E.G. Jones has tried to make the room cheerful - for herself, her
staff, the animals.
First, she painted what animal shelter workers call the "ET" room
- the place where unwanted animals are euthanized.
She chose green for the bottom third of the walls and yellow for
the rest. A natural motif, reminiscent of grass and sunlight. Then
she hung a big, colorful picture of a parrot on the wall.
The result: The room is brighter. Yet nothing can lighten the
task performed there.
Last year, shelter workers euthanized 5,728 dogs, cats, kittens
and puppies - more than 100 animals each week, every week of the
year. Many were healthy. Many were friendly.
Jones has even considered recruiting someone to paint a mural of
dog and cat angels in the ET (slang for euthanasia) room, as a
reminder that the animals go from there to a better place. If not
literally - each dead animal is put in a garbage bag, stored in a
freezer and eventually taken to the dump - then at least
"This isn't just a business," said Jones, the shelter's kennel
and ET supervisor. "This is life we're dealing with. They may be
animal lives, but it's life."
Jones and four other trained animal technicians carry out the
grim task of euthanasia professionally, quietly and with little
visible emotion. It is, after all, part of their routine - one
carried out by shelter workers nationwide. The respect the workers
at Tallahassee-Leon Community Animal Service Center have for the
animals they usher from life to death is shown: in the way they
handle and talk to them; in the silent prayers one worker says
during euthanasia; in the tears another sheds while recounting a dog
she euthanized; in the name tags and rabies tags one worker wears to
commemorate two animals she euthanized.
"It's a very, very tough job," says John Snyder, a program
director with The Humane Society of the United States in Washington,
D.C., and formerly Gainesville's animal shelter director for more
than two decades.
Summer is the toughest time of all. More animals are euthanized
during the summer than any other time - among them scores of cuddly
puppies and kittens.
"Just the sheer numbers are staggering: It's just cage after cage
after cage," said Laura Bevan, director of The Humane Society of the
United States Southeast Regional Office in Tallahassee. "And when
it's a healthy animal, and it's wagging its tail or it's purring,
you know it would make a wonderful pet. The stress is
To make matters worse locally, the Tallahassee shelter is in a
budget crisis. Shelter workers even briefly ran out of garbage bags
in which to place the dead animals.
What follows here, and in the accompanying stories, is a
description of what a peaceful euthanasia is like, how these workers
cope with repeatedly performing this sad task - and what you and our
community can do to stop the flow of unwanted animals entering
Tallahassee's ET room.
The ET process begins when Jones gathers up a wad of tickets.
Each ticket represents an animal whose time is up.
Next, Jones and the ET team visit each animal's cage,
double-checking that the ticket and animal match. Sometimes, they
discuss the impending euthanasia.
"You've got to respect people's feelings," Jones said. "They do
get attached. They're the ones feeding the animals every day and
getting them vaccinated. They see their personalities and take them
out for people and show them. Then they see that they're finally
looking healthy and happy ... and it's their time."
When assigned to ET duty, the animal technicians work in pairs.
One is the handler who holds the animal. The other is called the
shooter: She injects the blue sodium pentobarbital that brings death
in less than a minute. It's the drug of choice for humane
companion-animal euthanasia, recommended by groups ranging from The
Humane Society of the United States to the People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals.
On a recent day, the ET team stopped at a big black dog's cage.
Like three out of 10 dogs at the shelter, this one was a "give-up":
His owner had discarded him. He still wore his collar and name tag:
"Hey, sweetie pie," Jones said.
She snapped on a leash and opened his cage. Zeke bounded out,
eager for a walk. He tugged Jones through the kennel, past a poster
of a happy dog that read: "Finally, someone who'll treat you like
the god you really are."
They headed down the long, main hallway that leads to the back of
the shelter and the ET room. Along the way, Zeke stopped to sniff a
basket of laundry at the shelter's washing machine and dryer. Jones
When they reached the room, the door was shut. It was in use.
Zeke must wait his turn.
"Someone has taken care of you," Jones said, stooping beside him.
"You're a sweetie, aren't you, boy?"
Zeke thumped his tail. Jones petted him. The door opened.
Once inside, Zeke shivered but continued to slowly wag his
"Can you sit for me?" Jones asked.
"It's OK, big boy," she said, putting her arms firmly around
Zeke didn't protest.
Animal technician Fred Dolcater loaded the syringe.
"Night, night," Jones said softly.
Dolcater injected the sodium pentobarbital into a vein in Zeke's
Like water poured from a glass, Zeke was gone. His body slumped
to the floor.
They hoisted him into a black garbage bag.
They heaved the bag into the room's giant walk-in freezer.
Jones opened the door.
Outside, a brown bulldog mix and another shelter worker waited
'It could be unnecessary'
But not all the animals go to the ET room as easily as Zeke.
"They all have a sense that something strange is happening, that
something is amiss," Dolcater said. "But some dogs are more
sensitive to it than others."
Some struggle. Some defecate in the hallway. Some urinate. Some
drool, whine, bark. Some enter the ET room on the end of a catch
pole, a long pole with a nooselike collar at the end. Some enter
encased inside a net.
And when the shelter has large numbers of puppies and kittens,
workers sometimes use a carpeted shopping cart to roll them to the
It's hard to say which is worse, several shelter workers said:
The sweet ones that trust you, or the ones that struggle.
