At their final stop, unadoptable strays and abandoned pets find a bit
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
By William Hageman
October 19, 2003
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