Euthanasia duty rattled nearly everyone who worked at the shelter. As a volunteer I wasn’t expected to participate but I watched the supervisors, Kathy and Leslie, as 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 or too many pet owners surrendered animals and not enough people adopted them 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?
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 Boulder County neither had 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 shelter dogs and cats, there was the matter of body disposal. Boulder operated a crematory, unlike other shelters that used landfills or sold the bodies to rendering companies. Boulder enacted strict environmental standards ahead of most cities so the shelter was limited to the number of days it could fire up the big oven. When operational, it generated plumes of thick acrid smoke. On off days, 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 monster oven. Once it was hot enough, we removed the frozen bodies of dogs, cats, and sometimes small animals like rabbits, hamsters, etc. The crematory looked like a giant 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.
So many lovable dogs and cats came through the Boulder shelter that I threw up an emotional barrier to protect myself. So many reminded me of my dog, Maxine. If I grew fond of them and they didn’t make it, I would suffer almost daily heartaches.
One dog, a beagle/hound mix, weaseled his way through my protective wall and grabbed my heart. I don’t remember why the old boy ended up with us but confinement made him so unhappy. He yipped and yowled for hours on end that he became hoarse. I took the floppy eared dog outside for walks and he pranced around as if he won best in show. Yet no one expressed interest in adopting the happy yapper.
I returned three days later and asked about the dog’s fate. As a rule, I rarely asked about favorite dogs or cats. My emotions did better if I didn’t know their fate.
“Susanne, do you remember the howling hound mix in adoptions?” I asked as we washed food bowls in the kitchen.
“Yes, the little one who didn’t stop all day long,” Susanne said. “I remember him. Why?”
“Did he get adopted?”
Susanne stared into the sudsy water then glanced at me.
“No. Kathy said all that noise didn’t endear him to anyone. He was here longer than most dogs because he was so cute. He went down yesterday.”
“Talkers don’t do well.”
“I’m headed out for a smoke,” Susanne said. “Want to join me?”
“Yeah, I could use a break from this place.” My heart felt heavy.
Euthanasia heaved significant mental health problems on shelter employees and volunteers. Although I didn’t participate I watched tail wagging dogs and purring cats as they were led into the back room. I closed my eyes to shield myself from the pain. Those dogs and cats wouldn’t be coming back. I thought of Maxine. What if I had brought her to the shelter instead of taking her home that September day in 1988? A worker probably would’ve euthanized her, depriving me of wonderful companionship. I couldn’t bear the thought.
To help us cope and be productive, the shelter manager invited a hospice worker to hold a discussion about the far reaching impact of euthanasia. Volunteers were invited too.
Almost everyone attended the session, even front desk employees. They didn’t administer the fatal injections or take part in body disposal but they saw the confused, pitiful faces of dogs and cats as they were handed over by owners who suddenly saw them as inconvenient.
The hospice worker, a social worker like me, introduced herself and opened the discussion.
“Does anyone want to talk about euthanizing animals?”
Kathy Kester, the usually stoic kennel manager, responded. Her voice cracked right away.
“It’s never easy making up the E-list. How do I decide who lives and who dies? That’s part of my job that I hate.”
“That’s incredibly hard. Of course it’s upsetting to you,” the hospice lady said. “I’m glad you’re able to share that with us.”
“I can’t sleep at night,” Katy said. “I often see their faces as they die.”
The next sound was a room full of sniffling noses. We all glanced at one another with long gloomy faces. Someone passed around a tissue box and we dabbed our eyes.
I raised my hand. “I love to volunteer here but when I see a dog or cat led to the back, I cringe. I know what’s about to happen.” And the floodgates opened. Tears poured down my cheeks. Then nearly everyone wept, even the guys. Shoulders bounced up and down. After a few minutes we got a grip.
“It’s obvious you all carry a huge burden,” the hospice worker said in a soothing manner. “Dealing with this grief is tough because so few people share it.”
No kidding. It sapped my soul more than I thought, and I didn’t even participate in euthanasia. Imagine if I had?
A few employees vented bitterness at callous owners and the anguish they felt snuffing out the lives of healthy adoptable animals, especially puppies and kittens.
“It gets to me when they lick my face as I’m injecting them,” Kathy said. “I brace myself for the tears but as supervisor, I don’t let them flow. I tell myself it has to be done and I do it.”
Kristin, a young lady at the front desk, said she often felt helpless when people relinquished dogs and cats for stupid reasons. “I feel like running outside and screaming at them, but I can’t. I have to act polite. On my drive home looking at the mountains, I sometimes cry.”
At the end of the meeting, a bunch of us embraced. I felt a bond with my colleagues, even though I was only a volunteer. I had no such camaraderie at my paying job.
After making a few calls, I discovered only a handful of experts who specialized in the emotional treatment of animal shelter workers. Social work schools and psychology programs didn’t teach grief therapy for pet owners. When I was in school, nothing was mentioned about euthanasia at animal shelters.
In bed that night, I saw a way to combine my social work background with my love for animals. I made an impromptu decision to quit my job and work full-time at Boulder County Humane as soon an opening arose. That would give me hands on experience euthanizing animals, although I dreaded the very idea. I had to be there so I knew what employees experienced. After about six months to a year, I planned to open a private practice and offer professional grief counseling to animal shelter workers. Maybe even go nationwide. It wouldn’t happen overnight but I was on a roll.
A full-time job finally opened at the shelter in January so I resigned from my current job.
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 cottage cheese for a brain. I now worked twice as many hours for half the money. But for a change, I saw a future. At my old job, I had days of endless emptiness.
Nothing was different at the shelter except 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 Harris, the assistant supervisor, said, “Watch how it’s done. I’ll expect you to take part next time. Remember, you only get 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 Dalmatian mix had to die because 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’re harder to handle. I had a hard time learning 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 and their lifeless bodies tossed into the freezer, I stole away to the bathroom and burst out crying. When I composed myself, I went outside where I watched Leslie smoke herself into oblivion for the next few minutes.
After I got home from work, Maxine got more kisses than ever. I talked to her while she scarfed down her food. I told her I loved her and would always protect her. After Maxine’s evening walk, she snuggled into a corner of the living room. While I either read or watched TV, she slept. Our bedroom was upstairs in the duplex apartment we shared with a friend. At bedtime Maxine followed me to my room. As always, she slurped a little water then settled in for the night in the bathroom. I thought about the shelter pets and felt helpless I couldn’t change their lives.