We Need to Talk About Euthanasia: Life and Death in Sanctuaries

Catherine Besch
10 min readMar 28, 2023

As a sanctuary director, someone in charge of the life and eventual death of every living being in my care, I’m forced to make decisions that decide whether an animal stays in this earthly realm or leaves it with dignity and is free from pain and suffering. It is never an easy decision.

These decisions require taking a lot of factors into account like the potential for recovery, quality of life, potential for pain management and palliative care, and the complexity of infectious disease management and the risk to the other residents based on our facilities, staff experience, and veterinary resources. Many resources go into this decision including diagnostics, veterinary consultations here in Vietnam and abroad, endless research in peer-reviewed veterinary studies, and discussions with other sanctuaries. It also involves an honest evaluation of our existing and potential resources to manage a case.

Last night we euthanized Afu the rooster after receiving the diagnosis of Avian Hepatitis E causing hepatitis-splenomelagy. Google that one real quick. It’s ugly. Then take a flight/drive over to our only quarantine and assess the potential for the lifelong isolation of our patient. Look at the other birds we’ve sworn to protect upon rescue and consider their own risk of contracting and suffering from this fecal-oral transmitted virus, one-by-one losing the ability to eat from having a HUGE spleen pressing on their stomach and the pain of an enlarged liver. Then tell me I made the wrong decision.

The man who dumped the birds on us adamantly refused to accept this fate as he’s Buddhist and insisted he fly in a vet to help Afu while saying he’d find someone to take him in here with total isolation for the rest of his short and painful life. Both ideas were total fantasies from someone with zero experience or understanding of veterinary medicine, rescue, or infectious disease management.

In my 12 years of living and traveling in Buddhist countries and dealing the the raging insanity of their opposition to euthanasia in absolute terms, I fully believe that they do not belong in the world of animal care, rescue, and sanctuaries. I have watched such unimaginable, extreme, ongoing suffering in these years based on this for animals that should have been given a dignified end to their horrific suffering.

Years ago we were contacted about a case of a dog thrown from a window in the south of Vietnam who suffered a broken spine and 3 broken legs. Our recommendation was immediate euthanasia. The “rescue” and the “vet” refused because apparently, he was still able to drink water from a syringe. His fate was to die slowly in extreme pain which no local vet here will alleviate. Another dog from Quang Binh province was born with a tragic deformity that prevented her from ever being able to move at all on her own, instead left to lay in her own shit and garbage at a dirty concrete “shelter” for the rest of her life. When four volunteer vets working for our own clinic all wholeheartedly recommended euthanasia due to a poor quality of life with no orthopedic surgery solution at all in any country, we were berated by the “rescue” and called murderers before the owner then spread the word to the other local hoarders/rescues around the country we have always offered free vet care and consults to. Labeled as murderers quickly ended our relationship to help so many other animals in the country with no access at all to vet care.

Buddhism’s darkest moments

Vietnam is bad, but Myanmar is even worse. We had gone there to do some sterilization training work about 6 years ago with vets at a monastery in Mandalay. At one point, we visited a “rescue” with the vets we were training. There were around 80 plus dogs all living in one small space with no separation. This works fine for the bold dogs but is a living hell lower down on the pecking order and for animals that are injured, sick, or come from traumatic situations. There we met a dog in a filthy corner lying in her own waste. She had no back feet as she had chewed them off to the bone. She had a broken back and was paralyzed on top of being extremely thin and in horrible condition generally. I immediately named her Princess.

From that moment, we started to try to get her out. We planned a double amputation to start and would then work on getting her to the US quickly so she’d get appropriate care and a safe, lifelong home. It was an ambitious goal, but we had never seen a dog chew their own feet off while laying in their own waste in a “rescue” before either, so it seemed like the only logical option.

The rescue owner brought her to the clinic we were helping at and we gave her mild sedation in order to get her cleaned up enough and prepped for surgery. This after spending all afternoon driving all over Mandalay to find the drugs and surgical tools we’d need to help her. We had to soak her in a bucket for 20 minutes to get the thick cake of shit to soften enough to remove it. Underneath the shit cake was not what we expected. Her whole backside was almost entirely gone, rotted off completely. To do an amputation was impossible as there wasn’t a shred of healthy tissue from 4 inches from her tail base down. She was not a case we could fix and she was suffering horribly in every possible way.

We had learned quickly that they would not euthanize animals as Buddhists, so we had to plan at that point to overdose her while in surgery to ensure she died under anesthesia. This alone was a risk when we were the only western vet help in the city and were about to badly lose face and any potential for further collaboration that we had planned if we killed her and made it look like an accident. The owner then removed the possibility entirely by insisting that it was her fate to suffer with no surgery of any kind and that she would take her back to the “rescue” to let her live out her painful existence until her natural death.

I can see so clearly the owner walk through that gate of the clinic holding Princess like a piece of garbage on the way to dump her at her shelter to die slowly. I feels like it was just yesterday. The feeling of knowing that THIS was what “compassion” looks like to Buddhist animal “rescuers” made me want to leave Asia and never come back. It made me want to punch that bitch in the face repeatedly at the very least.

