The last walk
At their final stop, unadoptable strays and abandoned pets find a bit of dignity
By William Hageman
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 19, 2003
Tail wagging, the medium-sized black pit bull tugged at the leash. He had spotted a large dog biscuit on the floor and lunged for it. Once he'd pounced on it, he flopped on the floor and snarfed it up, careful to get every crumb.
It was his last meal.
Less than two minutes later, the dog lay dead on the floor at the City of Chicago's Animal Care and Control facility at 27th Street and Western Avenue, one of about two dozen dogs and cats being euthanized on this Friday evening.
It's something that goes on nightly here--more than 10,000 times a year--a process that's both horrible and unavoidable.
"I'm just glad it's not my choice to say who goes down," says Gloria Weaver.
Weaver is one of the facility's four euthanasia technicians whose job it is to administer the fatal injections. How many has she done in her 3 1/2 years on the job?
"Too many. That's one thing I don't want to think about. The count.
"I look at the list, and some nights it's 20 dogs, 15 cats. My God, that's too many. That's the sad part. But where would they go?"
Animal Care and Control gets 80,000 calls a year. Some 30,000 animals, about 26,000 of them dogs and cats, are impounded. Of the 30,000, about 3,000 are adopted out and 3,500 are taken in by other shelters and rescue facilities, if they have room. Perhaps 5,000 more are reclaimed by their owners. The rest? You do the math. "People have to understand we don't have a choice," says Melanie Sobel, director of program services at Animal Care and Control. "This is an open-door shelter, we're open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. People just don't realize the magnitude."
Gloria Weaver realizes it. So does Adrian Densmore, the other euth tech on duty this night.
"I remember the first one I did, with the guy who trained me," Densmore says. "It was a real old dog. And the first time I did it, I had tears in my eyes."
That was 3 1/2 years ago. Since then, he says, the job hasn't been quite so disturbing.
"I understand why we do it," he says. "It gets a little easier."
But it's never easy.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing a bad thing," he says. "I ask myself. I wonder what God thinks about this. It's my job; I'm supposed to do this. But you wonder."
Talk to the euth techs, or anyone involved in the process, and you can't help but be touched when they talk about the animals whose lives they end.
Love them till the end
"You gotta care; if you don't, you're just cold-hearted," Weaver says. "If you felt, `Oh, hell, put 'em down,' there's something wrong with you. We gotta love 'em till the end. We gotta show 'em some love. I find myself saying, `I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' in their ears."
Such concern was evident with the black pit bull mix. No one had to offer him that biscuit, and the animal care aide holding the leash didn't have to take the time to let the young dog--he was just a few months old--finish those last morsels. But as with so much that goes on in Care and Control's holding area each night after 7--after the building is closed to the public--there was a measure of dignity and respect offered to the pup.
"It's amazing, you know," Weaver says. "You're taking a life. You find yourself petting them even after they're dead."
The nightly process begins with "the list," which is drawn up by shelter director Norma Torres.
"The smallest could be 10, but they average 25," she says. "It could go as high as 35. I don't think I've ever gone more than 40.
"And I don't think I've ever seen a day of zero. Not with the number of impoundments we do. That'd mean every dog we impounded was perfect for adoption. And that just doesn't happen."
How do animals end up breathing their last on the floor of the holding area at Animal Care and Control? The short answer is because their cage numbers are on Torres' list. The longer answer, the better answer, is that they're here because of people's carelessness, stupidity or cruelty. People let their dogs and cats run loose. People don't get their animals spayed or neutered, leading to overpopulation. People buy pets from puppy mills or pet shops when there are thousands of animals filling shelters. People stage dog fights. People do terrible things to animals.
Not on the list
Most of the animals put down are the impoundments, strays that had been running loose or dogs that were involved in fighting. Badly injured or vicious animals that are brought in by police or Animal Care and Control officers--animals not involved in possible court cases--are euthanized right away without even making Torres' list. Sick dogs brought in by owners for euthanization also aren't counted on the list.
Dogs that are brought in as strays are held for five days, waiting for their owner to claim them. After five days they become the property of the city. The animal is put on an evaluation list by the veterinarians and is tested for health and temperament. Every animal is looked at on an individual basis.
"It's not like we have a cutoff--oh, he's 5 years old, he gets euthanized," Sobel says. "It depends on the animal."
Evaluating the animals is part of Torres' job. She says she tries to determine if a dog or cat is a rescue-transfer candidate. When she sees an overly aggressive animal, she knows it probably will end up on her list; others that may cower in their cages in fear or seem distant may not.
