A tormenting paradox (An animal lover’s MUST read)


A tormenting paradox

“It is work created by society but stigmatized by society,” said Rogelberg, who has studied the effects of the job on those who do it. “Society has created a need for euthanasia because they don’t adopt pets or spay and neuter them.”

– Dr. Steven Rogelberg, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

This is the reality, laid bare.

If you have friends or family who have pets and won’t sterilise them, show this to them. (I got the link off this post). And tell them it’s not just unwanted pet animals who have to die just because no one wants them – there are health issues for their unsterilised pets too, and (heaven forbid) the babies born, especially if they’re inbred, so STERILISE, dammit!

Flood of stray animals forces shelter workers into a disturbing duty

Sunday,  September 23, 2007 4:18 AM

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

<p>Ania Janik cuddles with Sally, a kitten on the adoption floor that eventually found a home. Janik is one of the workers who share in euthanasia duty.</p>

Ania Janik cuddles with Sally, a kitten on the adoption floor that eventually found a home. Janik is one of the workers who share in euthanasia duty.

<p>At the Capital Area Humane Society, assistant shelter manager Sarah Tayse, left, and veterinary technician Jennifer Bell euthanize a stray cat.</p>

At the Capital Area Humane Society, assistant shelter manager Sarah Tayse, left, and veterinary technician Jennifer Bell euthanize a stray cat.

A familiar chorus of meows met two shelter workers entering “the 238,” a white concrete room whose window shutters always remain closed.The cacophony of 40-plus cats and kittens, their faces peering from behind the stainless-steel bars of plastic pet carriers, drowned out the hum of the air conditioner and the music from a portable radio.Ania Janik began cataloging the animals on the computer, while Erin Waggoner filled syringes with a blue liquid.”This never gets easier with time,” said Waggoner, lifting the nearest carrier onto a steel table and removing a black-and-white stray.Tugging on the cat’s temporary paper collar, she gently stood the animal on its hind legs and injected its belly with a dose of the blue liquid, a sodium pentobarbital mix called Fatal-Plus.”I’m so sorry, sweetie.”The animal let out a cry and crawled back into the carrier before Waggoner returned the crate to the floor and picked up another holding a tan stray and its two kittens.She cupped a kitten in her hand and apologized again before inserting the needle into its abdomen, producing another cry.One by one on this July day at the Capital Area Humane Society, Waggoner and Janik continued the process — the mewing becoming more faint, the air conditioner and radio growing more audible.

An hour and 45 minutes later, the technicians had euthanized 44 cats and kittens — a typical single-day number during summertime, the humane society’s busiest season.

The women say they have made peace with the duty, yet as they later prepared to go home to their pets, Waggoner questioned what karma they might be creating.

“I’m a spiritual person,” she said, “and there are times that I wonder if I’m going to be forgiven for this.”

The two are part of a 15-member rotation of shelter workers charged with putting animals to sleep at the Hilliard facility.

By virtually all accounts, the task — carried out most every day, save for holidays — is grim and stressful, one that challenges the technicians mentally and emotionally, they say.

It is, in short, a tormenting paradox.

“We recruit those people who are among the most compassionate, the most humane in our community,” said Jodi Lytle Buckman, executive director of the humane society, “and ask them to do the one thing that is most inhumane to themselves — to take the lives of those they love.

“By taking responsibility for ending and preventing suffering,” she said, “they in turn will suffer.”

The toll

Day after day, the shelter workers find themselves surrounded by the pleading eyes and wagging tails of cats and dogs eager for a home.

Hired to treat and care for animals, they wrestle with the moral dilemma of having to kill some of those they nurture.

“Sometimes I find myself being sad for no reason,” said Janik, 24, “and I know it’s because of this.”

Since Buckman became director of the nonprofit agency in 2005, three employees have left because of the job’s inherent anguish.

Others have been temporarily removed from the rotation, she said, to help ease the strain.

