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. Christina says:

    Thank you for putting into words exactly what happens. As a volunteer at the intake desk at an open admission shelter, I constantly have people ask me how I can do this job. The answer is that I believe in the care we give to ALL the animals that come to us.

  2. Pati Campbell says:

    Sobbing fir the hearbreak and love & gratitude I feel for you and all giving & loving techs. Thank you for who you are, what you do & for sharing this.

  3. Joy Leaneagh says:

    God bless the technicians, veterinarians, animal care specialists and all who dedicate their lives to the critters we love so much.

  4. Lori says:

    Wow. Very heartbreaking, yet I too was a veterinarian technician for 10 years. And this brought back memories of people bringing in their pets to be put down because they were done with them and they didn’t think anyone would treat them as good as they did. I hope not. Look where you are and what you want me to do. Better yet let me find them a home. Not as good as yours, I pray or they would be back when they were tired of these little ones, but a home where they will be loved unconditionally because isn’t that what we all want?

  5. Amee Estill says:

    Wow! I have no words but only tears. I volunteer at our shelter and I hate when people say…”oh, that is a kill shelter.” You articulated what is in my heart perfectly. And I’m not even a full time employee but wow….these animals matter to me. My animal shelter employees that I work with are amazing and I have the utmost respect for them! Thank you for putting into words what needs to be said!

  6. Lisa Applegate DVM says:

    So true and very well written
    Thank you for expressing the feelings of many who work at these shelters

  7. Angie says:

    Absolutely heartwrenching
    I can’t imagine how painful your job must be. I am touched by your story and I have great respect for your sincerity and compassion for all those precious fur babies. Takes a strong person to do what you do. I commend you for doing it with love.

  8. Nuala Zuckerman says:

    I had no idea… my heart is full of love for these poor dears,to read what goes on in your shelter, has opened my eyes,and taught me not to jump to conclusions, without finding out the full story.

  9. Lynne Huntley says:

    So very poignant. Most of the people who can stick it out at open door shelters, work hard for these animals, and it becomes their life. It’s love for the animals, empathy and passion that compel them to stay

  10. Cindy says:

    Well said. Thank you & your coworkers for your hard work, & your kind, compassionate hearts as you perform your very difficult jobs.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Brought me to tears, could hardly read the recast, I was sobbing so hard! God Bless ALL who help Gods furbabies!

  12. Susan Sandlin says:

    As I sit here reading your in tears……God bless you for all you do to show love to these precious animals ❤

  13. Susan Sandlin says:

    As I sit here reading your post in tears……God bless you for all you do to show love to these precious animals ❤

  14. Karen Burris says:

    I was very moved by this story and like many people that this article is intended for.. I had no idea of what really happens there.. just preconceived notions about people killing animals that are unwanted. This is really an eye opener.. Thank you for sharing this..

  15. Laurie says:

    I am now in tears. Thank you for your explanation. And thank you for everything you do for these poor lost little sweeties.

  16. Cathy Elliott says:

    Thank you sooo MUCH for voicing my thoughts as well!! I’ve been at CVT at an open admission shelter for 35 yrs. AND euthanasia tech.
    Your words are greatly appreciated!!

  17. Leigh says:

    Thank you for doing the compassionate and difficult work others won’t while enduring the onslaught of cruel words from clueless and misguided people. It takes true kindness and heroism!

  18. Cee says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I work closely with our local County shelter and it is so frustrating when people glorify the “no kill” shelter down the road and vilify what we do because we’re a “kill shelter”.

    They don’t realize that the no kill shelter has the luxury of turning away 90% of the animals that people try to leave. They don’t realize that when someone drops a stray at that shelter they call me to come get the dog and take it to the “kill shelter”. They don’t realize how hard the county shelter works to keep their euthanasia rate at 5%.

    Irresponsible owners are why most dogs have to be put down at the shelter. It’s not the shelter’s fault.

  19. Dawn says:

    Beautifully written piece–thank you for sharing. I’ve been a volunteer at my city’s open admissions shelter for 6 years and so appreciate your position. The question I often get is “Animals are getting killed–how can you volunteer there?”. My answer, “How can you not?”.

