Oh, So You Work At A Kill Shelter?

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I know if I don’t write this now, I won’t be able to shut my eyes. I know that I need to write this while my heart still has a dull ache and the lump still resides in my throat.

I just finished what seemed like a night shift that would never end at the shelter. Yet, instead of laying my head to rest, all I can focus on is the frustration that is taking over my body.

After the shelter closes and the non-vampire employees go home for the evening, I begin my nightly reviews of animals in our care. I like to start up front with the adoptable animals, and work my way to the back of the shelter where our sick animals stay. As I went down my list and mapped out upcoming treatment plans for some of our post op cats, something outside one of the large windows facing the intake doors caught my eye. Since the shelter was closed for the night, that meant that patrons only had the option to put the animal they found or were relinquishing in our overnight kennels. These particular kennels are tiny metal rooms built into the wall for people to put their animal inside and shut the door. The heavy door locks immediately, only to be opened again in the morning when the first day shift staff members arrive.

I found myself cemented to the ground, frozen in place, as I watched a woman walk her dog from her car towards the kennels. I usually give people the benefit of the doubt when I see them put animals in the kennels. Most of the time, they are good samaritans bringing in a lost animal they found. Other times, they are regulars that trap feral cats to be spayed or neutered. This time was different. She held the dogs leash close to her side, with what I could tell was a fancy harness keeping the pup secure. As they approached the kennel, the dog was confused and began jumping on its owner; clearly wondering what was going on. I was a couple hundred feet away on the other side of a wall, and the fear and utter helplessness that dog was feeling was almost palpable. The woman quickly tried to push her companion into the kennel, and ended up having to kneel all the way down and use her whole body as the dog fought back to escape this dark and cold new place. The struggle was sickening to watch, yet I couldn’t pull myself to look away. Around the same time she threw the rest of the leash in and shut the door in one swift movement, I unclenched my jaw and started to breath normally again. As I shook my head and began to walk away to continue on my night, I knew in my gut that I wasn’t going to be able to shake this one off too easily, but I wasn’t sure exactly why.

I spend days on end taking care of abandoned animals, so why was it that I couldn’t get the visual of the dog out of my head? With a full night ahead, I knew it was something I would have to push to the back of my mind until the next day.

I try to check on the night kennels every hour or so throughout the evening. As the overnight technician, I can only remove the animals from their night kennels if it is medically necessary, otherwise they patiently wait until the first employees arrive in the morning to intake them. I proceeded to walk through the intake lobby, my least favorite part of the shelter at night, and into the room where the kennels are. It was early on in the night, so I had only expected to see the dog I witnessed being put in. To my surprise, a pair of large, dilated pupils stared back at me through the cage door in the very first kennel I checked. I chuckled knowing that from the looks of the “airplane ears”, that that big ol’ tom cat was going to be a fun one for the morning crew. I went on to check the other nine kennels. I was shocked to find that every other kennel was also filled, with only one left remaining. It was only 8:11pm. Everyone was stable, so that meant I wouldn’t be removing anyone from their kennels. They would all sit frightened and alone in this terrifying new place.

I grabbed a handful of treats, stuck them through the kennel doors of the dogs, and after making sure everyone had water, carried on with my night. Between the anger I felt earlier on, mixed with the lump in my throat after seeing nine lonely eyes staring back at me through the cage doors, I couldn’t help but question, again, why these things were bothering me so much more than usual.


Then, it hit me. I knew why it bothered me so much. It didn’t upset me because I felt bad for the animals, as I knew damn well that my shelter was the best thing to happen to these creatures who were given up on. It didn’t infuriate me because I hated the ones who put them in those night kennels, because I have no idea what their situation was. The real issue imbedded deep in my soul were the voices from almost any conversation I have with someone I meet. It is almost always the same scenario: I ask them what they do, they tell me, they ask me what I do, I tell them. Now, you would think the quick response after telling someone that I am a Veterinary Technician for a non profit organization would be positive, but no. The usual response is something along the lines of, “Oh, wow, that’s a kill shelter, right?”. From there, I usually respond with my normal spiel that has definitely grown with more knowledge and passion throughout the years.


Just so we are all on the same page, as I’m sure many reading this may have been previously uninformed, my spiel is as follows…

“Yes, we are an open admittance shelter”. (This is where I usually get a very confused face)

“That means we take in any animal brought to us; we don’t turn anyone away. So, your ‘non kill shelters’ can say no to the old, broken, and bleeding, where as we take everyone. For example, a dog who was hit by a car, might be turned away at another shelter because the costs of care would be too high. We take that same dog in, and proceed to do everything in our power for that animals health and happiness. Sometimes, the animals brought into us, the ones no one else would take, would have an extremely poor quality of life if adopted out. In my personal opinion, the most humane thing is to help them ease their pain, and comfortably lead them into their next chapter.”

