Companion Animals: The Trolley Problem

Those engaged in companion animal welfare in South Africa face an ethical dilemma, which can be expressed as a Trolley Problem. If you don’t know what that is, read here:

The short version is that the driver of a trolley on a railway track sees that there are five men working on the rail. He tries to stop but the brakes do not work, and he then has to make a choice, since he sees that he can switch to another track, where there is only one man working. Does he switch or remain on his current track?

Everyone who commits their time, energy or money to our companion animals has a choice as to how they will apply those resources to the animal welfare crisis. When we examine those choices, we see that they are not easy and that in each case we give up something; there is an outcome we trade off against the outcome we have invested in.

Triage situation

Triage, n:

  1. the process of sorting victims, as of a battle or disaster, to determine priority of medical treatment, with highest priority usu. given to those having the greatest likelihood of survival.
  2. the determination of priorities for action in an emergency.

For those who are unaware, we have a crisis in companion animal welfare in South Africa. An optimistic estimate is that 1 in 12 dogs or cats that come into the world find homes. The balance will die in shelters, as strays, abandoned, or due to inadequate medical care in puppy mills or backyard breeding operations. It’s a triage situation. We cannot save them all – we do not have enough welfare organisations, but even if we did, there are not enough homes to absorb the excess.

The SPCAs cannot refuse animals. They do not have infinite shelter space and cannot continue to provide for a constantly-increasing population of animals surrendered. Like other ‘kill’ shelters, the SPCAs dispose of the animals they cannot home within a given period by killing them, thereby obviating any further investment in those animals. For them, it’s a resource issue. They can only carry so many animals.

Spare a thought for those who have to euthanize animals every week because they simply have to make space for the following week’s intakes, which they know they can expect.

There are those who believe that the situation has become so hopeless and resources so scarce that the best and only option is the ‘mercy’ killing of many animals, estimated at more than a million a year. Their choice, when allocating resources, is to obscure  the symptoms of the crisis by destroying the evidence. They do not deal with the problem in any way, shape or form; they merely deal with the consequences. They are treating the symptom, not the cause.

Killing the symptoms, while it does solve the resourcing problem, does nothing about the reasons why the problem exists. It is a focus on managing the status quo rather than addressing its causes. If this was one track in our trolley problem, it is one that is doomed to continue on its path forever, since none of its determining factors will change.

The second track of our trolley problem focuses on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming animals, thereby making an investment in the individual animal and seeking to find sustainable homes for them. Some believe this is the ethical choice, given that a concerted effort is made to act in the interests of the animals.

 The proximity error

There is a meme that circulates among animal welfare people: "Saving the life of one animal may not change the world, but the world will surely change for that one animal". It is a mantra that rescuers and re-homers live by, and of course it is true when you are looking at an individual animal. But this is an error of proximity – we think this animal important because he has crossed our path and has become our responsibility, and we are correct, but we ignore the fact that there are a whole bunch of other animals we do not see, the invisible ones who come into the world in dire circumstances, live short, painful lives, and die before we know it, alone, having never known kindness, care, or affection.

The downside of choosing this track for our trolley is that it is selective. When rescue organisations are full, they say ‘no’ and that means the animal will probably go to a ‘kill’ shelter where their days will be numbered. In rescue and rehoming we deal with less than 10% of the volume of companion animals in the system at any point in time.

We need to change the world in such a way that the necessity for saving the life of individual animals becomes unusual, an anomaly, rather than the status quo. We can only address this by changing the system and its elements including legislation, policing, governance, policies and resource allocation. And no one individual organisation can address these.

Who is solving the crisis?

Who IS dealing with the crisis? I would argue that neither of the trolley tracks above are doing so, because neither is focusing on the root cause. The only organisations doing so are the ones engaged in mass sterilisation, and there are unfortunately so few of them that they are barely scratching the surface.

The real trolley problem is not a choice between ‘kill’ shelters and ‘pro-life’ shelters. Since neither of these can solve the problem, we must look elsewhere for solutions.

What if it’s not an either/or?

The way I have presented this scenario is that there is an inherent trade-off and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to deal with it. But I think it is a false dilemma, because we have another option – BOTH.

We don’t necessarily have to choose between sterilisation (the future) and rehoming (the present) – we can do both if we can stop wasting so much time and energy on conflict and duplication.

If the AW community could work together more, then the issue of allocation of capacity could be addressed globally, with the lion’s share of resources allocated to mass sterilisation and better legislation, with a greater focus on education so that there will be more homes for companion animals in the future, and with less attention to the consequences of  inadequate past policies.

Is this a pipe dream? Or are animal welfare organisations willing to forego prejudice and self-interest so that the interests of the animals are served? The obstacles are numerous: competition for resources, fragile egos,  undermining of others’ competencies, distrust, lack of formalised processes and governance policies for the welfare sector plus ubiquitous rumours, backstabbing and personal attacks. These all play their part in reducing companion animal welfare to a minefield for anyone wishing to facilitate change.

In this toxic environment, it is no surprise that many organisations and individuals prefer to ‘do their own thing’, which is the same as abdicating responsibility with regard to the long-term/big picture scenario. If there is no collaboration the crisis will never be averted.

Some claim that the coordination between certain pro-life rescue groups and the ‘kill’ shelters is making a difference, and this may well be the case, but it’s not going to address the core problem anytime soon. The inputs are too large for the existing capacity to absorb, and sooner or later, someone is going to have to talk about the elephant in the room: there HAS to be a significant reduction in the number of companion animals being bred. It’s that simple.

Exactly how this will be brought about is a subject for discussion.  Many suggestions have been made and I have written extensively about the options before. But right now, with everyone on their own track, with no cohesive vision and strategy, and failing the creation of a structure or process within which all organisations and interested parties can collaborate, the infighting will continue and so will the animals’ suffering…