--- Note: This article may be too intense for some people ---
A grim tale of the needle and the damage done
By Ty Phillips
Modesto Bee Staff Writer
June 11, 2006
It is early morning at the Stanislaus County Animal Shelter. And for you, the animal care specialist, the day opens in minor chords.
You walk to the computer and print out the list of dogs that fill dozens of the agency's kennels. You sit there with your coffee, highlighting in yellow marker the ones that have been here for five days. They've all got a story.
Someone stopped loving him. No one ever loved her. He got too big. She started chewing on sprinklers. He bit a child. Her owner is out of town, and the house sitter noticed the dog got out but didn't bother to call the shelter. Whatever happened, it doesn't matter now: Their time is up.
You move to the first noisy cage. As you open the door, a few dogs try to escape, while others cram themselves into the far corners to avoid you. Everyone on the outside says the animals have no idea what's coming, but you've seen too much proof to the contrary. Yes, on some sad level, they know.
You squeeze into the cage and slip your leash, your noose, around the neck of one. You lead him back to the gate and open it just enough for you to squeeze through. You pull his head closer to the gate, and get ready. Then you jerk him out quickly and slam the door so the others don't get out. He's scared and whimpering, looking around frantically, but he does what he's told and follows you, faithfully, to the end of the line.
The killing room is a large, cold place with a small row of metal cages along one of the concrete walls. There's a large, stainless-steel table in one corner, holding syringes, needles and bottles of tranquilizer and Fatal Plus, a solution of sodium pentobarbital that usually kills within seconds.
As a co-worker readies the syringe, you're kneeling, holding the dog still, cuffing one leg with your hand. Sometimes you have to fight them. Sometimes the battle is so fierce, you resort to forcing them between a gate hinged on a wall, immobilizing them long enough so you can get the needle in.
But not this time. This one's calm. He trusts you. He even gives you his paw: He's obviously someone's pet. So you stroke his head softly as the co-worker finds a vein. Then, just like that, he melts in your arms. You grab his paw again and drag his limp body to a corner.
One by one, you lay them out on the cement floor. One by one. Though county records show roughly 15,000 animals are killed each year at the shelter, it's a number, like eternity, that defies comprehension. But when one considers the solitary act of each animal death, and the people who do the dirty work, the number 15,000 comes into better focus. One death is a tragedy; anything more than that is just a statistic.
On this morning, and every morning, there will be about 15 to 20 of these canine executions, not counting the ones that come in throughout the day that are injured or unadoptable. As you walk to the cages to retrieve another, the anger swells inside you. Because you know most of this daily ritual easily could be avoided. Spay and neuter, people, you say to yourself.
Spay and neuter!
Time runs out on a mother pit bull and her puppies. When she showed up here last week, your only hope was that she wouldn't give birth before her five days were up. But she did.
You hardly could stand to watch her care for her pups, licking them, dragging them around to protect them. Finally, you gave in and fed her treats, telling her, "That's a good girl."
Because, sadly, you knew all her efforts were in vain. This day always comes. Once you've got them all gathered in the room, you put her down first. Because you've learned the babies cry when they're injected, and that only adds stress to the mother.
One by one. One after another. You stack the singles into piles. You load the piles into 55-gallon barrels. You push the barrels into the walk-in freezer, where rows and rows of barrels fill completely about twice a week. The barrels are emptied into trucks. It's like a factory here. And they call this a shelter?
The stench of death permanently haunts the air: It's a dull fragrance you won't forget the rest of your life. Someday years from now, you'll be served food at a restaurant, and something will trigger the memory of that awful smell. Just like that, the meal will be over. You wash your hands incessantly; trouble is, what you're trying to clean doesn't go away with soap and water. That would take a psychologist, better than the one you have.
An hour into it, you're nearing the last of the morning's kill. Next up is an adorable pop-eyed Chihuahua you had thought someone might claim. Or adopt. You start for her, but then you make a grave mistake: You look into her eyes. In a flash, your mind acknowledges that this is a living, breathing thing. --darn-- dog, now she's under your skin.
Suddenly, you can't bring yourself to do it. Not this one. Your back yard already brims with the dogs and cats you've personally spared over the years, and there's simply no more room. So, you sneak her off the list and move her to another kennel. Your day off is tomorrow, and you just put it out of your mind. That's all you can do.
Now, through the bars, you spot the big mongrel. You squeeze into the cage, and he moves away. He's scared and hungry; he's not the alpha male in this lot, so he hasn't eaten in five days. And who knows what he went through before he ended up here? So you kneel and call to him in a pleasant voice. Now he's wagging his tail because he thinks you're going to rescue him from this awful place.
You get him outside and pet him to try to keep him calm. But he's excited, jumping up and down, because you helped him out of the chaos. You're his friend now; he'll follow you anywhere. So you lead him toward the room and he trots along happily.