That’s not trauma you recover from or forget. That trauma teaches lessons you incorporate into everything you do, every interaction you have after that. I may despise holding the power of life and death in my hands at all times in this work, but I also consider it my duty and responsibility to alleviate suffering and protect all our residents even if it means deciding to take a life.

Death as a Colleague

It’s a honor and privilege to be there at the end of a life, to hold them as they take their last breath, to watch the pain finally leave their bodies. Wherever their souls go, if that’s even a thing, it can’t be worse than what their bodies experienced here on earth. My job is to make extremely difficult and permanent decisions that end lives and no one who does not live this close to death every day can possibly understand how this feels. The commentary, abuse, and unsolicited advice from people who aren’t even in this line of work in any aspect makes this horrific decision a million times worse. Every time I decide to euthanize an animal, I second-guess it. I roll it around in my brain over and over, often for years. I remember all those I couldn’t help, all those who left us too early, and all of these rescues for whom veterinary science had no solutions. There is little peace in rescue work.

But death is never the worst outcome. Death is, in fact, the easy part. The pain and suffering that is prolonged for selfish human reasons- none more selfish than for religious reasons that no animal could possibly understand- that pain I have no tolerance for. For all our rescues, my job is first and foremost to give them peace and alleviate their pain, and sometimes the only way to do that is by offering them a painless death surrounded by love and kindness. While they’re alive we give them pain relief, antibiotics, supplements, and anything at all that ensures a great quality of life. When those are no longer helping, then we make another decision even if it means we no longer have them in our daily lives to love and talk to and care for as family. They move on and so do we. That’s what rescue is. It’s an acknowledgment that everyone dies at some point and that death is not the worst thing. I’ve learned that Death and I aren’t enemies. Death and I must be coworkers. I don’t fear death, and I don’t fear it for my rescues. I fear suffering and being the cause of someone else’s suffering, but death isn’t the worst consequence.

The loss of Afu

As I held Afu on his journey to another realm, if that’s how this all goes, I did so knowing it was potentially going to allow his 4 fellow chicken rescues to avoid his disease and to live long, loved, healthy lives. I loved him even after being with him for just 6 days. He was, like all our rescues, my family. More than my blood family- my soul family. He was kind and funny and so chatty. Afu was a gorgeous bird, so curious and so interested in all things going on around him.

Taking his life won’t ever stop hurting, and I don’t want it to. I want to sit in that pain and be reminded that it’s a ghost of a perfect little soul who didn’t deserve the fate he had with a disease endemic in animal agriculture, a fate sealed by the non-vegans of the world who insist on breeding animals to be murdered at a fraction of their natural lifespan so they can chew on corpses instead of plants. He’s a victim of a disease that only exists because of the ignorance and greed of humans. I prevented his slow and painful death and hopefully eliminated the potential for the infection of the other birds. He didn’t have his throat slit in a slaughterhouse. He drifted peacefully away in my arms under anesthesia and hopefully in 10 years or more his flock mates will begin a peaceful journey to their own natural end. 70 billion birds no different than Afu will end up dying a very different death this year. I won’t ever stop fighting for them.

In the arena

I also won’t ever stop advocating for humane euthanasia. I won’t ever take abuse for that decision lightly either. If the fact that we euthanize terminally ill and mortally wounded animals upsets you, get in the fucking arena and fight these battles every day. Until you can say you’ve seen what I’ve seen and watched endless preventable suffering and horrible deaths, your commentary is not welcome. Needless to say, I had to block the original rescuer of the birds, not because I am unable to take advice or afraid of dissent- quite the contrary really- but because making a hard decision more stressful with ignorant abuse from bystanders isn’t productive.

In my 25 years of working with animals and caring for so many that I loved and didn’t want to lose, I’ve learned that I have the experience now to make devastating decisions and live through them and that there’s only a tiny handful of humanity that has that experience and training. I do not take advice from anyone who lacks this expertise because being in the trenches matters. What we gain from the pain of repeated loss are lessons you don’t get from the sidelines without the blood on your hands, the vomit, shit, piss, puss, and assorted gore on your clothes, in your hair, and under your fingernails. The tears are our teachers. Loss after loss and hard decision after hard decision alters your relationship with suffering and death and distances you from the rest of humanity who doesn’t experience this. I do not regret this experience, but am grateful to know Death so intimately and that he isn’t my enemy anymore, but an ally used for alleviating suffering.

We’ll never euthanize for convenience, space, or lack of resources. We don’t even euthanize for behavioral issues unless they have an unfixable medical cause like a neurological disorder or injury. We will always be the defenders of a good life and dignified death because that’s what rescue means. I love animals and know that love means making hard decisions that hurt me while helping others. I won’t forget Afu and I won’t stop giving our rescues everything they need to live a great life or die a peaceful death.



Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist and pig, chicken, dog, and cat mom who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.