A Day At The County Shelter
A day at the animal shelter
By Debra J. White
The killing starts early. At 6 a.m. workers wipe sleep from their eyes as they flick on lights in the darkened building. Some polish off cups of coffee then grab the multi-page euthanasia list the supervisor compiles the day before.
One by one they collect the doomed. Dogs go first because they take longer to euthanize. They’re usually big, fidgety, and sometimes hard to control. In tandem two employees administer a fatal drug overdose that stops the heart. In seconds, the dog slumps over. Someone else walks through the kennels removing hapless dogs from cages and hands them over, still tail wagging, to the back room. The shelter is full so they need room to accommodate the flood of unwanted pets expected when the doors open. Other dogs die because they fail a subjective behavior test and are deemed unadoptable. No one wants old and decrepit dogs.
After the dogs die, cats stacked outside the killing room in bread-box sized crates room are next. From their tender meows, do they know what awaits them? Mounds of bodies with protruding tongues, a result of barbiturates, and glassy eyes pile up on the ramp awaiting a trip to the landfill, the end of the line for the dog or cat surrendered because moving with a pet was too inconvenient. Workers are not spared from this daily process except for Christmas.
Rough days can take hours but it’s done behind closed doors. The public is sensitive to euthanasia yet shelters are expected to place every unwanted dog or cat left at their facility into a good home. Most owners balk at paying a surrender fee for their pet’s care. Few leave a donation. Self-righteous but uninformed animal rights warriors demand to know why the shelter still engages in euthanasia.
Nearly every private and municipal shelter is strapped for money, overloaded with pets, but they stretch budgets to feed, water, and clean cages every day. Lucky dogs get walked and cats are groomed if enough volunteers show up.
Some shelter facilities are outdated, vermin-infested, and run down. The ceilings leak and the plumbing is corroded. Public health would probably cite them as unfit for human habitation but these buildings slide by because the occupants are unwanted animals discarded when they became an inconvenience to their owners
Life isn’t fair. Not every stray or injured dog gets picked up by animal control because of public funding priorities. There are not enough fiscal crumbs to spread around. Stray cats are rarely part of the budget process so they’re mostly on their own to scratch out a living.
Now and then shocking abuse cases arrive, such as emaciated dogs, cats shot with arrows or puppies doused with acid. Euthanasia may the only option to relieve their agonizing pain. But when possible, mistreated animals are pampered and offered a second chance thanks to the kindness and generosity of shelters, their volunteers and supporters. A dog with its eyes poked out tugs at people’s hearts.
A day at the shelter is not always so grim, despite a withering national economy that’s stranded thousands of pets without homes. Now and then strays are reunited with frantic, worried owners. Thoughtful people adopt homeless dogs and cats and bypass the mall pet store. Brave drivers risk their lives and often their jobs to track down strays on their delivery routes and leave them at shelters. Rescue groups, people with full-time jobs, families, and scarce resources, work tirelessly to scoop dogs and cats off euthanasia lists. Generous citizens, including children, collect donations of food, bedding, and squeaky toys for the animals. Some people offer prayers. Divine Intervention surely cannot hurt.
Shelters offer other services as funding permits such as low cost euthanasia when owners have to say good-bye to sick or injured pets. Muscular, strapping men, some in tattered jeans, leave in tears because their beloved dog or cat was sent to the Rainbow Bridge. Others act stoic in front of staff but on their way out shoulders heave up and down. It’s OK. Maybe they just couldn’t cry in public. Saying goodbye is always hard.
I’ve volunteered in animal shelters since 1989 except for a two year hiatus when I recovered from a serious pedestrian car accident. I’ve seen the absolute best in people, such as the woman who drove out of her way to bring a bleeding and bloodied cat hit by a car to our shelter. The cat was a whisper away from death and we helped send nobody’s pet to the Rainbow Bridge. Alternately, I’ve witnessed the most deplorable, shameful and disgusting cases of abuse. A Great Dane was intentionally starved by his owners. By the time animal control was alerted to the dog’s grave condition, he was unable to stand. The big dog shunned a bowl of food, staring into empty space instead with vacant hollow eyes. Workers relieved his pain the next day.
Animal shelters changed tactics in recent years demanding an end to euthanasia of adoptable pets, a most noble goal. Why should they get stuck killing dogs and cats from a careless, irresponsible society? It’s emotionally shredding to take a young dog’s life while he licks your cheek merely because the owner’s new girlfriend didn’t like the dog or because the cat’s fur coat didn’t match the owner’s new decor.
The war against euthanasia, however, is complicated. While some shelters claim a zero euthanasia rate, the burden simply shifted. Other shelters continue the killing. Pet overpopulation is by no means over, yet all shelters and rescues work towards that goal. No one wants to destroy beautiful, healthy dogs and cats because they are unwanted, but locking them up for months or years isn’t a viable option either. Long-term confinement chips away at the dog’s soul. Cats want their own space. A shelter, regardless of their adoption or volunteer program, is not a home. Shelters that relax adoption standards just to move pets out the door can have dangerous consequences for owners and the pets. Can a shelter really be proud if the dog they adopted lives in a backyard tied to a tree 24/7? Euthanasia isn’t always a dog’s worst enemy.
Domestic pets must be considered to be family. Mixed breeds must be seen as valuable as purebreds. Spay/neuter programs should be more available especially to low-income pet owners. Careless breeding must stop. Only then will pet overpopulation seriously decline. Until then, a no-kill community is simply a myth.