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Unwanted, unloved and facing a death sentence

Strays. Puppies. Unexpected litters. When the animal population climbs, shelter employees must step in. One pet at a time.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Animal care technician John Tolson, left, lays a calming hand on a pit bullterrier at the Pasco County Animal Control Center on Friday morning. Over the next two hours, employees will euthanize 17 dogs and nine cats, including this one.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- By 10 a.m., as some office workers in the county sip that first cup of coffee or start a round of calls, Troy Lamson faces his 17th dog of the day with a syringe.

The white pit bullterrier lies down on the stainless steel table, eyes drooping. Technician John Tolson runs a gloved hand over the dog's fur. Its tail stirs.

Lamson avoids eye contact with the animal as he slides the needle into the dog's left front paw. Within seconds, its giant head falls limp. Tolson carries the body outside to a loading dock, placing it at the end of a long line of still dogs lying on their sides, their front paws resting gently on the dog in front of them.

Next to this line is a shorter one of smaller bodies, stretching brown, black and white. These are the cats. All the animals will be put in garbage bags and placed in a freezer, where they'll stay until contracted workers take them away to an incinerator.

"That should do it, guys," technician Jeffrey Manion says at a nearby desk.

During two hours of work Friday morning at the Pasco County Animal Control Center, employees euthanized 17 dogs and nine cats -- a process that will repeat itself Monday morning and Wednesday morning and Friday morning, and quite possibly the mornings in between, too. That depends on how many unwanted animals pour into the lobby when doors open to the public each day at noon, starting the cycle anew.

The County Commission took steps last week to try to stem the swell of animals facing near-certain death when they arrive at the shelter. Commissioners voted to crack down on owners of female dogs by requiring that they lock the pets in the house or a cage while the animals are in heat.

The employees at the shelter must deal with the effects when they don't, one puppy or kitten at a time.

Those involved in the grisly business get through it by convincing themselves that euthanasia is better for the animals than death by illness, starvation or the wheel of a car.

That rationalization works for a while. But emotions occasionally win out.

"They break down and cry," Lamson says. "We tell them to go outside and take a few minutes and recoup themselves. I've done it myself."

Like each employee, Lamson devises ways of coping.

"When I euthanize, I can't even look them in the eye, I can't even look at them," he said. "I basically look at the leg and do what I have to do."

The shelter adopts out 19 percent of cats and dogs brought in each year. While shelter officials are proud of that rate, it still shows thats most animals are "put down," as they put it, or euthanized.

That includes intravenously injecting the tranquilized dogs in the leg with Fatal Plus, or sodium pentobarbital, which kills the animals painlessly and nearly instantly. Cats are anesthetized and given shots directly into the heart.

Even in their efficiency, employees gently pet the animals and try to offer them comfort in their last minutes. They lead them into the table, one after the other, on a leash: the yellow shepherd mix with the wagging tail, the pit bullterrier mix whose quaking body shook the table, the Labrador mix who hung its head as it waited its turn.

"The whole thing is you try not to get attached," Lamson said. But bonds are unavoidable. And then there are the cases that seem especially grueling, such as the cruelty cases, when collars are embedded into the necks of the dogs.

"What also bothers me," Lamson said, "are the people who have a female dog and they won't get the dog spayed, and year after year after year they bring the puppies in to us."

While the dogs euthanized on Friday were adult strays, the shelter must often euthanize puppies that are brought in separated too soon from their mothers and therefore not candidates for adoption.

The shelter adopts out 19 percent of cats and dogs brought in each year. While shelter officials are proud of that rate, it still shows thats most animals are "put down," as they put it, or euthanized. Last year, the shelter euthanized 3,531 of the 5,279 dogs brought in. They euthanized 3,796 of the 4,861 cats brought in.

Stray dogs without identity tags are held for at least three days before they can be euthanized. Those with tags are held six days. Some become eligible for adoption based on their health and temperament. But even healthy dogs can be euthanized if the shelter runs out of room for all the animals brought in.

"It's a shame you have to put down a healthy animal because there's nowhere to put them," said Animal Control manager Denise Hilton. "There are not enough homes for them."

That's why the staff members end up adopting some of the animals and even persuade relatives to do the same. To cut down on the stress, employees rotate the worst tasks.

"It's not a happy day when you know you have to euthanize that day." Hilton said. Still, turnover is high, with the average employee lasting only two years. Many leave within days or a few months.

Technician Carol Whitehead, an employee for seven months, could be considered a veteran.

The job is becoming harder with time, she said. Like other employees who try to numb their experience once they leave work, she finds herself holding her own cat at home for 20 minutes after each shift.

But, of course, there are the rewards on the job that keep her and the others coming back.

"When you get the little kid with his grandma dumping his piggy bank on the counter to adopt a cat, that makes it a lot easier," Whitehead said.

Where to call

Help is out there for pet owners to sterilize their animals and prevent unwanted litters. For information about the county's $40 rebate program to sterilize dogs, call the Pasco County Animal Control Center. Depending on your location in the county, dial 813-929-1212, 727-834-3216 or 352-521-5194. Also, for low-cost referral service, call 1-800-248-SPAY (7729).

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