Can we forgive Kristen Lindsey?

Amid cries for justice, questions arise about reparation, redemption, compassion

Published: April 30, 2015
By Michele Gaspar

Photo by Sonia Roselli
Dr. Michele Gaspar

Dr. Kristen Lindsey's alleged bow-and-arrow shooting of a cat has ignited a firestorm of criticism spreading via mainstream news and social websites. At the condemnation's core is a recent Facebook photo captioned, "My first bow kill." It shows the 31-year-old veterinarian hoisting an arrow that's pierced the cranium of a limp orange-and-white cat.

She's smiling in celebration. Judging by the public's response, much of society isn't.

Neither are colleagues on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, where veterinarians have generated more than 450 comments on the topic. The reaction has ranged from accusations of "poor judgment" to calls for Lindsey to lose her license.

For most veterinarians, the photo of one of our own intentionally killing a cat and triumphantly smiling with her feline “trophy" is antithetical to the Veterinarian’s Oath and the ethics and morals of our profession. Many are offended by Lindsey's hubris, especially when she gloated in a Facebook post that she'd gladly accept the designation of “vet of the year” for killing a feral cat.

It's now widely reported that the cat was a neighbor's pet.

Since her April 17 Facebook post, Lindsey's veterinary school alma mater, the American Veterinary Medical Association and other groups within organized veterinary medicine have publicly condemned the act, identifying it as an aberration. The practitioner was fired from the practice where she worked in Brenham, Texas, and could face felony animal cruelty charges by the Austin County District Attorney. According to the AVMA, the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners is considering whether to impose licensure sanctions.

We haven't heard from Lindsey since the controversy erupted, and there may be more to this story. In the absence of explanation, it's been difficult for many of us to conceive of a colleague engaging in an act that seemed so contrary to how most of us spend our days: working in the trenches of veterinary clinical medicine, trying to cure or at least mitigate suffering and, above all, doing no harm in the process.

Veterinarians on VIN have raised many questions; reparation, redemption, caring and compassion have been the theme of most comments. Is it possible for Lindsey to ever make amends for this act and, if so, how could this be done? Can she redeem herself? And what is our understanding of the role of caring and compassion in a profession that defines itself by these virtues?

How we answer these questions in some measure reflects how we consider our own abilities to make amends for errors (reparation), free ourselves from the millstone of regrettable deeds (redemption) and be motivated to help those who are suffering (caring/compassion).

Various punishments were deemed justifiable for Lindsey by the majority of VIN members who participated in the discussion. Revocation of her license and civil and/or criminal penalties frequently were mentioned. While in a minority, some colleagues thought that remorse to the extent of suicidal ideation was necessary. According to this type of reasoning, only mental anguish leading to unspeakable despair would be proof of repentance, serve as the psychological nadir and hold the potential for some type of healing and recovery to occur.

How much each of us would want to extract from Lindsey in the form of remorse, shame or punishment says much about how we deal with our own errors and those of others, albeit on a less visible and gruesome stage. There is, of course, a spectrum of transgressions, and there are some acts that are most likely unforgivable. Sexual abuse of children comes to mind as a deed that probably cannot and should not be forgiven.

How heinous must an action be for us to say that amends and repair are not possible? Society wrestles with this in the criminal justice system, but on an individual level, it’s a worthy question to ask ourselves. Each of us will come to his or her own conclusion based on our family histories, how our own errors were punished (or not) and our experiences with forgiveness from others, to others and to ourselves. Listening to how each of us has formulated our personal philosophies regarding forgiveness often is eye-opening. We cannot give what we were not given. Forgiveness is not condoning or colluding with a perpetrator and does not minimize an offense but opens the door for reparation.

The ability to free ourselves from unsavory past lives and to be reborn/redeemed is a very American concept. Indeed, the United States, from its first colonies through the westward expansion and continuing through today, contains the stories of thousands of individuals who decided to leave hostile environments and start anew someplace else. Could Lindsey or any of us hope to achieve a similar rebirth? Contemporary social media makes this unlikely.

But, is it fair for a 31-year-old individual to be forever banned from clinical practice? Can we step outside of our own preconceptions and envision some type of rehabilitation that would, at a point in the future, allow her to return to clinical veterinary medicine? Some posters saw only a future for her as a meat inspector, relegating her to working with the killed and to be killed, so forever associated with the deceased cat. For many VIN members, Lindsey’s days in clinical practice working with the living are and should be permanently over.

To be sure, rehabilitation and recovery require time and insight on the part of an individual, as well as a desire to again join society, group, family, etc. I don’t believe any of us can begin to construct a meaningful, accurate profile of Lindsey with the scant amount of evidence that we can gather from a few blog entries and a now-deleted Facebook post. It might be that she has no regrets about targeting a cat as her first bow-and-arrow kill and wonders what all the outrage is about. Then again, she may honestly wish that she could magically go back in time and undo the past. None of us really knows. Any conjecture on our parts is just that.

Is there any room for a veterinarian who does not profess to like all animals? I am not talking here about having callous disregard for their lives. For some, the answer to this question is an all-or-nothing proposition: Join the profession and there is an obligation to love and want to care for all creatures great and small. However, the truth is that we cannot actually care about, except at some intellectual level, every animal. We can still be caring people, yet not care equally for all. And so it is possible to not enjoy working with cats, for example, and yet be a valuable clinician to patients and clients within a small animal general practice.

If we’re honest with ourselves we can admit that we do not care unconditionally for all. It’s acceptable to admit our biases. Having them does not make us less a gentle doctor. They are part of being human.

Finally, does the compassion that most of us purport to give to our animal patients extend to Lindsey?

About the author: Dr. Michele Gaspar is a 1994 graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (Feline Specialty). She has a Master's in pastoral counseling from Loyola University/Chicago and is a staff therapist at the CG Jung Center in Evanston, Ill. Michele is a full-time employee of VIN, where she serves as a consultant in feline internal medicine and facilitates mindfulness meditation training for veterinarians. She also is a member of Vets4Vets, a VIN Foundation-sponsored group that provides support to colleagues with professional and personal issues. Michele's professional interests include using her psychodynamic training to bring awareness of psychosocial issues to veterinary medicine, developing useful resources and helping veterinary colleagues navigate the all-too-ignored mental issues that prevent enjoyment of and fulfillment in what she considers to be one of the best helping professions. She shares her home in Chicago with one very understanding husband, Dave Elsner, four bassets, four cats and a tankful of engaging fish.

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