  20. Jenn says:

    My favorite line is when people say, “I couldn’t do your job, I love animals too much.” Such a passive aggressive statement, a slap in the face implying that I don’t love the animals in my care. My reply is usually along the lines of doing this job because I love animals more than most people. Or some one has to love them enough to actually do something. People don’t get it, they believe every fairytale needs a villian…which should be the person who abandoned or mistreated the animal, but instead is the very person who lead them to the animal they now have.

  21. Susan says:

    From a fellow euth tech, ROCK ON SISTER! You are a warrior for those who can’t speak for themselves. Thank you <3

  22. Lisa says:

    As a technician (we’re called Care Specialists but tomato-tomahto) who works in a city shelter, I cried throughout your entire article because I relate to it every day. We also have night receiving kennels where owned pets are abandoned, and usually under-socialized, ungroomed/matted, in need to dental work or an amputation because their previous owner did not take them for vet care after a bone was fractured, and so on. Even after 10 years, it doesn’t get any easier but I can’t help but want to be there for each and every one of these homeless/abandoned/abused fur babies. Thank you so much for your detailed and straightforward account of what it’s like to be one of us that yes, work in a kill shelter. Occasionally, euthanasia (which means ‘good death’ for those who aren’t familiar) is the only decision to end their suffering, but for the others, we absolutely do our best to get them cleaned up, socialized, and hopefully relay to them that not everyone is someone to fear. Thank you again for the accurate insight you have provided to a majority of the world out there who just don’t know.

  23. Betty says:

    I lost my best friend, my Roger-Dodger for baby this past April at the old age of 14 1/2. We were trying for 20, but his beautiful spirit got tired & I had to let him go so that he could be free to move on to doggy heaven. Roger was rescued from a park in Illinois, at age 1 1/2after being dumped by his first people.
    Thank God he was taken to a shelter that loved him, cleaned him up & saved him so that one day he became my best friend.
    Your story touched me so deeply, because I know my Roger was helped by someone like you when he was caught & brought in from that cold & lonely park.
    Thank you for loving the animals that are given into your care by Good.
    You & the people like you are Angels. You make the lives of these lost & discarded animals so much better with your love & care. God bless all of you. There will be a special place in Heaven for you someday.
    Thank you for you service.
    God bless you

  24. JaneA Kelley says:

    Thank you for writing this. I, too, hate it when people demonize people like you who work at open-admission shelters. I’ve done my own rant on the subject for Catster, begging readers not to get down on people who work at so-called kill shelters, going through a lot of the same reasons you wrote here–you take any and every animal that comes your way, and you do your very best to ensure they get adopted and sometimes even rescued by other groups. Nobody takes joy in euthanizing an animal, and anyone who thinks you do, is being judgmental and heartless.

  25. Leila Dunn says:

    Thank you for saying this so well. I have printed it out to give to people who ask me this question, with the prayer that a little education might go a long way.

  26. Lynn Evans says:

    For the KILL shelter it is not like this, not the norm……treatment, behavior modification or any extra effort to save lives. YOU have options and choices. But it is still a kill shelter and depending on the evaluation process there may still be adoptable dogs being killed. Until recently our local County pound was second to Los Angeles in the number of dogs killed. Though greatly improved, adoptable dogs are still being killed. Owners dump them. Owners let their dogs run with no consequence, owners don’t take care of the animal they have – then beg the rescue community for assistance with medical.
    You choose to work were you work. Do more to educate the public so they dont have the negative response and so THEY become responsible and join the effort to save lives.

    • Zero Gun Control says:

      This article is a narrow qualifier for kill vs no kill and I think it really confuses the general public. The general public uses No Kill as short-hand for not euthanizing adoptable/treatable animals. When the public asks if the shelter is No Kill, this presents and opportunity for education.

      This article is splitting hairs about the No Kill moniker. If the author of this article is working in a shelter that has the resources to medically and emotionally stabilize a nine year old Chow, to bring a parvo pup back to health, to take back what once were kittens and now are bonded cats and ensure they go as a pair to an appropriate home, this is not a “Kill Shelter” to the general public’s eye. This is a facility that has resources and personnel to do what is the very definition of its name: shelter the homeless, facilitate forever homes, and gently help those must go into that dark night.

