My assignment for the class was to choose two topics on which to write, write them up as a query to a publisher, and submit the final for publication. Having no idea what to write about, I decided to write about what I did know, animals. Topic Number One was a story about my pet rats (which ultimately resulted in a cooking column for the University of WA student paper, a story for another time). For Topic Number Two, I approached the local animal shelter and asked if I could research an article about the shelter and the animals they tried to save. They agreed, and I spent a week tracking the animal residents, looking for the angle that would result in a good story. And I got it.
But before the final choice of story was made there were others that did not get told. The Laramie Animal Shelter is a city shelter like so many others across the United States, small and underfunded. Staffed by dedicated and hardworking men and women who did their best to make the right choices and care lovingly for the many animals that came their way—an overwhelming tide of animals. At that time over 10 million animals were euthanized in shelters every year due to a lack of enough homes. The Laramie Animal Shelter was no exception, as of 1982 an average of 25 percent of its dogs and 12 percent of its cats had to be euthanized.
Most of the 24 cages and 35 kennels at the shelter are usually filled. The animals are well taken care of, but they lack one thing — a loving owner. Everywhere you go the paws reach out for you, and the eyes of the animals are filled with the hope that you might be the one they are looking for.
As I cruised the aisles, face after furry face stared back at me. The dogs would lunge joyfully toward me in hopes that I was the answer to their canine prayers. Number 4717, an eight-month old puppy, was no different. For every visitor she put on a tail-wagging exhibition guaranteed to soften the hardest heart.
My attention was caught by one large black dog who did not greet me eagerly, he huddled in the back of his cage, and his gaze spoke volumes to my heart, he wanted to trust but was no longer sure that he could.
I took notes of the numbers on each cage, and the occupant, and asked the shelter workers for what background stories they had. Most of the dogs had been found wandering, numbers increase dramatically during the summer. Tourists frequently left Fido behind by the side of the highway, apparently a dog was too much trouble to take care of while having fun on vacation. One story that stood out for its special lack of humanity was the dog surrendered because the owners had redecorated, and he did not match the new décor.
The cats were less effusive in their greetings, but nonetheless hopeful. My gaze was caught by one way up top who peered down at me and meowed. The size of his big apple head belied the information on the cage that he was female, and when I questioned a shelter worker his sex was double-checked, and it was discovered that she was a he. My question bought him another week of life, and the possibility that he might find a good, loving home.
I spent a great deal of time interviewing the shelter workers, asking about their lives and how they handled the difficult task they had chosen to do. Every week there are animals that have to be euthanized to make room for more, an unending cycle. One worker said, “You get used to it, but you never get to the point where you can accept it.” Another stated, “Sometimes I almost cry if I have to put an animal to sleep by myself. I look at it this way, I would rather put an animal to sleep than have it be pregnant or be a puppy out in the cold, be hit by a car, come down with disease, or be neglected.”
Much as I dreaded the thought, I finally asked the workers if I could be present when the next group of animals was euthanized. I felt as though I would be letting the animals down if I was too much of an emotional coward to witness the reality of what happens when lack of spaying, neutering and proper education results in overpopulation. The workers were concerned as to how I might respond, and were reluctant at first to agree to my presence. Ultimately they made me promise that I would not cry, a promise that I sincerely hoped that I could keep.
When I arrived that day I was understandably nervous, and as it turned out, I was about to get my story.
The cats were first, a paw was pulled out of the cage, and the injection was administered quickly. Next were five dogs, and Number 4717 was among them. Four dogs in turn were placed on the examination table, and given an injection to the heart. Each dropped instantly. It was all so quick, and so business-like, that I was able to hold strong emotionally as I had promised, although I imagined that I would pay for my current emotional distance later, in private.
And then it was Number 4717’s turn. And the injection missed the heart as sometimes happens. She did not drop instantly, it would take more time for the injection to take effect. So, they put her down on the floor so she could wander around freely, and everyone continued on with their morning chores.
The puppy was thrilled to be out, and ran from person to person, tail wagging happily. Her movements got slower and slower. Finally she went to the man who was washing up the food bowls, and with a quiet sigh she laid her head upon his foot, and died.
At that point I lost it, in order to honor my promise I had to go cry in the bathroom. Even now as I write this I am crying, even after all these years. I will never forget that moment as long as I live, a moment that spoke so eloquently of all the years of devotion and love that those shelter animals had to offer, lifetimes that now would never be.
When I emerged from the bathroom, somewhat under control, the bodies of all the dogs and cats euthanized had been laid out in neat rows in the garage in preparation for transport to the city dump. There their bodies would be tossed into an earthen pit, alongside any road-killed animals, and some dirt would be bulldozed over them.
Lest you think this heartless, the city did what they could with what budget they had. There was not enough money to cremate the animals, this method of disposal was quite common in rural areas. It was tough to stay, but I hung in there, feeling as though my presence at least bore witness to the lives of these animals, victims in a quiet war on overpopulation, and gave them some honor in their passing. They did not go unmourned, I cried for them, and for the countless others who had gone before, and the untold numbers yet to come.
At the time that article was submitted to my professor, Donald Murray, he thought it well written but suggested that there could be more emotional appeal in it. I disagreed, wanting to reach people with logic. In retrospect I realize that deep down I was scared to expose myself emotionally, I just was not brave enough.
Now, years later, I realize that someone else besides the shelter workers did care; I did, and I still do. I now have both the emotional chops and the courage as a writer to dare to share how I felt. This new article was written in hopes that my words will inspire others to care, and to take action.
In checking up on Professor Donald Murray I discovered that he passed away in 2006 at the age of 82, immersed in an internet project to mentor aspiring writers. Wherever you are now, Prof. Murray, I hope you are pleased that I finally took your advice to heart, and put mine out there in hopes of making a difference.
We have made progress in the intervening years, now only 4 million animals are euthanized each year, due in part to aggressive spaying and neutering programs, but that is still 4 million too many. The bad guys are not the shelters, but people who add animals to an already taxed population. The choice you make when you adopt a pet could take a home away from a shelter animal in need.
Here are some suggestions on how you can help.
Don’t buy from backyard breeders. Check with purebred rescue organizations before buying a puppy, there are many adults needing homes.
Encourage your neighbors to spay and neuter; while they may dearly love Fluffy, want kittens like her, and promise to find them good homes, the birth of those kittens means less homes for animals on death row.
Pass this article along to as many people you can think of, whether they have pets or not. They may be in a position to help educate someone else.
Got feral cats in your neighborhood? There are organizations that can help you get them spayed or neutered. Check out the Animal Shelters and Rescue Groups in the Resources section on my website for some suggestions.
Dare to care, and to show that you care—the life you save could be someone’s future pet.
Postscript: After he ran out of time for the second time, I adopted the male cat mistakenly identified as a female. He was a big, loving mush-bucket of a tiger cat, and we named him O’Malley. Goes to show you the power of a single glance!