"If there's a dog that has not shown well but I have bonded to, I'll put a hold on that dog. `Don't touch my dog,'" she says.
"You can reason and try to be logical with yourself. Yes, these animals have to be euthanized. But if that dog is timid and shaking, maybe there's a better solution. I couldn't put that dog on a euth list. I'd feel like I'm selling my soul."
So she'll start working the phones, looking for another shelter or rescue organization to take the dog in.
"I feel like a used-car salesman. `He's an older gray poodle, but people like these little models,'" she says, laughing.
Still, there are never spots for all the animals, and some just can't be saved. Those are the ones that are led into the holding area every night.
The process is methodical. There's no joking among the staff members, no small talk about the Bears or the weather.
Paul Mui, the animal care aid shift supervisor, checks Torres' list and calls out a cage number. An animal care aide fetches the animal from one of the pavilions down the hall, a three- or four-minute walk.
The dogs are led into the holding area one at a time. No animal sees another one put down; even the cages of other animals in the holding area are turned away so the occupants don't see what's going on. A syringe has been prepared. The dogs are muzzled, just in case.
A tourniquet is put on the animal's leg. One tech holds the animal, another gives the injection of sodium pentabarbital; in effect, an overdose of barbiturates (until about 3 1/2 years ago, Chicago still used a gas chamber).
It's over quickly and quietly. Within seconds the animals go limp and are gently placed on the floor. Another 10 or so seconds later, one of the techs will touch the animal's eye to see if there is a reaction. Then they feel for a heartbeat.
And more often than not, the dog will get a gentle pat on the shoulder or rump.
It's not an easy job.
"When I'm walking them down the hallway, I tell them that everything will be OK, I tell them I won't hurt them," Densmore says. "You talk to 'em four or five minutes, and you get to know them a little bit, you become friends, and they'll be wagging their tails.
"Then you euthanize them, and, man, I just euthanized an animal that I told everything would be OK. . . . that animal trusted me."
"People say, `How do you get used to the smell in there?'" Weaver says. "Well, you don't. But the smell is nothing to what we have to do in here."
"I leave it here," Densmore adds. "I don't talk to my fiance about it. She doesn't know what I do here. It's a secret you don't tell your family or friends."
The animals--they're "bodies," not "carcasses" or anything less to the staff--are then carefully, at times almost tenderly, slipped into heavy black plastic bags and lifted onto a cart, from where they'll be placed in a freezer, waiting to be picked up by an incineration service.
As soon as one animal is removed, another is brought through the doors. Sniffing, wagging its tail, trying to lick people.
A heavyset, older brown pit bull, a dog that appears to have seen some battles in his day, is brought over. There's no fight in him tonight. In fact, even after he's fitted with the blue muzzle, he's wagging his tail, seemingly excited by the attention he's getting. The tail keeps wagging as he gets the injection.
Almost instantly, the wagging stops and the dog, in the arms of one of the techs, keels over.
And so it goes. A Rottweiler, another wagging tail belying the aggressive tendencies that got her on tonight's list, is next. Then another pit. A shepherd mix. A shaggy mix. More pits, including the black one.
The process goes on for more than an hour. Finally it's over. The last cart of bodies is taken to the freezer, and the crew is done well before 10 o'clock. That's when the trucks roll in and have to be unloaded.
The trucks are Animal Care and Control's vehicles that have spent the day on the streets, rounding up strays that will refill the cages and start the cycle again.
How to be part of the solution
Just as there always are dogs and cats facing euthanasia, there are always animals ready for adoption.
At press time, Chicago's Animal Care and Control facility at 2741 S. Western Ave. had 80 dogs and 40 cats--and two rabbits--awaiting new homes.
All the dogs and puppies have had physicals, they've been screened for good temperaments, they've gotten their shots, have been dewormed and are heartworm negative. Before going out the door, they're also spayed or neutered and microchipped. And if they're more than 3 months of age, they have their city licenses. The shelter even throws in a new leash.
Likewise, all the cats and kittens have had physicals, have all their shots, are dewormed and feline leukemia negative. They also are spayed or neutered and microchipped before being adopted. Cats come with a free carrier.
The adoption process is simple. If a visitor--the shelter is open every day from noon to 7 p.m.--finds a dog or cat he'd like to adopt, he takes the animal's cage card to the front desk. He fills out an application and gets adoption counseling.
If the adoption is approved, the new owner can write his check--the fee is $65--and take his new pet home, provided the animal has already been altered.
In the case where the animal has to be spayed or neutered, dogs can go home the following day, cats two days later.
E-mail William Hageman at email@example.com.