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Ebola, Outrage And The Killing Of A Dog

Due to fears of Ebola, Excalibur, the pet of a nurse assistant infected with the virus in Madrid, was euthanized as a precautionary measure.
Due to fears of Ebola, Excalibur, the pet of a nurse assistant infected with the virus in Madrid, was euthanized as a precautionary measure.

Even as the Ebola crisis in West Africa exceeds 8,000 cases and 3,800 deaths — and as Thomas Eric Duncan's family, friends and neighbors mourn his death in Dallas from Ebola — global outrage has erupted over the decision by health officials in Spain to put down a dog whose owner is hospitalized for Ebola.

The dog, named Excalibur, belonged to a nurse in Spain diagnosed this week with Ebola. Spanish authorities killed the dog with plans to incinerate his body as a public-health measure. As I read it, the clamor in response to this decision reflects high emotions from two distinct perspectives. Animal lovers are outraged that the dog was euthanized without any evidence that he had contracted Ebola or would develop Ebola — that is, without any reason to suspect that he was a danger to anyone. I wonder why the dog couldn't have been quarantined, for a long period if necessary. At NPR's Goats and Soda yesterday, infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja explained that we know very little about dogs and Ebola transmission; we don't know, for example, how long a quarantine period should be. Still, in animal lovers' minds, the Spanish decision was incredibly hasty and doomed a healthy animal. Others ask how in the world is it that some people appear to be more distraught over Excalibur's fate than the fate of people suffering from Ebola in West Africa?

Over at Bloomberg View, Marc Champion asks in this context, "Are we all quite mad here in the developed world?" Champion says he has "no problem" with the campaign on behalf of Excalibur and that he only wants to keep things in perspective. But let's note how that perspective plays out for him:

"Other diseases pose immeasurably greater threats to us — not to mention drunken drivers and unfettered gun ownership (which respectively kill about 10,000 and 32,000 Americans annually). To my mind, crazy would be trying to quarantine African countries to keep Ebola out by cutting off flights to the outside world, as some have proposed. That would be far more senseless and heartless than killing, or caring about, a dog."

Champion was doing great until that last sentence, where he runs smack into our tendency to frame things in "either/or" language when it comes to animals. It's as if there is only so much compassion and caring action to go around. The worry then becomes, if we expend too much on animals, what will be left over for our own species? But surely our circle of empathy is bigger than that! Excalibur's life mattered too. Saying that — and even pushing for an outcome in line with it — in no way devalues the lives of humans who have suffered from Ebola or suffer from it now.

Even considering our poor state of knowledge regarding dogs and Ebola, what would really have been lost had Excalibur remained in quarantine? Might his death even pave the way now, awfully enough, for quick-and-easy "solutions" of euthanasia of other companion animals associated with Ebola patients? At this stage there's no question that the global response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea was painfully slow and incoherent. World Bank president Jim Kim, who trained as a physician and an anthropologist, puts it succinctly:

"We should have done so many things. Healthcare systems should have been built. There should have been monitoring when the first cases were reported. There should have been an organized response."

Why was there such a massive failure? Could it be that racism was a factor? Is it possible that among human populations, people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are, for too many in the West, simply too distant, too "other" for that circle of empathy I was talking about to kick in? I don't have answers to these questions, but I do think we as a society need to do the painful work of confronting them head on. At the same time, we must bring to bear not only our best science but also our deepest compassion in thinking about, and acting for, other animals in our care who may become caught up in this terrible outbreak.

Barbara thanks College of William and Mary anthropology graduate student Summer Moore for alerting her to the Bloomberg View piece.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.