Having a protocol that includes relying on input from his qualified team gives the organization confidence in its decisions. “When we decide that euthanasia is the best option, we are comfortable knowing that we have explored every available option medically and behaviorally,” says Leonard.
ASPCA Pro: How does Harmony make euthanasia decisions?
Leonard: When horses are suffering or are unsafe, compassionate euthanasia is often the kindest gift we can offer. Our team makes this decision with a great sense of responsibility. When evaluating a physically or mentally suffering horse, we are very aware of the need to put the plight of the animal ahead of our personal feelings. Nobody wants to euthanize a horse but sometimes it’s the best thing to do for the animal and for the public who one day wishes to adopt from us. Even if people don’t agree with euthanasia as an option, the safety of the staff, volunteers and the public must be considered.
When creating our guidelines around euthanasia decisions, we assembled a group of experts who prepared a matrix that we use to assist in the evaluation and treatment options for equines entering the facility. The matrix includes factors that address suffering, long-term health and safety.
We define “healthy” as either having no signs of clinical disease or evidence of disease (and a veterinarian determines the horse) has a good or excellent prognosis for a comfortable life. To us, “safe” means the animal has not exhibited behavior that is likely to result in severe injury or death to another animal or person.
Medical decisions on euthanasia are made by a licensed veterinarian and the director of the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center. Behavior euthanasia decisions are made by a team of professional trainers and the director.
Compassionate euthanasia is a gift. It is not acceptable to let a terminally ill, suffering horse die naturally when compassionate euthanasia can ease that endless pain. It is not acceptable to house a known dangerous animal who cannot be safely placed in the community. Each euthanasia decision is difficult, and every decision must consider the welfare of the individual animal.
ASPCA Pro: Has your decision-making process evolved over time?
Leonard: We continue to evolve as medical advancements increase, potential treatment options are introduced, and behavioral solutions are explored to limit the number of potential euthanasia candidates.
Behaviorally, we continually bring in outside trainers to work with our training staff, so we can get different perspectives on training, which allows us to add new tools in our training tool belts. It’s important that our trainers learn and grow so they can successfully work with the hundreds of different types of horses we get each year.
Medically, we rely on licensed equine veterinarians from the community to help with specific treatment plans. When we decide that euthanasia is the best option, we are comfortable knowing that we have explored every available option medically and behaviorally before making the final decision.
ASPCA Pro: Are there any logistical tips that you could share with other rescues around euthanasia?
Leonard: Every horse at our facility will know that we cared about them and that they were treated with dignity and respect. They are often groomed, fed a little extra grain and the staff spends a little extra time with them. As the director, I feel responsibility to the team, veterinarian and the equine, so I am present during most euthanasias. In addition, one or more of the trainers who worked with the equine will also be present for comfort and a final goodbye. We arrange carcass removal prior to euthanasia.
ASPCA Pro: What else do you think is important for groups to know about euthanasia?
Leonard: As a staff we continually get together to discuss any ongoing medical and/or behavior issues that we are experiencing. We work as a team to determine which trainer should be working with what horse to get the best possible results. If a trainer is having difficulty working with a horse, we have several other trainers who we will switch the horse over to. After a group of trainers have worked with an equine with no results, we will make a euthanasia decision. No single person makes any euthanasia decisions at our facility. We expect to see horses improve in 30-day increments. As long as a horse is progressing, no matter how fast or how slow, we will keep working with the equine. We keep training notes on all equines and we can look back and see if a horse is progressing or regressing to help make euthanasia decisions on behavior.