Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Ethics

Vets face difficult decisions all the time, especially ones involving ethical issues. I don't mean professional ethics, which are pretty straightforward, but decisions of life and death and animal treatment that can be ethically dubious.

Like some ethical dilemmas, solving these questions is not straightforward, and one needs to know the contextual and technical issues involved before even trying to solve the problem. There may be many answers to the problem, and all those answers could be both right and wrong depending on your point of view.

Today I am going to challenge you with an ethical dilemma that involved one of my clients. This example is quite common and can be very controversial.

A client once came in with two Pomeranians, both over 10 years old and both poor behavioural examples of an otherwise excellent breed. Both dogs would bite without provocation and, more importantly, both barked incessantly at home. As a result of their aggression, the owner wasn't able to groom them and both looked like strays with matted fur and extremely long claws.

To put it simply, they were dogs that only the owner could love. Both dogs had a sad history, having been passed from one owner to another until they finally found a tolerant home where they were loved very much.

The reason they were brought to me was their incessant barking. They lived in a building that allowed dogs, but if neighbours complained twice, then it was the building management's right to have the dog removed or otherwise silenced or the owners evicted.

Complaints had been made about the dogs and, for financial reasons, moving house wasn't an option. The owners lived in Sham Shui Po and the woman had been sick and in a wheelchair at home for a few years after a car accident. The man was an overworked nighttime security guard. They had tried training the dogs, but these animals were hard to teach in any trainer's book.

It was clear the owners didn't have the time or financial resources to train the dogs, and they had limited time before an eviction notice would arrive. They had approached the main charity animal shelters and friends, who had all rejected the dogs because they would bite for no reason.

As you can see, the owners were in quite a fix. They were now faced with considering euthanasia for both their beloved dogs, even though the dogs were active and happy. The only other option was to get both dogs 'debarked', an operation that is considered cruel in most circles. Hence the ethical dilemma: kill the two dogs or perform potentially cruel surgery. What would you do?

Not easy? It would have been very unfortunate for these dogs to be killed. After so many intolerant owners, they had found a couple that not only tolerated them but also loved them. But to debark them would cause short-term pain and, more importantly, rob them of the innate ability to vocalise.

What if they were you? Would you rather die or be devocalised? But people would never face such a situation or choice. To judge the owners or the vet by human standards would be most unfair. This is uniquely a dog ownership problem and there isn't any common human analogy.

I advised the owners to find out who made the complaints and try to get them to understand and withdraw their complaints. They knocked on all the neighbours' doors but no one admitted to making the complaints, so negotiation was impossible.

What did I do?

Before I reveal the answer, I have to tell those of you crying out 'bloody murder' and who want to adopt the two Pomeranians despite their flaws: this happened quite a while ago, so you can't change the ending.

I made the owners prove everything they told me, via either documents or witnesses, because I wouldn't just take their word for it. Then I debarked the dogs.

Dogs that have been debarked seem to behave quite normally without the ability to vocalise. They can still bark, but it's just much quieter.

So for the two Pomeranians in our story, after the surgery, if the situation needed barking, as these dogs constantly seemed to think, they could still perform the act of barking, but it would simply not be audible.

The moral of the story is that fate can be harsh and far from fair. For the benefit of these dogs and applying logic in hindsight, the villain of this story is the initial owner, who didn't take the responsibility to train and socialise the dogs at a young age, and then irresponsibly passed the buck to the next owner.