"The way I deal with it," Dolcater said of his ET duties, "is
that I try to do it well."
That means administering the correct dose quickly, accurately,
"It certainly makes you look at yourself," allowed Dolcater, 40.
"But it's the philosophy behind it that's the most difficult: That
we have to do this. It could be unnecessary if people's
attitudes would change. But there are too many people who still
feel, 'It's my dog, and I can do anything I damn well please.'"
If more people sterilized their pets, he said, the number of
animals euthanized would drop dramatically. If Tallahassee had a
program that rewarded those who sterilized their pets and penalized
those who didn't, more people would make the effort to spay and
neuter their four-legged companions.
"It's us taking care of society's problems. But nothing's going
to change until more people understand what it really means (not to
sterilize their animals)."
The shelter's new director, Dr. Gilles Meloche, a
veterinarian, hopes if more people acknowledge the magnitude
of the pet overpopulation problem, Tallahasseeans will begin
discussing a community licensing program that encourages
"If they understand what it is about, they will be in favor of
it," Meloche said. "We will get there. We have such good citizens,
and people have good hearts here. Look all around you. Everybody has
an animal. They just don't know the problem."
Chickenwing, Puss Puss &
One of the first coping strategies new shelter workers discover
is that of adopting some of the animals that touch their hearts.
During her four years at the shelter, Jones has fostered a steady
stream of dogs and cats. A small pooch she dubbed Chickenwing was
one of her last. He had a broken leg that mended without being set
and stuck out sort of like - yes - a chicken wing. She eventually
found him a good home.
And then there's Puss Puss, now a permanent pet. She took him
home after a long day of ET duty.
"He was the last one out of a litter, and I was finally like,
'I'm tired of killing kittens. I'm taking this one home with
("Kill," by the way, is a word shelter workers avoid when
discussing euthanasia. But sometimes, it slips out.)
Dolcater has taken four dogs home during his four years at the
shelter: Gorilla, his giant, sweet Rottweiler housemate; Gaia, now
his mom's dog; Cubby, now a friend's pooch; and Tang - short for
Orangutan - his last adoption.
But Tang didn't work out. She was too aggressive. Reluctantly, he
returned the dog to the shelter. Since she was too aggressive to be
a pet, he had only one option: He euthanized her.
It was important, he said, that he did it himself.
"She was my dog. My responsibility. And I wanted to be with
Thinking about that moment, Dolcater fell silent. Beside him, in
the shelter's small break room, an injured blue macaw shivered. The
bird was found in a smashed cage on Interstate 10.
"I'm getting kind of emotional," he said finally, and left to
clean a cage.
Like Dolcater, Jones is rarely emotional when discussing or
performing euthanasia. But sitting in her office, recalling a time
when some kids called about a dog hit by a car, she suddenly began
"Oh, this is stupid. Geez." She groped for a tissue. "It was a
year and a half ago. I don't know why I'm so ... but it was just
these kids, these little kids sitting on the side of the road
watching over this run-over dog until somebody could come help."
The kids were in an adjacent county without animal-control
services. If she didn't do something, Jones said, no one would.
In the end, she sweet-talked a Leon County animal-control officer
into bringing the injured pooch to the shelter: a small, tan bulldog
with a broken back and legs. They euthanized it.
Her face still wet, Jones scooped up one of the half-dozen
kittens living in her office and cuddled it. Keeping caches of
animals is another way these workers cope. And the caches are
everywhere: in offices, in the back hallways, in the break room -
even, on a recent visit, in the women's staff bathroom. When things
get too overwhelming, workers retreat to their special animals and
As long as this strategy doesn't get out of hand, said the
society's Snyder, it's a good coping mechanism. And ET technicians
need all the coping tricks they can find. According to researchers
at Purdue and Bowling Green universities, three out of four animal
shelter workers exhibit signs of euthanasia-related stress. One
researcher calls it the "caring-killing paradox." Workers in these
jobs report feelings of guilt and depression, loss of sleep,
nightmares and difficulty concentrating.
The stress inherent in performing euthanasia is why these workers
should be periodically rotated out of all ET duties, said Kate
Pullen, the U.S. Humane Society's director of animal shelter issues.
Otherwise, they risk becoming psychologically and emotionally
hardened. They even can begin blaming the animals for making the
workers perform the euthanasia.
Although the Tallahassee workers do sometimes rotate out of their
ET duties, animal technician Rachelle Taylor, on the job for less
than a year, has developed her own personal coping mechanism: She
prays for each of the animals she helps euthanize.
"I pray that it's quick and painless," said Taylor, who has also
adopted two shelter dogs and is fostering a third.
The first time she assisted with an animal euthanasia - a black
and white cat - she said, "I cried. I thought, 'I'll never be able
to do this job. I'll have to quit.'"
But she pushed through the feeling. Now, except for her ET
duties, she enjoys her work.
"I love animals more than anything," the former teacher's aide
and nanny said.
For her co-worker Tonya Schweska, coping means never forgetting
two of the animals she helped escort from life to death. To
accomplish that, she wears the name tags and rabies tags that once
belonged to Max and Jake.
Max was a cat, and Jake, a basset hound from the shelter she
tried to adopt. But unlike the other homeless animals she has taken
in - five cats, two dogs, three birds and a snake - Jake proved too
aggressive to keep.
"That was the hardest one," she said of Jake's euthanasia. "But I
had to do it. Even though he was aggressive, he was still my