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.