This may not be my word for word saying depending on the day and how many glasses of wine I’ve had, but you get the gist.

With the realization of where my conflicting feelings were stemming from, I couldn’t stop the frustration from building. I began to think of all my most recent shifts, and how I wish that when people asked me that ever so lovely question; they saw what really went on in this kill shelter they seemed to know so much about.

When you leave your nine year old Chow mix because you are moving and can’t afford to bring him with, don’t worry, we got you covered. We brushed out his severe matting and gave him a bath that he hadn’t had in years. His rotting out teeth, fear not, he had full mouth dental extractions and is no longer in pain. When he was curled up in the back corner of the kennel scared to death, no sweat, our behavior team spent hours working with him to build his confidence and comfort him in this new and unfamiliar place.

When the puppy you got off craigslist breaks with parvo and you can’t afford treatment so you relinquish it to us, we will spend day in and day out providing the care that would costs hundreds of dollars at a clinic.

When your twelve year old cats, that you adopted from us when they were kittens, no longer suit your lifestyle, we will welcome them with open arms. In fact, we will do you one better. We will have our specialist spend time with them to ensure that they are bonded, and only adopt them out together. Is it harder to adopt out two older cats together? Absolutely. Don’t worry, our customer care team will go above and beyond to ensure that they are promoted like crazy to get them the best home possible.

When you leave your shih tzu in the night kennel with a note that says, “She won’t stop peeing everywhere”, we will quickly take some radiographs to show that it’s probably due to the strawberry sized bladder stones she has. Oh, and yes, we will take those out, too.

Most of all, what I wish more than anything, is the view they have of the ones that have to perform euthanasia. Instead of picturing these scowl faced villains wearing black aprons waving a blue syringe around like it’s a trophy, maybe picture what really goes on. Picture the technician emotionally drained and exhausted, but forces a smile to make the animal you brought in to be euthanized more comfortable with a friendly face. Picture that same technician laying in bed at night, not being able to sleep because they are questioning every decision they made throughout their day. Or, if it’s easier, they could even picture me. Picture me, just the other day, laying on the floor with a deceased, four week old puppy in my lap. Picture me running down the hallway with its failing body in my arms, racing the clock to help it peacefully go to sleep instead of having to die alone and in pain. Picture me having to look into its eyes telling it that it will all be alright, as I guide it on its journey until it falls asleep in my arms. Picture me unable to move, heartbroken by having to be the person to make that decision, but conflicted with the knowledge that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yes, I am aware that I am so unbelievably fortunate to work somewhere with the funding to go to extreme measures for the four legged creatures. I am also aware that many underfunded shelters do not have this luxury, and have to make decisions that no one else can or will. All I ask is please, when you throw the words around and criticize the overworked employees that stay at those underfunded shelters to help as many as they can, try picturing the human behind your imaginary black apron.

After hours of continuing on with my night reviews with the internal turmoil going on inside me, I took the last hour to tie any loose ends I had left. With that, I went back and gave extra blankets to the tiny ones shivering on the cold cement ground. I went back through the lost and found kennels and handed treats to the attention seekers that had been longing for me to come say hi all night. I went back to the kennel with the “dangerous animal” sign on it, and I sat outside its cage turned away comfortably as I slowly passed treats through the cage door to show that not all people were scary. When it was finally time to leave, I sat in my car and took a deep breath. With my exhale I envisioned the new future ahead for all those scared souls I saw in the night kennel. Because as I said before, them being put in those kennels may just be the best thing to happen in their lives.

Yes, I work at a kill shelter, thank you for asking.

90 thoughts on “Oh, So You Work At A Kill Shelter?

  1. Bev says:

    Most people who work with animals in shelters do so because of their love for animals…at least I hope so. We need and appreciate these workers so much. I was recently quite disgusted while overhearing two Petco employees excitedly talking about how one of them was getting a 7 month old female dog and was planning to breed her. There can never be too much education. Thank you to those who try to educate others about animals.

  2. Olga says:

    Thank you. For your love. For your dedication. And for opening your heart for others to see.

    This was needed. And this was brave.

  3. Lee Heller says:

    Stunningly well written and important piece. As someone who has volunteered at a shelter where euthanasia is an occasionally necessary tool, I have come to understand the misplaced moral outrage of people who don’t understand what open door facilities have to do. And how hard it is for animal loving people to have to take care of so many animals including the ones that have to be put to sleep. Thank you for your work and your passion and your commitment.