Several admit to nightmares and increased use of alcohol and tobacco.

“One of the toughest things is to be holding up one of the big dogs while your partner is injecting it and feeling that moment when the life goes out of its body,” said assistant shelter manager Sarah Tayse, 25. “It just goes limp in your arms.”

Workers call the euthanasia room “the 238,” preferring the benign sound of its phone extension to the coarseness of something more literal.

The 238 staff — 13 women and two men — is drawn from the shelter’s 46 full-time employees, whose primary jobs span the kennels, intake, processing, law enforcement, medical and adoption departments.

The technicians, who work in pairs, are assigned euthanasia duty every fifth workday, spending about two hours of their shift in the room.

The job historically has included no extra pay, although those in the rotation soon will receive a 25-cent boost for each hour spent on it.

Regardless, veterinary technician Jennifer Bell said, the job is a worthy one.

“I’d rather put an animal to sleep than watch it suffer or starve in the streets. There are worse things in life than death.”

The numbers

In his 25 years with the humane society, Kerry Manion has witnessed some horrific sights: dogs burned, cats mutilated, pet birds impaled to a wall.

As a humane agent, he investigates complaints of cruelty. Yet he needn’t go beyond the shelter hallways — where barking resonates incessantly — to appreciate the number of unwanted, stray and abused animals.

Each year, 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

A year ago, the Capital Area Humane Society put down 71.3 percent of the 13,801 animals it admitted. (The vast majority of dogs are euthanized at the Franklin County Dog Shelter, on Alum Creek Drive.)

The numbers are slightly more encouraging this year, Buckman said, but the rise in intakes during the summer compounds the strain on staff members and volunteers.

“The worst thing we deal with is the sheer volume,” said Manion, 48, who three years ago adopted Gator, a golden-retriever mix, from the shelter. “The numbers are simply staggering.”

The overpopulation of cats, Buckman said, has been a particularly vexing problem: The humane society estimates that roughly 1 million felines roam free throughout Franklin County.

She applauds the work of “no-kill” shelters, which don’t euthanize healthy animals, but also notes that such refuges can accept only so many cats.

When their cages fill, homeless felines often wind up at the humane society — the sole open-admission facility for cats within 100 miles of Columbus.

In July 2006, Buckman said, the humane society took in a single-day record of 120 animals.

Doug Fakkema, a South Carolina-based expert on compassion fatigue, said the escalating animal population contributes to feelings of hopelessness among shelter workers.

Tayse, the assistant manager, occasionally sees it in 238 staff members.

“They become very cynical,” she said, “and say things like, ‘I’ll still be here 20 years from now injecting just as many animals.’ ”

The society’s cat-adoption rate has hovered in the teens for the past four years compared with a rate exceeding 80 percent for dogs.

Yet the agency has its share of canine tragedies, too.

Although the bulk of stray and abandoned dogs are eventually sent to the dog shelter, the humane society investigates all reports of cruelty.

The growing problem of dog fighting has hastened death this year for 113 pit bulls through August — 20 more than the total in all of 2006.

Workers sometimes form attachments to the seized animals, which remain at the shelter while a court determines the fate of owners. They might treat a dog wounded during a fight, watch it bond with humans and — if the owner loses custody — be forced to euthanize it anyway.

“There are times we bring in animals that we know will never leave the building alive,” said humane agent Christie Kang, who is not part of the 238 staff.

Kang, a vegetarian, buys meat for one purpose only: to feed a favored dog on the day it’s put to death.

Two months ago, she bought Wendy’s cheeseburgers for Alma, a brown pit bull who was fond of humans but ferocious with other dogs.

Kang walked and fed Alma before leading her to the 238.

“It’s just a little way of saying goodbye,” she said. “There is a lot of compassion within these walls.”

The stigma

Tayse has been bitten, clawed and bowled over by 100-pound dogs, but she has never been hurt quite the way she was a year ago while working at the intake counter.

