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Your No-kill Shelter
A Normal Day at the Shelter
By Ty Phillips
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
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. Damn dog, now she's under
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
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
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
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
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
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at tphillips @
modbee.com or 559-874-5716.