Updated March 16, 2021
It’s never easy to bid a resident farewell, whether they’ve been with you for many years or just a short while. But when a resident passes away, there are a number of community, environmental, regulatory, and safety considerations to know about before planning next steps.
A Gentle Conclusion
When a resident is nearing the end of their life, their death has to be as dignified and comfortable as the life you have made for them. Long before any of your residents need it, you have to find a veterinarian or expert who is comfortable with respectful end of life care for each species at your sanctuary. For instance, some large animal veterinarians are uneasy with the procedures required to comfortably euthanize an ailing pig (in a manner similar to companion animal care) and can unintentionally add stress and pain to the end of a pig’s life. Agricultural devices such as captive bolt pistols are highly unacceptable and should never be used on sanctuary grounds, nor should they be considered a reasonable option in lieu of a qualified compassionate expert. It is your responsibility to ask the tough questions before a tough situation arises.
As an organization, you must have protocols in place for how it is decided that a resident’s death should be handled, especially in the case of compassionate euthanasia. As a general rule, it is best if the decision is highly influenced, if not made outright, by those who spend the most time with the ailing resident. Someone far removed from a resident’s day-to-day life should not be in charge of whether they should continue to receive treatment. For more information on this topic, check out our resource on compassionate euthanasia policies here.
A Loss In The Family
If a resident passes away on sanctuary grounds, some sanctuaries give their deceased resident’s non-human family and friends the opportunity to mourn with access to the resident’s body if it’s safe to do so. Each species has their own way of grieving, and letting them process their loss can make the difficult experience of death more gentle for everyone. If a resident passes away off-site, unfortunately there is not always a practical way to give your residents this opportunity, especially with larger animals such as cattle or pigs or in situations where you have decided to have a necropsy performed. However, you may find that in certain circumstances it is both reasonable and beneficial to bring a resident’s body home in order to give their family and friends closure and time to mourn. This practice is especially helpful if one of the other residents appears to be searching or calling for their deceased friend.
Practice Good Biosecurity
When handling the remains of a deceased resident, it’s critical that you continue to practice good biosecurity. This includes cleaning and disinfecting the area where the resident passed away or was kept, wearing protective clothing that is thoroughly disinfected before handling other residents, disposing of old bedding, straw, excrements, and partially eaten feed, and, in the event of an unexpected and unexplained death of a resident, keeping other residents away from the body. All of these steps are critical in keeping yourself and your residents safe from possible infectious diseases or other pathogens.
If Necessary, Determine Why
There are a vast number of reasons why any resident might pass away, and for the safety of yourself and your other residents, it’s very important that you know and keep record of what led to an animal’s death. An untreated infectious disease could easily spread to other residents, or it’s possible that an environmental or nutritional contaminant could be an active danger. In some areas, the local or regional government might perform a necropsy free of charge.
By having a necropsy conducted on a resident, you may learn information that doesn’t just give you closure, but could be beneficial for the health of other residents in your care, such as any major illnesses or more common parasites and diseases that they’d been unexpectedly living with. You may be required to report certain infectious diseases to your local or regional government, so be sure to know all regulations where you operate.
Reflect On The Situation As A Team
After a resident passes away, regardless of the circumstances, your sanctuary should strongly consider making it a policy for the sanctuary team to meet and reflect on the resident’s care and their life’s conclusion. Not only does this allow the staff to have some time to process any emotions from the event, which is crucial for protecting against compassion fatigue, but this policy can also provide a respectful space for staff members to discuss how care decisions affected a resident’s comfort and well-being. Staff who might not have been as involved with a resident’s care, or who are newer to the animal care-giving field, should be given ample space to ask questions to help better understand the reasons behind why certain care decisions were made, alleviating any potential misunderstandings or confusion in a nonjudgmental way.
With this space for perspective, your organization can hopefully pinpoint areas where care for a resident excelled, and where certain decisions might not have been ideal. From here, you can update your care policies and procedures for future scenarios that your organization might experience.
Safe Remains Disposition Methods
We suggest Alkaline hydrolysis (also known as biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation, and water cremation) in the disposition of your resident’s earthly remains, performed by a professional. This process utilizes water, lye, pressure, and heat, to almost completely neutralize and break down any remains in a few hours. This process has by far the lowest environmental impact of common remains disposition methods, and also is a safe way to dispose of remains that has any health hazards like viruses and bacterial infections. Alkaline hydrolysis does commonly leave a few bone fragment remains which can be returned and buried in a memorial if desired.
Burial in an environmentally-friendly receptacle or shroud has the benefit of providing a tangible location for you to memorialize your resident, but you need to first know whether you can legally bury an animal on your property. Local and regional governments all have very specific rules depending on species and zoning when it comes to burial, so it’s important to know what your legal rights and responsibilities are. Depending on how your resident passed away (whether from old age, disease, or euthanasia), it may not be environmentally safe to bury your resident’s remains on your property. Certain diseases remain long after death, and certain euthanizing agents are not safe for groundwater, wildlife, or soil. If you are planning on legally burying a resident, we highly suggest you first consult with a veterinarian or your local government’s environmental regulator to ensure that it will not cause harm and to determine a safe grave depth and location. You could also consider burying the animal’s ashes after cremation.
Best Burial Practices for Environmental Safety
- Layers of lime or quicklime can be carefully applied above and below the remains to aid in decomposition
- Graves should be covered with at minimum two feet of soil
- Do not bury in watery areas or areas prone to flooding, keep surface water away as well
- Bury animals at least 150 feet away from any water source, downgradient
- Do not bury large numbers of animals together as it can impact groundwater
Cremation takes a much higher environmental toll than burial, with some suggesting that cremation (at least in human cases) creates up to five times the amount of pollutants than burial in an environmentally-friendly receptacle. This is not only due to the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the fire and high electricity demands, but because cremains can have a negative impact on plants and animals when spread over the earth and into rivers and streams. If you do plan on burying your resident’s cremains, perhaps along with planting a memorializing garden in their honor, you’ll need to use an organic mixture to neutralize the naturally high pH and sodium content in the ashes. Cremation tends to also be rather expensive, so be sure to factor this into your operational costs if you choose it.
If you cannot use any of the above methods for handling your resident’s remains, there’s a chance that the Animal Services department of your local or regional government may provide remains disposition, though this should be a last resort option under almost any circumstances. Contact your government and ask whether they can provide this service or have a preferred handler.
Tell Their Story
It’s important to consider finding a way to honor your departed resident, especially if they’ve been a fixture in your sanctuary. Consider holding a ceremony or event and allow the public (or at least those close to your sanctuary) to pay their respects. Provide an opportunity to share stories and positive memories of the resident and how they’ve impacted you. Honor them either digitally or with a designated memorial area on your grounds. Your residents make your sanctuary special, and they deserve to have their memory cherished by the community.
Keeping Record Of End Of Life Events
In order to help sanctuaries track End Of Life care at their organizations, we’ve developed a free downloadable form just for this purpose. We encourage all sanctuaries to either use our free form or develop one that suits their specific needs!
Carcass Disposal | State Of Colorado (Non-Compassionate Source)
Disposal of Dead Animals | University of Vermont (Non-Compassionate Source)