When an elderly woman arrived at the shelter to relinquish her cat, Tayse recalled, she explained to the woman that the animal would be euthanized if adoption proved elusive.

“She looked at me and, without a trace of anger, said: ‘How can you do this? You must not have a heart.’

“I thought to myself: ‘How can you say that to me? It’s because I love animals that I do this.’ ”

Tayse, who dreams of becoming a zookeeper, owns three dogs, three cats and three geckos.

No member of the 238 team is pet-free, yet many hesitate to discuss their work outside the building for fear of public scorn. (Some declined to talk publicly for this story.)

On the day that Janik received her euthanasia certification, a friend sarcastically told her that she’d “officially become a murderer.”

And Bell said she was recently chastised by a woman at a Put-in-Bay bar after the woman overheard Bell mention her job.

Dr. Steven Rogelberg, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said euthanasia technicians often feel isolated.

“It is work created by society but stigmatized by society,” said Rogelberg, who has studied the effects of the job on those who do it. “Society has created a need for euthanasia because they don’t adopt pets or spay and neuter them.”

His research, he said, shows that workers directly involved in euthanasia struggle more with stress, sleep and family relationships than do other shelter employees.

Such findings resonate with Tayse.

“Your family doesn’t get it; your friends don’t get it,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ Because it’s in me, now; it’s a part of me.”

The process

Soon after joining the humane society a year ago, Erin Waggoner discovered a crucial distinction between working in the emergency room of a veterinary hospital and working in the 238.

“In one, the owner is outside the room crying, ‘Please save my (animal),’ ” she said. “And here, there is no one outside (waiting).”

Waggoner, 31, has known only work with animals. No job, though, has involved as much emotional investment as her current one.

From the moment the creatures arrive at intake, she and her co-workers become the primary caregivers — and, in some cases, the final caregivers.

Waggoner, Janik and Tayse have the unenviable task of deciding whether animals live or die.

Tayse tests dogs for aggressiveness to see which are suitable for adoption; Waggoner and Janik monitor the temperament and health of cats.

“When you are the one making the final call,” Waggoner said, “you want to make absolutely certain.”

On average, euthanized animals (including rabbits, guinea pigs and other pets) have spent fewer than four days in the shelter unless they are part of a cruelty case.

Animals deemed “unadoptable” carry cards on their kennels marked with a red capital “E.” Eventually, the animals are placed in carriers and taken to the 238.

Before an animal is put down, the technicians use an electronic wand to double-check for an implanted microchip, which would identify an owner.

Intravenous injections are typically used on dogs, which slip into unconsciousness in seconds and die within five minutes, Buckman said.

Abdominal injections commonly given to cats, kittens and puppies — whose veins are much tinier than dogs’ — induce unconsciousness within three to five minutes, she said, and death in less than 30 minutes.

The post-injection twitching that some felines experience, Buckman said, isn’t indicative of suffering.

Fakkema, the expert on compassion fatigue, agreed, likening the motion to the involuntary movement seen with animals or humans emerging from anesthesia.

The agency technicians take pride in providing a “good death,” in keeping with the ancient Greek meaning of euthanasia.

“One of the things that help shelter workers is being really good at injecting,” Fakkema said. “When you are looking that animal in the eye — and it has to be put to death — you want to promise it that you will do the best you can to make it painless.”

Some technicians make small talk during the process or sing along to a radio, but any conversation or levity, Bell said, shouldn’t be misinterpreted.

“If you thought about what you were doing every day,” she said, “you would never be able to get through it.”

The animals stay in the room for an hour — with door locked and window shutters closed because volunteers walk dogs nearby — then are checked for death.

Remains are placed in a cadaver bag, moved across the hall to a walk-in freezer and transported a week later to the Franklin County landfill.

Mistakes, as with most anything else in life, happen.

Tayse once forgot to call intake before beginning 238 duty and euthanized a cat whose owner had changed her mind that morning.