But halfway there, something shifts in him. You figure he's starting to smell that stench coming from the freezer. Yes, on some level, they know. He starts jerking his neck back, using his front legs to try to pull you back. The more you fight him, the more he realizes he should fight. So you drag him the rest of the way.
Once you get him into the room, he's still fighting pretty hard. Your arms are getting tired. To get him to the table, you both trip over piles of dead dogs that now cover the floor. Finally, you get him stopped. The soft talk helps a little, and you're able to hold him still enough for the co-worker to find a vein. Once it's in, you let go. He moves away, woozy. They don't always die immediately. He wanders over to the corpse of another dog, and sniffs it a little before collapsing onto the floor.
Spay and neuter, people!
Leaving the room, you remember something you wanted to tell a co-worker. She's working alone in the cat room, putting down several dozen to start her day. You open the door, but the scene makes you forget what you wanted to say. There she is, sitting in a corner, crying, surrounded by dozens of dead cats that litter the floor. You make eye contact and get ready to say something, but she waves you off. It's a quick shake of the head that says, "I'm fine; just leave me alone." So you do. For those who do this for a living, it's mostly business as usual, life goes on. But there are occasional meltdowns. Not to mention divorce, denial, alcoholism, nightmares, antidepressants and all sorts of other ugly side effects.
Walking away from the cat room, a simple question forms in your head, one that plagues you often throughout your days here: Does anybody care about animals? Anyone at all?
Inside, you know there are thousands of people, just like you, who cherish their pets and treat them like family. Or even royalty. Working here, you rarely see those folks. They take care of their animals.
Instead, you get the people who — before business hours — drop off a cardboard box of mangled kittens that were used to train pit bulls to fight dirty. Usually, they just toss the dead alongside the road somewhere, but for some reason, someone brought these in. You open the box to discover all but one are dead, and the only one alive is using its front legs to crawl toward you because its back legs are crushed.
Or you get the people whose hobby is trapping feral cats and bringing them to the shelter. Once you asked about strange lines etched into the stick they use to hold the trap shut, hoping you were wrong. But, yes, like notches in a gun, that's how they track how many cats they've captured. It's a game to them.
Or you get the man who brings in three kittens in an ice chest he placed in his trunk. In the middle of summer. When you open the lid, most of the horror has played out. You look up and scold him, asking him what he was thinking. And he shrugs. Not like it matters, he says, they didn't belong to anyone.
Or you get the people who pull up in a moving van to drop off their family pet, saying that they can't take the dog with them and that they were unable to find the animal a home. They drive away, conscious clear, leaving the dirty work for you. Like you're some kind of sin-eater.
And to think, you took this job because you wanted to save animals. Standing there at the kennels, lost in the flashbacks, you ask yourself again: Does anybody care?
Anyone at all?
A friendly face pops into your mind. Yes, there is one, you finally remember, trying to cheer yourself up. That poor young woman from the west side, the one who's been coming by twice a week for the last six months, looking for her beloved red Doberman pinscher. She keeps asking you, "How long should I keep looking?" And you keep telling her, "As long as your heart needs to." Who are you to take away hope?
And now, come to think of it, you did notice a nice-looking Doberman in the back kennels this morning. Nah, couldn't be, you think. He disappeared six months ago. But, needing a miracle, you go and check anyway. You look him over for a while. There is some red in his coat, but you're not certain.
Cautiously, you have someone call the woman. Be sure to tell her we're not sure, you say, but let her know we might have her dog. An hour later, the woman is scurrying through the hall toward the back kennels. You can barely keep up with her.
I think I hear him, she keeps saying excitedly. She keeps calling out his name. All you hear is what you always hear: the deafening din of scores of barking dogs. When you get to the back kennels, a lowered metal guillotine door is keeping everything outside. So you raise the door, and 80 pounds of frenetic dog come bounding inside, wildly running around the cage. You think to yourself, how would he even know she was coming? Yes, on some level, they always know.
Just like that, this huge dog plasters itself against the chain-link fence, licking the fingers of a woman who's pressing herself against the fence, too. The scene is reminiscent of lovers on a beach. It's him, it's him, she keeps saying. All the while, this enormous dog is emitting the strangest high-pitched yipping you've ever heard, almost like a puppy.
Overcome with emotion, the woman sinks to the cement gutter and starts sobbing into her hands. You sit next to her to offer some comfort. Then, before you know it, you're right beside her, bawling uncontrollably. She's crying because her life is complete again. And you're crying because, after working this job, your life never will be the same. Because for every animal that leaves with its owner, half a dozen are hauled off in garbage trucks.
No, you think, wiping away the tears, this is no place for an animal lover.