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Kennel trash

That nickname didn't bother the people at Polk County Animal Control. It bound them together, signaled their kinship with the dogs they cared for. When a police raid filled every cage with pit bulls, they confronted the true cost of compassion.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published July 30, 2006


It got dark. Out came flashlights. They still hadn't gathered all the dogs. They didn't know what to do with them all, and they didn't know how many they would have to kill.

The property reached down into the woods, where thick weeds made it hard to walk. The ground was scattered with chewed-up deer bones - spines and splintered femurs. They kept backing into dogs. So many eyes in the dark.

They carried bags of dog food and syringes of something called Fatal-Plus.

The officers and investigators worked deep into the night, all the next morning and into the afternoon. They examined every dog. They numbered each one with a plastic collar and a metal tag.

They counted 139.

Almost all the dogs were pit bull types: broad heads, wide chests, bowed legs. Some were healthy, muscled and lean. Some showed every bone. Many were scarred on the legs and face. Some were hurt. A black dog had dug itself a sandy crater and was favoring a gaping leg wound. An 11-pound puppy sat tethered to a 12-pound chain.

There was a mobile home on the property. Inside, a dog lay curled in a cage with a hole in her gums and broken teeth. In the home, officers found homemade fliers for this place, called the Big Nasty Compound. The fliers promised "game dogs only," which the investigators took as code for fighting dogs.

There were other dogs too: a beagle with two nursing puppies, two Jack Russell terriers, two shiba inus, a Rottweiler, a Belgian Malinois and a brown chihuahua.

Almost all the dogs were glad to see visitors. They wagged their tails, leapt at pant legs, shook, pulled at their chains, barked, howled. If two dogs passed too close to each other on leashes, they turned vicious, all teeth and chest and noise. Two dogs locked jaws through kennel wire and had to be pried apart with a stick.

Most of the dogs were so friendly the officers could carry them out in their arms. They decided 19 were so sick or so skinny that they gave them the needle and carried them out in garbage bags.

* * *

The noise struck her first, swelling in the concrete aisles, rolling off the walls. There were dogs in the cat room, dogs in the bite room, dogs in the recovery room, dogs in borrowed cages lining the aisles.

Some howled. Some barked deep and rough. Some yipped. Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

The pit bulls tore at the boards separating their kennels, trying to fight. Some were so hungry that they ate the paperwork on the cage doors. The dog in Q-8 scraped up its face chasing rats across the kennel's floor.

Karen Bedsole came to Polk County Animal Control the day after the confiscation and looked down one of the long aisles. It was her day off, but she had seen the raid on the 11 o'clock news and had to get a peek at the dogs. Almost every cage had a pit bull staring out, rushing the door, leaping at her.

Here were row after row of some of the most notorious dogs in local memory. Fighting dogs, the sheriff said. Cropped ears. Broken teeth. Battle scars. She fell in love with them instantly.

At work that week, she baby-talked to them.

"Hey, baby."

"Who's happy today?"

"You're a pretty dog."

She thought of the baby talk as a bad habit, but she couldn't help it.

Everyone knew Karen had a weakness for pit bulls. She had six of her own at home, almost all strays or someone else's rejects. One was named Precious, one was named Brute. All of them got along. At night, they slept in bed with her young sons.

She was fearless around dirty cages, dead rats, blood, bared teeth and claws. But she melted around the hard-luck dogs, the misunderstood personalities. She liked the ugly ones most of all.

The ugliest dog in the whole group was in Kennel Q-7.

He looked old. He had a puffy nose and wrinkles around his eyes. His ear oozed yellow pus. His graying hair was falling out in clumps on his joints. He had sores everywhere. He was covered in scars. He was greasy. He had a flat place on top of his head, as if someone had whacked him with a board. He always sat with his head tilted, looking at the world crooked. He stood with his legs tucked under him at odd angles, like he ought to wobble. He had the disposition of a used-up prizefighter. Slow.

"I think he's retarded," Karen would say.

In her head, she called him Grandpa. It was not a name, officially. She refused to give the doomed dogs names.

She knew he was hell on other dogs, that he'd been in fights and probably won, but she did not hold it against him. His eyes were dark and sad and old and kind and went on forever. He looked at her like a patient old man in a nursing home, waiting for soup.

