any decision until he and I could talk. When I did speak with him, he suggested I shoot the x-ray to our colleague Kathryn Dudeck at Chattahoochee Nature Center. She and I talked briefly before I sent the x-ray, and after she looked at the x-ray, Kathryn was not hopeful any surgery would work. I let Steve know this. The logical step now would be euthanasia, a “good death” for this regal bird.
The chances are slim, very slim. I’ll not deny that. But just this once I’m leaning toward letting emotion win out over reason and giving this girl a chance, however remote it might be. I think she deserves that much.
The hummer in all likelihood won’t be around much longer. I suspect the stress of not being able to respond to the migratory urge is taking its toll. Whether he makes the decision or I have to, his days are numbered at this point. Again, it’s a quality of life debate—at what point can one safely say he has no quality of life? In his case, however, there are no potential miracles to hope for.