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Aug. 04, 2002

Special Report: Animals destined for death

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 figuratively.

"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 incredible."

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.

Zeke

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: Zeke.

"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 waited.

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 tail.

"Can you sit for me?" Jones asked.

Zeke sat.

"It's OK, big boy," she said, putting her arms firmly around him.

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 front leg.

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 patiently.

'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 ET room.

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, painlessly.

"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.

Jones agreed.

"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 sterilization.

"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 & Tang

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 me.'"

("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 her."

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.

'My baby'

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 crying.

"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 nurture them.

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 baby."

Contact reporter Kathleen Laufenberg at (850) 599-2375 or klaufenberg@taldem.com. Contact photographer Allison Long at (850) 599-2175 or allong@taldem.com.

 

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