Esperanza's story: The humane side of euthanasia

Sometimes the best way to care for an animal is saying goodbye

The hardest words an animal lover will ever say — or hear — are the same.

“There’s nothing more we can do.”

The dedicated staff at Animal Humane Society care for more than 23,000 homeless animals inside our shelter walls each year. We form a bond with every animal who comes through our doors. Sometimes our friendships are fun and short-lived — like when a bouncy puppy goes home mere hours after becoming available for adoption. Other times, our relationships with shelter animals can last weeks or even months, and we come to love them as if they were our own.

Regardless of how long they’re in our care, there’s something truly special about our connection with each animal. We’re their home — their only family — until they find you.

Esperanza, a Chihuahua, at AHS

We were Esperanza’s family for nine days — a short time in the course of the 7-year-old Chihuahua’s life. But for those nine days, we loved her fiercely. Just as a family should.

Esperanza was abandoned on December 17. She was left in a stranger’s driveway in Pine City, Minnesota. It was only 25 degrees.

Thankfully, a kind hearted couple noticed Esperanza right away. Recognizing she was in desperate need of medical care, they rushed her to AHS. During their surrender appointment, they recounted what had happened, with Esperanza safely tucked into an animal carrier. “There was a car parked at the end of our driveway for a long time. When it pulled away, she was just standing there … alone.”

Before leaving the little black and white dog with us they made a request, “Can you name her Esperanza? It means ‘Hope’ in Spanish.”

Hope for Esperanza

Esperanza’s teeth were rotten, her skin was inflamed, and her nails were untrimmed. But the largest medical concern hung from her abdomen like a grapefruit. Our vets suspected the large mass was a malignant mammary tumor. It would drag on the floor when she walked and her back arched painfully from the weight of it.

Esperanza when she arrived at AHS

Although Esperanza had only recently arrived, staff were already enamored with the brown-eyed Chihuahua. “Esperanza was so shy and unsure when she first arrived,” recalls AHS Veterinary Technician Jessica Speer. “Every time I saw her, she’d warm up a little more quickly. I knew she wanted to be sweet so badly, she was just scared.”

Our staff didn’t just love Esperanza, they loved the idea of giving her a second chance — of taking away her pain and giving her a new beginning. Esperanza was scheduled for surgery.

In the days leading up to her operation, Esperanza was visited often by staff who brought warm, comfy blankets and delicious wet food and soft treats. They sat on the floor of her kennel and scratched her ears. They spoke softly to her, providing words of comfort and encouragement. Somehow, Esperanza seemed to understand. She’d perk up her ears as if she wanted to hear more and place her chin gently in the palm of their hands.

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Time for surgery

On a cold Tuesday morning, Esperanza was carried to our surgical suite wrapped in her favorite fleece blanket. She was carefully sedated and prepped for her operation. When she next woke up she’d be one step closer to her second chance at a new life — or so we thought.

AHS employs more than 20 expert vets, including Dr. Josh Dwuznik who performed Esperanza’s surgery. He was the one who discovered Esperanza’s tumor wasn’t a tumor at all — it was a giant hernia — a hole in her abdominal wall that had allowed her spleen, intestine, bladder, and reproductive organs to spill outside of her body cavity.

“Surgery would have been incredibly difficult with a high chance that Esperanza wouldn’t make it through,” explained Dr. Josh. “The hernia had been present so long, and her abdominal mucles had become so tight as a result — there was no longer room for her internal organs.” That’s when Dr. Josh had to say the hardest words we say in animal welfare, “there’s nothing more we can do.”

Esperanza was humanely euthanized on the operation table, surrounded by staff — her family — who’d fallen in love with her quirky attitude and sweet disposition. She passed with dignity after a years of pain and nine days of immense love.

“As I prepped Esperanza for surgery I remember being so happy we were going to be able to take away her pain," said Speer. "The truth is, we did accomplish that goal, just not in the way that we hoped."

We never take euthanasia lightly

Deciding to say goodbye to a beloved pet is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences a pet parent will endure. It’s a decision that usually comes after weeks or months of careful consideration about an animal’s quality of life. It’s a decision often made with teary eyes and a twisted stomach. But above all, it’s a decision made with love.

The animals in our care don’t have a caregiver to speak for them. They have us. It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

“We want every single animal who comes through our doors to be adopted and live happy, fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible,” says Dr. Josh. When making a decision about euthanasia, our vets carefully consider every aspect of an animals’ health and wellbeing:

  • Are they suffering from physical or emotional pain?
  • Could their suffering be managed or treated so that the animal could be healthy enough for adoption?
  • Would they survive the treatment, surgeries, and post-operative care needed to manage their suffering?
  • Have we done everything that we can?
  • Are we fighting to save an animal because it’s in their best interest — or because we care for them and don’t want to let them go?

Redefining a second chance

Humane euthanasia is more than just a taboo subject. It’s been villainized in some communities to such an extent that euthanizing an animal can be seen as a failure, a lack of compassion, and even an act of cruelty. Even the most understanding animal lovers can rush to judgment when they hear an animal has been euthanized.

As a result, many shelters don’t share cases that end in euthanasia — even though they’re often the cases that demonstrate the incredible lengths staff will go to for animals in need. As a result, stories like Esperanza’s go untold.

 “Even when I know humane euthanasia is the right outcome, the weight of making that final decision is palpable,” says Dr. Josh. “I knew letting Esperanza go was the correct decision, but I still wrestled with it … I’m thankful her last days were filled with kindness, treats, and love from our staff.”

Inside Animal Humane Society’s shelters, humane euthanasia signals weeks of hard work, hours of conversations, and real emotional labor. It’s the most difficult decision our vets have to make, and the greatest act of compassion we can give to a suffering animal.

The memories of the animals we’ve helped stay with us and propel our work forward day after day — even when that work is difficult or heartbreaking. We weren’t able to give Esperanza the life we’d hoped, but we did right by the tiny, black and white Chihuahua. Her memory will move us forward.

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