Nick Marsh’s faithful companion, Willow.

Willow, my faithful (if neurotic) lurcher, is usually good company on our walks. We have some great conversations – I talk, she listens.

We have covered many topics over many miles: who was the best Star Trek captain (Kirk, obviously), why we have seasons, why were the 1980s the best decade for music – but one of her weaker areas, I have discovered, is ethics and morality.

For instance, on a walk a couple of days ago, halfway through a stimulating discussion on how The Hobbit movies got it so wrong, Willow suddenly pounced into the grass, ears up and tail twitching. There followed a dreadful high-pitched squeak and my companion emerged with a rabbit in her jaws and a triumphant expression on her face.

Swiftly observing the less-than-triumphant expression on my own face, she dropped the rabbit at my feet and hurriedly moved on to sniff some suddenly-important patch of grass well out of telling-off range.

Naughty boy

I looked at the rabbit and my heart sank. I was half-hoping that its eyes would be swollen and encrusted with myxomatosis so I could at least console myself with the fact it would have died anyway, but no such luck. It appeared to be in very good health – or at least had been up until a few seconds ago. Now it was bleeding from its nose and one of its eyes, and the paradoxical chest movements and agonal gasps told me things were unlikely to improve soon. The rabbit was going to die.

I was half a mile from home and I don’t habitually carry a syringe of pentobarbital around with me, so I did what seemed the most reasonable thing. I picked it up by its hindlimbs and dashed it against the road, three times, until I was absolutely sure it wasn’t suffering any more. I then placed it back where Willow had found it and we headed home, rather less chatty than we had been before.

dead bunny
The rabbit was going to die.

It wasn’t the happiest walk of our lives – or the rabbit’s, come to think of it – but it was only later, describing the incident to my mother on the phone, that I started to wonder about the ethics of the situation.

When I explained how I had bashed the rabbit against the tarmac, my mother gasped in horror: “What? Shouldn’t you have taken it back to the practice and ended it humanely?”

The tone in her voice was the one she generally reserved for when I had been a very, very naughty boy.

I was confused. Taking it back to the practice would have meant a 10-minute jog down the road, then a 15-minute drive, and an injection. The rabbit would have suffered far more in that time than for the few seconds it actually had. I tried explaining this, but my mother didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

How could you?

The conversation reminded me of a consultation a few months previously, where the owners of an elderly fish had brought it in to be euthanised on account of it swimming backwards and upside down. They left the poor creature with me to decide on the manner of its fate.

As is not uncommon in interesting situations like this, nurses and colleagues clustered around me, suggesting and wondering how best to do it. Here’s what I did: I swiftly pulled the fish from the water, gripped its tail tightly, and smashed it as hard as I could against the prep room table.

The result was, I am the first to admit, not pretty, and my co-workers, who generally consider me a compassionate man, stared at me with the kind of horror they would usually reserve for a disgraced 1970s television celebrity.

“Why would you..?”

“How could you..?”

“I can’t believe you just..!”

I was a monster. I looked at the smashed fish in my hand. It had clearly died almost instantly. The reactions really, genuinely confused me.

A few months before that, one of my colleagues had been faced with a similar fish quandary, and their solution had been to pour pentobarbital into the water. It didn’t look like the fish enjoyed the experience. Nor did it 15 minutes later when, this strategy having failed, they pulled the fish out of the water, injected 5ml more intra-fish, and dropped it back in.

The fish did die, eventually, and no one looked at my colleague as if they had suggested invading Poland, either.

Quantitative suffering

fishI’ve tried to puzzle out these, to me at least, strange reactions – not only from my mother, but from other nurses and veterinary surgeons. I think they come from a fundamentally different way of looking at the ethics of the situation than me.

For some people – maybe most people – it’s important to them what part they played, how complicit they were in a death. To them, it’s more acceptable morally to inject anaesthetic solution than to be involved in the violent destruction of another life. This doesn’t matter to me. What does matter, from the moment I see an animal suffering, is how to end that suffering as quickly as possible. Concussion is a pretty rapid route to this, even if it isn’t a pretty one.

I don’t want to preach that my perspective is right and theirs is wrong, but I can tell you that my rabbit, and my fish, quantitatively suffered less than if I had tried any other method.

I can’t totally divorce myself from the equation, of course. I don’t like to think of myself as a man who has beaten a fish to death, but I hope you’ll forgive me some linguistic squeamishness – after all, I suspect most of you also describe yourselves as “performing euthanasia” rather than “killing people’s pets”, even though it matters little to the pets themselves. We’ve all got to sleep at night, after all.

Why am I talking about this at all? Because I worry. I worry that, by allowing ourselves to become too much part of the equation, we allow more suffering in. This selfish morality blinds us to the most important thing – what the animal is actually experiencing.

If you take a dog or a cat into the prep room mid-euthanasia to fit a catheter so the procedure can go smoothly in front of the owner, ask yourself: who are you doing that for? If you can get a catheter into a vein, you can get a needle in too, and the animal doesn’t have to spend two or three of its last minutes on earth surrounded by strangers in strange place.

When the cat-mauled pigeon you admitted the previous night to “see how it goes” is dead in its cage the next morning, don’t think “Well, I tried” – instead try to imagine what that pigeon experienced in its last few hours.

The general public can get away with being a little selfish in their morality. I’d like to think that we know better.

Well, that’s enough preaching. Time for another walk with Willow. This time, we’re going to be talking about what was fundamentally wrong with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

I think it may be quite a long walk.

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