  4. Ron McCuen says:

    Ron McCuen, Director for Wags to Whiskers of Texas, Inc. Well written, very true. We are constantly bouncing our emotions from anger to extreme sorrow and pity for some of our animals that are rescued or brought in to us, often just dumped in a box in our driveway and yes, we also have moments of rapturous joy when we are able to heal and eventually adopt out a needy cat or kitten. It never ends. People do not understand that no kill shelters such as ours are always filled to absolute capacity and that we are almost always low on funds. Please keep on doing what you do. We are supposed to be good stewards of the earth and all it’s creatures. You’re actions prove it wonderfully well. God bless you!

  5. Yvonne says:

    I’m a foster for a ‘no kill’ shelter and this brought me to tears. She is correct, a lot of rescues can’t take the really sick (although we end up with very sick animals sometimes) or wounded ones. We are all donation so it’s hard, even with vets who donate time, to pay for the care so many of them need. Everything from worms to amputations. It’s very expensive. I actually have more respect for kill shelters knowing most only do it if they really have to. And even no kill shelters will euthanize dogs who are aggressive. This is why people need to support shelters and rescues to take the burden off of places like this so they can help more animals. We also need fosters and volunteers badly. Please look into it. You may save a life!

    • Susan McDonough says:

      Please don’t call them “Kill shelters”, they are “Open Access” shelters. I was a Euthanasia Tech for 3 years. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the animals who died in my loving arms that I worried about. I worried about all the TNR’d cats who were left to be torn apart by coyotes, poisoned, starved, infested with parasites, used as dog fighting bait and so on. I worried about the dogs and cat left in apartments to starve to death. I worried about the animals who were turned away at the so called “no kill” shelters and then dumped somewhere. I worried because I also spent 26 years as a police officer focusing on animal cruelty and I saw these things every day. Euthanasia is very sad but it isn’t cruel. Turning animals away goes against the definition of “SPCA”.

  6. Julie Mock says:

    Thank you for your beautifully-written post. I worked at an open-admissions shelter for 18 years and was fortunate to be a small part of its evolution from a high-kill shelter to one where no adoptable animals are killed. As I now observe the workings of this shelter through its extensive social media efforts, I see it has evolved from competing with and having to defend itself against other programs that were either threatened by its success or by its extensive use of volunteers to supplement its resources, to working with these former nemeses and new partners to do more for the animals. I have always hated the black hat/white hat generality that surrounds rescue work and the Kill/No Kill debate. When asked, I would refuse to use either term to describe our status, instead taking a few sentences to say essentially that we did our best to save every adoptable animal, with “Adoptable” being defined as those animals who did not pose a significant safety threat, and those whose health status would allow a good quality of life, either after adoption or whatever treatment was required for them to be ready for adoption. I also said that I was proud to work at an open-admissions shelter because it meant that everyone who came through its doors was given a chance – or two – or three. My best memories from those times are of animals whose conditions seemed hopeless who took those chances and ran with them to a better life. Blessings to ALL who love animals and do the hard work to better their lives!

  7. Linda Aubel says:

    I volunteer at a “kill” shelter and can understand the difficult things that you wrote about so well. THANK YOU to everyone at shelters who try to make these animals who wind up there feel loved and safe and special and work so hard to find them a good new home and family or have the awful task of euthanizing them due to medical conditions/age or the worst – overcrowding. YOU ARE SPECIAL PEOPLE – BLESS YOU ALL!

  8. Joelle says:

    It takes a special kind of love to work in a shelter, much less a kill shelter. Could I do it? No I couldn’t. With that being said, I could not do it because I know I am not mentally strong enough to do what NEEDS to be done. Going to the Zoo left me feeling down. It’s a mentally draining job. If you’re going to be offended by a job title I recommend Breeders. Every story is different, but shelter workers take so much undeserved stereotyping for other people’s mistakes and misfortunes. Not everyone thinks they’re evil.

  9. Susan Houser says:

    Most progressive public shelters today are using “managed admission,” which requires people to make an appointment to surrender an animal. This smooths out the peaks and valleys in shelter intake, allows shelter staff to determine if they can help head off surrender, allows shelter staff to get background information such as the pet’s age and medical condition, and educates the community that giving up a pet (while it may sometimes be necessary) is not a casual decision. “Open admission” and night-drop boxes actually encourage people to view giving up a pet as no big deal. If you would like to be put in touch with directors of public shelters that use open admission, please send me an e-mail at my website, http://www.outthefrontdoor.com (see the Comments tab).