      Let’s define our terms:
      Open Admission (as is the facility the author works) is usually a municipal shelter funded by city or county government. This means the facility is obligated to take in animals found in its jurisdiction or surrendered by taxpayers living in that jurisdiction. Open Admission shelters run the spectrum from High Kill, meaning very little evaluation and extraordinarily short hold times, to shelters that will not euthanize for time or space. The latter shelter usually has a very engaged volunteer base and aggressive PR departments, i.e. Austin Animal Center.

      Shelters that are not Open Admission are usually rescues, operating primarily as non-profits. In most instances, rescues are completely reliant on donors and grants and have zero tax dollars. This means their resources are limited, but they are able to dictate who comes through their doors, i.e. Muttville in San Francisco.

      I find it vexing that this article is insistent on interpreting the question as an implication that that any euthanizing equals slaughterhouse. I also take issue with the article making this an either/or argument. Rescues do not have night drop boxes, are largely volunteer based and have no real 24/7 service as municipal shelters do.

      In a perfect world, the author’s shelter would take in the broken, the abandoned, the discarded, the ill, the forgotten, the problems, and then partner with rescues to ease the burden of an overworked shelter staff.

      Get your back up about the lack of funding your shelter is willing to elicit from the public, the lack of volunteers to help your staff, the lack of education or intervention for people struggling with their pets, but don’t get angst-y because the general public doesn’t understand No Kill.

  27. Jeanne Grunert says:

    Thank you for not leaving them alone and friendless. I’ve taken in 8 cats over the years, including strays with feline leukemia and behavioral problems, to keep them out of shelters. You have the toughest job in the world.

  28. frances mcgoldrick says:

    i’m in tears. I honestly don’t know how you do it but i’m thankful for you and those like you. I am now able to walk into our shelter in Philly. I used to sob but we can’t accomplish anything that way. My girl is from ACCT Philly because I was able to go in and look into all those abandoned dogs faces and choose the one for me. I like older dogs. Thank You and I will say a prayer of understanding for those who will look at you that way…

  29. Rose says:

    A heart wrenching read. Thank you for what you all do. Unfortunately with so many people turning in their pets for in my mind inexcusable reasons, This will probably never go away. We’ve become a throw away society and so many suffer for that reason. Prayers for all our fur babies.

  30. Trina Sheehan says:

    Coming across homeless animals here and there over my years it’s the open admission shelters who have always helped me. ALWAYS. I haven’t donated to my local shelter, Lowell MA Humane Society, this post just reminded me to.

  31. Candie says:

    My heart breaks as I read this , I am recently thinking about becoming a vet tech, speaking with my friends about it I told them I didn’t know if I could take the pain everyday, I love animals with all my heart. After reading your story I would be doing it for them , the sad the broken the unwanted to show them love perhaps a love they have never known would be well worth my own broken heart. Thank you for all you do for these animals that ate lucky enough to meet you. Also thank you for this letter from your heart and soul.

  32. Amanda Knotts says:

    The problem I find with this post is it does not address the issue that vet service is so expensive that people feel helpless. I have loved all my dogs with all my heart. But I am a lower-middle class family that has multiple medical bills for the humans in the house that we were unable to maintain regular vet visits and with at least two of my dogs not receiving consistent vet services their lives were cut short. If there was affordable vet services maybe there will be less loved ones turned over to the shelters or the pups from the loved one that ended up pregnant because the spay/neutering fee is too high even at non-profit clinics that offer discounts. Perhaps those in the vet profession that supposedly love animals and claim that is why they went into their profession could reduce their fees and still make just as much money to pay off those student loans because more pet owners will seek services for their pets if it is affordable.

  33. Stephany says:

    At the end of the day, the same people against the killing of these poor babies are the same people who aren’t making a difference to help them out. Animals are too good to humans and humans are cruel don’t deserve lovable & loyal companions. It’s tough to make the decision as well as being the one having to proceed with the decision of putting them to sleep… I wish we could help all animals around the world find forever homes

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