“We sat on the floor and just cried,” she recalled. “I’d rather deal with 1,000 screaming customers than a heartbroken pet owner.”

And Manion, the 25-year employee, recalled how, in 1994, the discovery of a partially euthanized cat outside the shelter nearly crippled the agency.

“The public invests their trust in us, and that really left us with a black eye.”

The agency, Tayse noted, isn’t without the occasional “miracle.”

“We’ve had cases where a cat was sitting outside the (238) room in a carrier and a volunteer walked by and recognized it as the neighbor’s cat.”

More recently, as she prepared to inject a cat in the 238, instinct told her to give the animal one more day.

“It had been neutered, and it just looked like someone’s cat,” she said. “The next day, a man came in and claimed it.

“It made my whole week.”

The future

The grease board in Jodi Buckman’s office helps track an ever-changing list of appointments, tasks and projects.

The one permanent notation is a quote from author Nancey Murphy: “If you pursue the truth, you will end up changing your mind.”

For Buckman, the shelter’s improving rate of cat adoptions potently illustrates the point.

“I never thought in my professional life I would be excited about a 19 percent save rate,” Buckman said of the 2007 figure through August.

“It’s a tragic number, but it’s a positive trend considering that it was 12 percent in 2004.”

She thinks the agency is doing a better job of marketing cats. And, ironically, it is also using the 238 to try to save lives.

“We have become blunt with people who are handing over cats,” she said. “We are telling them that euthanasia is a very real possibility if they leave them with us.”

Since the policy was implemented 14 months ago, the number of owners reclaiming cats surrendered to the shelter has nearly doubled — from 67 a year ago to 121 so far this year.

“In a field filled with so many heartaches,” Buckman said, “it’s the little victories that keep us going.”

The money isn’t great and a 401(k) plan isn’t part of the deal, but shelter work does offer some intangible benefits.

Manion and his colleagues say they like to walk through the well-lighted adoption area and watch visitors interacting with the animals.

They feel tremendous satisfaction in seeing an animal they rescued or treated leaving for a new home.

Diane Girardi of Hilliard and her two children recently perused the 200 available cats before settling on an orange tabby they named Rooney.

“I’ve never been around a more loving cat,” Girardi said.

On the August day that Rooney and one other cat were adopted, 31 others were admitted to the shelter — their kennel cards yet to be marked.

treed@dispatch.com

dchenoweth@dispatch.com

 

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7 responses to “A tormenting paradox (An animal lover’s MUST read)

  1. Tearing…

  2. Yes, especially the part about the partially euthanised cat outside the shelter. But the old woman’s attitude is so typical of the public’s:

    When an elderly woman arrived at the shelter to relinquish her cat, Tayse recalled, she explained to the woman that the animal would be euthanized if adoption proved elusive.

    “She looked at me and, without a trace of anger, said: ‘How can you do this? You must not have a heart.’

    “I thought to myself: ‘How can you say that to me? It’s because I love animals that I do this.’ “

  3. I know I will never be able to take up a job like this – ever.

  4. What you should do is to post this link in all the pet forums. Esp http://www.pet.com.sg

    I cant post as there is some new rule that all new posts will be moderated by mods and that takes like ages.. I know cos i joined 3 weeks ago to post an adoption post for a kitten called momo and I could never post a second post after that and no replies from the mods with regards to the issue. They simply ignore u….

    Post it there and remind all there the consequences of breeding one’s dog, cat, hamster etc. Every other day, you see someone there asking for a mate for them to breed their pets….. sigh dont they ever ever learn??

  5. Adriane,
    If you have friends who are able to do so, please go ahead and use this as you see fit.

    I do not want to get involved in those forums as I do not have the time or energy to track and respond… and I will feel oblidged to tend the post and probably start arguments with the recalcitrants who would no doubt jump in for a squabble!

  6. Pingback: 20080127: Animal advocates in Puerto Rico complain of slow progress since pet massacre « Tipped Ear Clan

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