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Old 11-05-2006
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A. Gianotto A. Gianotto is offline
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Default Helter Shelter - A Grim Tale of the Needle And Damage Done

I don't know if this has been posted before or not.... its pretty powerful.

Helter Shelter - A Grim Tale of the Needle And The Damage Done

August 5, 2006 : 12:00 AM
By Ty Phillips
Modesto Bee

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.

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at or 874-5716

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-- A. Gianotto

R.I.P. Susan Caskey AKA "Critterfuz": April 1970 - Dec 2007.
R.I.P. Keegan Merrick AKA "RichmondACO": July 1977 - Jan 2009.

We miss you.
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Old 11-05-2006
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I think this is a safe time to tell this story, hopefully you all have one just like it you can post after me...

This reminded me of a shelter I used to work for before becoming an ACO. I had to "pick" dogs one day with a coworker, and we landed our decision based on time stayed and health.

One particular dog, a shepherd mix whom me named "Marlow" 2 weeks prior, now had kennel cough and was becoming depressed. No one even did one visitation with this dog, no one wanted him
This dog would get so excited every time we took him out. So this day we took him out of his kennel and his whole ass was into that tail wagging thing they do sometimes, he was just so pleased he thought he was going for a walk. We pranced down the hallway....

Everything was fine until we reached "that door." Then he just slammed on his little pads. Wouldnt budge an inch. SO we had to drag him all the way into this room, and he litterally stuck his feet out to the sides to keep us from pulling him in. We had to scoot his legs in and we pulled him through, closing the door behind him.
We got him on the table, and he just shook so bad that the whole table was rattling. Now, tell me dogs dont know... Believe me, they know....
Well, we actually started crying because honestly, dogs dont USUALLY behave like this, sure they seem nervous but this dog was just going nuts....
We looked at eachother and thought, you know, it wouldnt kill us to give him one more day on the adoption floor. What's ONE kennel.
So, we lifted him off the table and he broke free from his lead (aka noose) and bolted to the closed door.
We put his lead back on him and walked him back out.
Boom. He was his old self, again. Happy go lucky with a "thank god" attitude.

And then what happened????


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Old 11-06-2006
LCK LCK is offline
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That is a wonderful story!!! Its those days that make it okay to look forward to the next.
13. Some days you\'re the bug, some days you\'re the windshield.
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Old 11-07-2006
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Sassy Sassy is offline
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That story could be our shelter. It's not but a mirror image of what a day is like in our shelter. We have become fortunate though that we don't stick to to number of days rule. As long as a dog is adoptable (behavorially, and health wise) we keep them up for as long as we can. The ones that fail we try to find a rescue that will take them, the ones who are adoptable and have been with us for a long time the SPCA will come and get, maybe a fresh face at the SPCA will help it get adopted. The dogs tend to be the lucker ones. The cats not as much. With the health issues (upper resp. and stress), and the feral population. Well, we know what happens, that news article says it all.
I can relate and it brought tears to my eyes.
"give it one more day,give it a one more adoptable day."
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Old 11-08-2006
carrie_cat carrie_cat is offline
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Default The feral death sentence

Originally Posted by Sassy
The dogs tend to be the lucker ones. The cats not as much. With the health issues (upper resp. and stress), and the feral population. Well, we know what happens, that news article says it all.
I can relate and it brought tears to my eyes.
"give it one more day,give it a one more adoptable day."
It makes me cry too.

This week, we heard about an ear-tipped cat that got a miraculous (no other word!) reprieve at our local pound. I heard about it because someone thought to find out whether it was "one of ours" meaning, one of the cats that have been through the Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) program in our area. Without information on what area it was impounded we have little to go on to figure out except the visual description -- and as probably is true everywhere, there are lots of individuals and lots of organizations of all kinds doing TNR but not necessarily keeping track of individual cats. So, we may never know who took the time to neuter this guy.

Unfortunately, he really was a miracle, because there is no feral cat program here officially. So the feral cats keep pouring in from some places (where the TNR programs haven't been able to reach out to people), and keep being killed for no particular reason but that they were born outside and were trusting enough to go into a trap.

You could hope that someone, somewhere, here, would have the sense, and the professionalism, to say, this isn't right, we have to find some better way. But so far, nobody's done that, here.

I'm glad every single time that I hear of an animal that gets a little bit of a good break!
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Old 11-10-2006
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stmelangell stmelangell is offline
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I don't think I've ever come across an article about our work that was better written or more expressive ... what a great piece.

It's not what we have in our life, but who we have in our life that counts. (J.M. Lawrence)
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