Euthanasia duty rattled nearly everyone at the animal shelter. As a volunteer I wasn’t expected to participate but I watched the supervisors, Kathy and Leslie, when they compiled the dreaded ‘E’ list every day. An ID card posted on each animal’s cage told their age, sex, if they were good with children, what kind of food they liked, etc. Supervisors scrawled a yellow ‘x’ across the cards of the doomed. How did Kathy and Leslie decide who lived and who died? Sometimes the choice was obvious due to illness, injury, age or bad temperament. On days when strays were not reclaimed, too many pet owners surrendered animals and not enough people adopted gut wrenching choices had to be made. Healthy dogs and cats, including puppies and kittens, were slated to go, but which ones? The 1 year-old dog with black and white spots or the orange tabby with three legs? The sensitive selections were left up to Kathy or Leslie, who often walked around with teary eyes, stone faces or clenched fists. Life was unfair but the shelter had neither the space nor the resources to keep every unwanted animal alive. Euthanasia ripped me apart every time I saw a kennel worker lead a tail wagging dog or carry a purring cat to the back room. I knew what awaited them. I wondered when it would ever end.
After each euthanasia session, Leslie barged through the back door to puff away. I once followed her.
“I thought you were trying to quit smoking,” I said as I glanced at the snow-capped mountains looming in the distance.
“I only smoke on days I work,” Leslie said, sucking hard on a Camel cigarette and exhaling slowly.
“It’s the stress,” I said, acting the role of social worker. I tried to be consoling yet I blinked back tears too.
“I hate putting animals down, especially when there’s nothing wrong with them.”
“I couldn’t do it,” I said.
“I didn’t think I could either, but it’s better to be put down by someone like me than starve, get hit by a car or live with a sadistic owner.”
I couldn’t argue with her.
Besides the unpleasant, emotionally agonizing task of destroying largely unwanted dogs and cats, body disposal ensued. The shelter operated a crematory, unlike other shelters that resorted to landfills or sold the bodies to rendering companies. The city had strict air pollution rules so the shelter was limited to the number of days it could fire up the big oven. It generated plumes of thick acrid smoke. For safekeeping, dead bodies were stored in a large freezer.
I’ll never forget the first time I participated in a burn day. For safety, only a supervisor knew how to ignite the oven. Once it was hot enough, we removed the frozen bodies of dogs, cats, and sometimes small animals like rabbits, hamsters, etc. The crematory had an opening sort of like a pizza oven. Obviously, we were careful because life threatening burns or death would have resulted if we faltered.
One by one, we tossed the frozen bodies inside. When I saw favorite animals, rock solid and misshapen, my throat tightened. I fought back tears. The stench of burning flesh sickened me. Ron, the aging hippie, assured me I’d get used to it. I never did.
For a modest cost, the shelter performed private cremations for the public. Those animals were burned separately so their remains were not incinerated with the others. By the next day when the oven cooled, a kennel worker swept out the charred bones. Every now and then, the remains backed up inside, requiring a worker to slide in and unclog the machine. I absolutely refused to go inside the crematory, even if it was cool. Ron usually volunteered. The bleached bones were dumped into a plastic bag and thrown into the large trash receptacle. That was the end of our unwanted animals until the next cycle.
To prepare remains from private cremations, Julie, a front desk worker, devised a unique if really weird method. Instead of pounding the brittle bones with a sledgehammer into a fine meal, she dumped them into a donated blender and ran it at a high speed. The finely ground bones were placed in a small tin, sealed with glue, and given to the bereaved pet owner with a condolence card.
A full-time job opened at the shelter so I resigned from my social work job paid for by a government grant. Deborah V., my supervisor, wasn’t surprised. I regret a transfer to the hospital social work department never materialized. At least they had clients who would’ve kept me busy and co-workers who respected me. Instead, for the past six months I hid in the bathroom doing crossword puzzles to avoid losing my mind.
In early January, I started working at the shelter on the Wednesday through Sunday shift from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. Part of me wondered if I had a Play Dough for a brain. I now worked twice as many hours for half the money. But at least I saw a future. At the clinic, I had days of endless emptiness.
Nothing was different at the shelter except for one crucial point. I had to participate in euthanasia. The back room, marked for ‘authorized personnel only’ was the end of the line for unwanted animals. Inside the tiny barren room there was a stainless steel table, a locked cabinet where the drugs were stored and a small sink. The room was cold and sterile.
On my third day, Leslie said, “Watch how it’s done. I’ll expect you to take part the next time. Remember, we only have euthanasia duty once a week, unless someone calls in sick or we get busy.”
I felt like a slab, barely able to move as Ron escorted the first victim inside. The tail-wagging dog, a large Dalmatian mix, had to die because the shelter was filling up. We needed the space and this dog had been there the longest.
“Watch Ron as he puts pressure on the dog’s front leg,” Leslie said as if giving directions for a cake recipe. “Then I’ll inject her.”
Usually good-natured and talkative, Ron remained stoic throughout the session. He said nothing.
A lump clogged my throat. I fought back tears.
“When you ease the syringe into their veins, slide it out a little. If you draw blood, you’re in. Then inject all the pink juice,” Leslie said. “Be careful with cats. Their veins are smaller. They are harder to handle. I had a hard time learning how to put down cats.”
Fatal Plus, also known in shelter parlance as pink juice, was a barbiturate. Shelters injected just enough to stop the heart in about 15-20 seconds. Two workers were needed for the process. One worker administered the drug while a second worker handled the animal.
I wanted to crouch behind Ron as the next dog entered the room but I had to show Leslie I was brave. After three or four animals were euthanized then tossed into the freezer, I survived. As always, Leslie flew through the back door and smoked herself into oblivion for the next several minutes. I ducked into the bathroom, cried, and then composed myself. I promised that Dalmatian mix I euthanized her life wouldn’t be in vain.
Both Leslie and Kathy nudged me to take more initiative in the euthanasia room. I would rather shovel pig poop, scoop out dirty cat litter, or hose down kennels rather than put down healthy dogs and cats. But it was a job requirement I had to perform. Besides, I left the clinic to acquire this experience so I could counsel others. I sucked in my anguish and held back the tears. While filling the syringe with Fatal Plus, I couldn’t watch dogs flapping their tails or licking my co-worker’s cheek. Listening to those cats with mellow meows nearly did me in. I don’t know how many dogs and cats I euthanized but it wasn’t many. It was enough, however, to change my life. I despised people for making me do this. Animal shelters don’t kill pets. Thoughtless pet owners did.