Sunday. A friend and I take our dogs for a run in the park. The late-afternoon sunlight is pure gold, and a fresh breeze rustles the tall grass. A family approaches us on the trail: a man, woman, and two small boys. They are accompanied by a large tan dog with the distended nipples of motherhood and an adorable pup who looks just like his mom. The pup pesters his mom, taking five steps for every one of hers. She patiently tolerates his rambunctiousness.
It’s a heartwarming scene that totally depresses me.
What has happened to me? I love dogs. I love puppies. And yet the sight of puppies makes me sad. Every time I see or hear of a litter of kittens or pups, I also see cages full of homeless ones and the bins full of dead ones at the shelter where I work.
Monday. It’s 8 PM, time to go home. I walk past the cages in the Stray Cat Room. A calico cat and her two kittens sit quietly on the shelf in their cage. The mother grooms one of the kittens. A pink card attached to the cage tells me it’s time to say goodby to these three. I feel the familiar mixture of sadness, anger, and bitterness.
A huddled gray ball of fur in an adjoining cage catches my eye. In the farthest corner of her cage, a bedraggled cat hides her head under a sheet of newspaper. I peer between the bars. “Hi, Kitty,” I say softly. “Are you totally miserable? I don’t blame you.” I chatter on, more for my own benefit than for hers. I put some treats into her bowl and leave.
Tuesday. A small, frightened black rabbit is rescued from a cellar by one of our Humane Officers. That evening she gives birth to five babies. Four days later, when her stray period is up, the babies are injected with sodium pentobarbital. A few seconds later, they are dead. The mother is put up for adoption.
Gray Cat clings to her corner, still facing the wall. I notice that she’s eaten the treats I left, which encourages me. I talk to her again. “I know it’s hard to believe, but actually you’re pretty lucky. Decent food, a clean litterbox, people who care about you; and, with a little luck, one special person to appreciate and adore you forever.” Gray Cat is not impressed.
Wednesday. I talk to the people in my dog-training class about spaying and neutering. “Of the ten million dogs and cats who are killed every year at animal shelters in the US, nearly three million are purebreds,” I explain. “And the other seven million had a purebred in their very recent past. Stand at our front counter any day of the week and you will hear the same stories again and again: ‘We’re moving’; ‘The landlord says no’; ‘He barks and the neighbors called the cops on us’; ‘She messes in the house.’ An expensive dog with a behavior problem is just as disposable as an all-American mutt.
“Spend a day at the shelter and you’ll also hear the repertoire of reasons people give for not having their animals spayed or neutered: ‘We want the children to experience the miracle of birth’; ‘Neutering is unnatural’; ‘It’s cruel’; “I wouldn’t want anyone to do it to me’; ‘My cat is from champion stock’; ‘We’ve already got homes lined up for all the babies.’ But try to explain these reasons to a loving, beautiful animal (or even an ill-tempered, homely one) whose time is up, who is receiving a death sentence when his only crime is that some human let him be born instead of facing the reality of the overpopulation disaster. I’ve never heard a rationalization that didn’t fade into nothing in the face of even one death.”
On my way out, I stop at Gray Cat’s cage again. “Hi, Gray C. Still memorizing that bit of wall, I see.” A miracle! She turns and looks at me. Her emerald eyes size me up. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but she seems a little less frightened, her body a shade more relaxed. “Listen,” I tell her, “you’ve probably met some pretty unevolved humans out there. We’re not all like that. Give us another chance, okay?” She blinks dubiously. This is progress.
Thursday. The animal care technicians at the shelter are the bravest people in the world. I watch them scrub kennels and clean litterboxes. I see them take a moment to play with a kitten or hold a lonely pup. I hear them calm the frightened ones with a gentle word. And every now and then I force myself to witness what they must face every day. That same dog who they cared for, petted, and talked to must finally be given the only thing we have left to offer: a gentle, respectful death. What have we come to when the best we can do is to kill them kindly?
Jim puts a leash on the Labrador retriever. She cowers in the back of the kennel, tail between her legs. He tugs on the leash. She whimpers and crouches down lower. He kneels beside her. “It’s okay, pup. Don’t be scared.” She stops whimpering but won’t move. He scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the Euthanasia Room. She’s been at the shelter for two weeks. She’s so frightened that all she does is lie in the corner. No one wants her. Now she will die. Carol holds her while Jim shaves a small patch of fur from her leg. She is quiet and trembling. Jim continues to talk to her. He gives her the injection. She slumps onto the table. Carol carries her body to the Chill Room and adds it to the pile.
In the Cat Room, Gray Cat is sitting in her usual corner, but she’s not facing the wall today. The room is noisy. Adorable kittens fill row upon row of cages. Friendly adult cats come forward, asking for attention. I open her cage to give her a treat. “It isn’t fair,” I tell her. “You have every right to distrust people, but if you don’t act adoptable, how can you compete with all these other cats?” I reach my hand closer to her. I touch her. She lets me! I thank her.
Friday. At home, a veterinary clinic calls me to find out if I have room for another unwanted. The owners brought a young mini-lop in to be euthanized. Why? They’re moving out of state. They don’t want to take the rabbit. They haven’t found any friend who will take him, and they don’t want “a bunch of strangers” coming to their house to see the rabbit.
When I get to work, Gray C. is not in her cage. I look everywhere. I try not to be too hopeful. I tell myself, Don’t pursue it. I ignore my own good advice. I go to the Chill Room. She is there, in one of the bins, her body curled up against that of a terrier. I touch her, for the second and last time. Her body is getting cold. She is gone. I mourn her. But who will mourn the calico kitten underneath her, and the angora rabbit in the next bin? Who will mourn all ten million of them, one by one?
by Amy Espie