    • Susan Houser says:

      Sorry for the typo in my comment above — I meant to say, if anyone would like to talk to directors of public shelters that use “managed” admission, send me an e-mail.

    • Jody says:

      In our area, managed admission means call animal control and turn it over as a stray or turn it loose. Either way, it’s going to the shelter today whether there’s an appointment.or not.

  10. Wynston Evatt says:

    I work at a kill shelter and this is really what it’s like. I’m very proud of the fact that the shelter I work at hasn’t had to euthanize any animal that didn’t have a terminal health issue or dangerous behavior problem in 4 year. 4 years in an open-admission, county shelter and we haven’t euthanized for time OR space.
    Guess what? I still hear ‘So you kill animals, right? I love animals too much for that’. People have no idea what it’s like.
    Should we wait for the dog that was hit by a car to bleed out instead? Let the dog with aggressive cancer die in a kennel because no one wants her? Send the dog, that was so food aggressive he ate the test hand, out into a home with kids? Leave the cat with Felv in a kennel to starve because she can’t eat with all the ulcers on her tongue?
    I sit with these animals in their last moments because the people who ‘love animals too much for that’ aren’t there with them.

    • Wynston Evatt says:

      Edit: The dog with aggressive cancer, when she first came in her tumors where removed. After being in our adoption room for months her tumors came back all at once and where the size of tennis balls in just days.

    • Pandora says:

      Sad part is the dog with cancer should never have come to your facility in the first place. The owner should have had the poor thing euthanized in his office. But let me guess …. it’s just so expensive.

  11. Lea Adams says:

    If you are ever in Los Angeles I’d love to have you over for lunch and meet my dogirls. They were adopted from a kill shelter, where I met some of the kindest people I’ve ever known. What you do is so terribly difficult but so deeply appreciated.

  12. Deborah A Andalini says:

    I truly do appreciate ur love
    of animals. It tks a grt deal of courage to do wht you do. I gv $ to my lcal shltr and try to vltr whn I am able. I lv animals very mch. I c hw mch thy sffr in sm csses. I spk up. I tk action. Anmls nd our voices 2 spk 4 thm. I lv anmls vry mch. God Blss you 4 every Creature u hv comforted.

  13. Donna Kirk says:

    WOW beautifully written….need to put puppy mills out of business..pet stores DON’T sell dogs or live creatures…..only option ADOPT!!!

  14. George says:

    I refuse to “adopt” from a shelter for a couple of reasons primarily: The one in my city forces you to desex/sterilize the animal, and I am personally strongly opposed to that. I would rather have no animal at all than a desexed one that has no personality. Second the place in my city makes you answer all sorts of questions and jump through all sorts of hoops with information that they interpret very subjectively and can use to turn down anyone they want to turn down. So, for some, the only answer is to purchase from a breeder.

    And, contrary to some of the opinions I’ve seen expressed, most breeders are ethical who love animals just as much (or more) than those who work in the “kill shelters.” And what the devil is wrong with buying a little girl dog with the intention of breeding her? Especially if she’s a purebred and AKC registered (or registrable)? Hon, you need to go back to school and get some education: if animals weren’t allowed to breed, pretty soon there would be no animals left on Earth!

    • Ryan says:

      You are a complete moron. There is ALWAYS an excess amount of dogs available, bc of people just like you. Let me know when you hear of a shortage of dogs or cats ANYWHERE! Sterilization should start with you.

      • George says:

        Okay, now… to the moderator/owner of this blog: please remove me COMPLETELY. I have no desire to be a part of anything where only one point-of-view is tolerated and where those who dare to deviate from that one point-of-view are insulted and subjected to ad hominem attacks. Saying things like “sterilization should start with you” is not only rude: it is beyond the limits of civilized conversation and behavior.

        As I go (and I am sure that someone will make sure that the door hits me in the butt on the way out), I want to say that I know what I am talking about when I say that I am opposed to the forced sterilization of animals. Years ago, my family lived next door to another family who owned a dog. That dog was the friskiest, most playful and loving dog that you ever saw! He was always jumping around and having fun. And then his owners (for reasons of which I am unaware) decided to have him “fixed.” The change in that dog was IMMEDIATE and so obvious that one would have thought that they had gotten another dog. What had been an active, playful dog immediately became a lazy dog who did pretty much nothing except eat and sleep. All of us were heartbroken at the change in him, and his owners commented to my parents that having him desexed was probably the worst mistake that they ever made with a pet.

