The truth about cats and dogs
At the animal shelter, only some stories end happily
A story by Tom Knapp, February 1997

NOTE: This story is the product of several days I spent in February 1997 at the Humane League of Lancaster County, where I witnessed everything that goes on in the main public areas as well as behind closed doors. I sat in with families as they met and adopted pets. I watched children cry as their parents left beloved members of the family behind to an uncertain fate. I held animals in my arms and stroked their heads as they were euthanized to make room for a never-ending flow of abandoned and unwanted pets.

This is a look at the seemingly simple decisions people make that can result in life or death for animals. It's also about the joy and sadness of those who must act on those decisions.

• • •

It was only a few hours, but it cost a dog its life.

A local woman, told by friends that her dog looked sick, gave it to the Humane League of Lancaster County. Later, regretting her hasty decision, she came back and paid $73.50 to readopt her pet. But the shelter was crowded that day. To make room for her dog, another dog was euthanized.

"It's really frustrating," office manager Jenny Heberlein says later. "That's a cage we had to fill. Another dog was put down because of that."

The Humane League annually handles a lot of animals. Few leave by the front door. In 1996, says executive director Jennifer Ericson, the league took in 6,803 pets -- 2,685 dogs and 4,118 cats. Of them, 1,057 dogs and 1,074 cats were adopted, 576 dogs and 46 cats were reclaimed by owners, and 962 dogs and 2,801 cats were euthanized.

• • •

The kennel rings with the barking of dogs, many visibly frightened by their surroundings. A mismatched pair of shepherd pups sits side by side, silently pleading for attention. Several cats peer intently from their cages. A forlorn-looking pit bull whimpers softly.

Dawn Cooke is playing with a black Labrador in the get-acquainted room. Just a few months old, he's gangly, awkward and eager to please. "I don't want to do this on impulse," Cooke says. "I want to make sure this is the dog."

She decides to come back another day. "I've been toying with this idea for about a year," she explains. "It might take a few months. ... I'll definitely be back."

That's not unusual, says Heberlein. "We get people who come in every few weeks," she says. "They're looking for the perfect one."

Two women can't tear their eyes away from a frisky Yorkshire terrier. They decide her name is Doce before realizing they're taking her home.

An 8-week-old lab/beagle puppy is making her first impression on Michelle Mellinger and her youngest son. Mellinger planned to look at two other dogs, but the white-and-tan pup has stolen her heart. Mellinger's other kids are in school. She vows to return with them later.

New Holland police call to say a man going to jail has signed over his cats. The next day, the man's landlord lets a league representative claim them.

A mother and daughter bring in a husky/chow mix. The daughter's eyes fill with tears as an attendant leads him away. Minutes later, a man arrives with a box full of puppies.

Acting kennel manager Donna Williams takes the dogs to the infirmary. She examines them for missing hair (a sign of mange or ringworm), checks their teeth and looks at their eyes and nose for unusual discharges. Each gets nose drops for bordetella, a parvo-distemper shot and an oral solution for roundworm. "These will probably go quickly," Williams predicts. All are energetic and healthy.

A young couple brings in a cat they found. They had kept it for a few weeks, but decided they don't have room for an animal in the house. To soften the blow of giving her up, they donate a large bag of pet supplies to the shelter.

Mellinger returns with her children, who are eager to play with the puppy. She's not concerned when the dog makes a mess on the floor. Nor is she bothered by yellow worms in the stool; it's a normal condition, easily treated.

"She's great. There's no reason to look any further," Mellinger says. When called by the league, her husband agrees to her choice. Mellinger promises to come back in the morning to finalize the adoption. The puppy, named Sienna or Sierra depending which child you ask, spends a final night in her cage, curled up with her sister to sleep.

A day later, both puppies have been adopted. But their mother, a friendly, 2-year-old spaniel, waits more than a week for a home. The staff sadly admits they can't keep her much longer.

They try to avoid getting attached, but often end up adopting pets they can't bear to let die.

"I've taken home quite a few: three dogs, five cats and two birds," says Williams. "That is one of the hazards of working here." People whose landlords forbid pets are lucky, she says. They can't be tempted to take "just one more."

• • •

Public areas of the Humane League include five dog kennels, two cat rooms and a get-acquainted room. The infirmary is where animals are examined and inoculated, or euthanized. Beside it is the crematory, with a freezer full of dead pets, a large oven and metal cans filled with ashes.

There's a semi-isolation room for aggressive, sick and nursing dogs, plus isolation rooms for animals on a rabies watch. Some will be killed and sent to a lab for inspection.

The holdover room is for police and rescue groups to leave animals over night. Manheim Township police bring in two stray dogs. Luckily for this pair, their owner is tracked by their licenses, and he comes for them.

Another owner angrily refuses to reclaim his lost husky. A shaggy mammoth, the dog waits patiently in his cage for an adoption that never comes.

A man who gave up his dog in a fit of temper two days before wants it back. The change of heart worries Ericson. "Obviously, we can't just look at this as a regular adoption," she explains. "When you surrender a pet, you've surrendered all rights to it. We don't have to give it back. Also, it may have been adopted out already, or euthanized."

But the dog is still there, and the man's family convinces Ericson they will give him good care. Since they meet the adoption criteria, they pay the fee and take him home.

• • •

"We just ran out of dog space."

Words the staff dreads to hear, but hear often.

It's been a busy day, with too many people bringing in dogs they don't want. With no empty cages and more dogs on the way, Williams picks three dogs for euthanization. Those chosen have been at the shelter longer than the others or are considered unadoptable. This time, she picks a 2-year-old golden retriever, a 3-year-old chow and a 5-year-old St. Bernard.

"We give them a sedative first," explains kennel technician Linda Mitchell. "They get groggy, they go to sleep and they feel nothing. At that point we inject them with the euthanasia solution. ... We don't want to put them through any more stress than we have to."

A cheerful dog, the St. Bernard wags his tail when he sees the leash. But he's not going for a walk or to find a new home. Instead, he's led to the cold cement floor of the infirmary. Williams strokes the dog, Mitchell prepares the injections.

"Good boy," Williams murmurs. "Yeah, he's a good boy." Mitchell gets down on her knees. "Wanna play?" She scratches him fondly while injecting the sedative. He quickly calms down. Williams cradles the huge head in her lap, softly repeating "It's all right, it's all right." Mitchell gets the second syringe, filled with a luminous pink solution to stop his heart.

Within seconds, it's over. Both attendants keep stroking him long after he's dead. Williams gently lowers his head to the floor. Then they carry him into the crematory, each giving him a final pat before they go for the next dog.

Jokes are common in the infirmary. "You either laugh or you cry," says Williams. But it doesn't stop tears from flowing.

"You never know which ones are going to really hit you," adds kennel tech Tiffani Stehman. She prefers to work alone, spending as much time as she can with each pet.

The next day, it's B.Boss' turn. Her sin is having shepherd blood; her owners wanted a full-blood rottweiler. She hasn't adapted well to the kennel -- fear making her growl and snap -- and she's deemed unadoptable. She doesn't understand the weakness caused by the sedative, and she fights the urge to lay down. Legs shaking, she finally collapses, and Mitchell hugs her before administering the final shot.

Meanwhile, in kennel five, a young girl falls in love with a beagle pup. Her mother resists, but the girl uses daughterly persuasion. The puppy is frightened and trembling in her cage. Soon, she's falling asleep in the little girl's arms.

Another successful adoption.

[ by Tom Knapp ]