        Of course, this idea that breeding dogs should be outlawed and that “adoption” through “shelters” should be the only way to obtain a dog (or cat) is a clear sign of the totalitarian attitude that currently permeates our society. It is another troubling sign of wanting to use the force of law in order to impose one specific group’s opinion on everyone else.

    • Jody says:

      Have you ever had a spayed or neutered pet? They have plenty of personality, unless of course you’re looking for a dog that wants to roam or fight…perhaps a cat who sprays at every opportunity.

      The animals that enter the shelter deserve to go to a forever home. Those questions are designed to give the pet it’s best chance of finding a good fit with you and in your home.

      There are several decent breeders out there who do care where their puppies go, will take them back if it doesn’t work out, properly care for their breeding dogs, etc. For each of them, there are a dozen who don’t. Those who are responsible sell their pups on a contract that generally requires you either “desex” the pup or show it to championship points before you breed it.

  15. Amy Boss says:

    I volunteer at a small city shelter that holds about 75 dogs maximum in a rule county in Georgia. The manager at the shelter works with rescues in the state as well as other states to get the dogs on there way to a better life. When dogs come in injured or sick the manager does anything she can to nurse them back to health. If a dogs condition is real bad then she will take it to the vet to be euthanized. She does a great job!! She cares!!

  16. Allison Kollman says:

    Thank you for everything you do. Thank you for being there when others turn away. Thank you for giving love to those that deserve it most. Thank you.

  17. Annette Barsby says:

    I’ve read every word you have painstakingly written with your heart.
    It opened my eyes and my heart.
    To be able to help these poor animals takes much courage and dedication and I admire you for this.
    It would be a wonderful World if there was no need of these shelters, but it’s a sad fact that the need is growing.
    I work as a volunteer for a UK organisation that rehomes cats, and I have many calls to give up cats. I am often asked “Are they put down if not adopted?”
    I answer them “No” only if it is sick and beyond help.
    Thank you for all you do. You truly are a special soul

  18. Dynielle Kristy Kent says:

    Thank you for this article. This is something I knew in my heart was what was best for animals, but because I don’t work there, could never know the behind-the-scenes decisions that are made. I appreciate the beautiful and compassionate insights here.

  19. Zandila says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this. Beautifully and touchingly written. But, more important for me, you made me think and reconsider my own knee jerk reaction, which has been that same disdain you describe. Thank you for lending me a new perspective through your words.

  20. Steve Powell says:

    Your words are kind and sensitve. My family has had feline members my entire life and that will never change. Our girls: Pepsi & Cola (adopted as kittens). My wife and I support our local HS financially. I am inclined to volunteer after having read many responses here and your story. Thanks for what you do. May God give you the strength to push on for the love of animals. >^.,.^<

    • GEORGE says:

      Would someone take me off of this list, PLEASE?

      I have received yet another notification that someone has posted a reply to my original comment. I was turned off immediately by the quality (or lack thereof) of the people who participate on this board, when someone called me a “complete moron” because I oppose desexing animals and believe that it’s cruelty.

      It’s okay to disagree, but I draw the line at personal attacks like that. I have very good reasons for feeling the way that I do. How would you like it if someone came along and castrated you (if you’re a man), or just whacked off your breasts (if you’re a woman), for no good reason (no disease process that necessitated the procedure) other than they thought that it would be “good for you?”

      Anyway, I don’t want to discuss this matter further. It is obvious that the people here are not interested in having an intelligent discussion anyway, but rather prefer to lob insults and diatribes at anyone who disagrees with their opinions.

      Again, please simply REMOVE me from this list. I DO NOT want to be here.

  21. Fryco says:

    WOW. No words to describe how beautiful this piece is. I will definitely be sharing with my shelter’s staff- I think it’s helpful to know there are people out there who understand what it’s like. I mean, you NAILED almost every thought I’ve ever had, and outlined reasons why I shamefully avoid talking about where I work… a county animal control/animal shelter.

    We definitely rely on funding and donations heavily, and do the best we can with what we can. The director is always pushing for new grants and programs to help the animals, the staff, volunteers and the shelter. We consider ourselves “low kill”, but in past years had much higher euth rates, which in the past (thankfully not now) were due to space many times. Many in the community hold onto the “old” shelter that was euthanizing for space, and don’t care to see how hard the director, staff and volunteers have worked to get us to where we thankfully have not had to do so much at all (like single digit percentage rates). However, still, the negative and hateful remakes staff gets from people and the community sometimes are just hurtful and ignorant. They don’t understand we work here because we CARE about these animals that obviously no one else did.

    Anyways, again, this is so wonderful and really lifted me up and has motivated me to keep working hard for these animals. Bless you.

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