She knew he would not make it out of here. She already dreaded the silence of the empty cage.

* * *

The raid had been so large and the scene so gruesome that newspapers all over the state wrote about it. A photo of a litter of cute red puppies ran on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times. The owner was accused of starving and fighting his dogs. Stories described dogs without food, water or shelter. The worst dog, wrote the Times and the Associated Press, was missing its nose.

Some of the details were wrong. The dog with the missing nose was part of an entirely different case. It didn't matter. Dog abuse stories make people livid.

The Polk County sheriff, Grady Judd, went on TV holding a heavy chain collected in the raid. He promised to go after dog fighters. "We are going to come to your dogfighting mill and put you in jail and save these dogs," he said.

After midnight on Jan. 27, trucks had started taking dogs to Polk County Animal Control in Winter Haven. They had moved 120 dogs, borrowing extra cages to make room. It was among the largest groups of dogs the staff had ever cared for.

Animal Control had custody of the dogs while the courts decided whether to give them back to the owner. The staff knew the decision would take months, but it seemed certain that Animal Control would end up with them. What then?

They could not simply adopt them out to the dozens of people calling the shelter, wanting to take them home. These were howling, stinking, snarling dogs, dogs with an assortment of health problems, horrific reputations, loving dispositions and questionable histories. They were hardened fighters and newborn puppies.

Any dog that might leave the shelter and hurt a person or another animal would have to be killed. Dogs that had been fighters had to be euthanized under state law. Only the puppies had a realistic chance.

The killing was an ugly consequence of the system society has engineered to clean up other people's messes. The job of carrying it out was left to people like Karen Bedsole, people who love animals and want to save them.

As the weeks went by, she and her co-workers would wrestle with questions about the nature of dogs and of people. What do we assume about pit bulls and the people who own them? What is compassion? Is a good death better than a bad life? What would they tell themselves to quiet their nurturing instincts and gently find a vein?

* * *

Donna Seiler was the supervisor. She wore a dark green uniform with ANIMAL CONTROL stitched across the back in big silver letters. She looked authoritative with her radio and her French manicure that never seemed to chip.

She worked in a place where compassion meant setting boundaries all the time. Something as simple as petting a dog meant washing your hands so you didn't spread disease. You were always weighing and ranking. This dog or that one. Not all adoptions were good adoptions. I want to adopt a mean dog, people would say.

It hurt to put a dog to sleep, but at least the animal wouldn't go hungry, or be hit by a car, or deliver a homeless litter. Hard decisions here never stopped. You got angry at people. You didn't talk a lot some days.

People asked her all the time why she'd do this job, in a place that smelled like bleach and urine, where every day began with a killing. They called it euthanasia, literally "good death." They talked about the "euth team" and called the lethal chemical "blue juice," but that didn't make what they were doing easier. It was something they didn't talk about much except with other people who did it and could understand.

Animal Control had recently been taken over by the Sheriff's Office. The road officers, in a friendly rivalry, called Donna's people Kennel Trash. Donna liked the nickname. It bound her staff together, separated them from people with neater jobs.

"We love animals," Donna said, as if it needed saying. "People think if you work here you must hate animals."

When her kids were little, she said, someone put a sign in her yard that said "Dog Killer."

"I'd talk to every dog and I'd walk through the kennel and they're looking at you. You're signing their death warrant. You think, what the hell kind of stupid job is this? And then people blame me."

Eighteen years ago, Donna was just like Karen. She was a kennel grunt, here at this same shelter.

Things were worse then; they killed dogs with gas. They'd load them into a van and let carbon monoxide suck air from their lungs and watch them gasp and choke. She used to name them, give them treats, fall in love while she waited for their owners - who had starved them, beaten them or just ignored them - to get their day in court. Then she killed them.

She quit after two months.

Her supervisor pulled her aside and told her the thing that all these years later still helped get her by. "You might be the only love they know in their life."

Over the years, she learned small ways to protect herself from the pain. The hardest part had been two years ago when she lost her own dog, Amy, a miniature dachshund. Her office calendar marked the date.

Aug. 19, 2005. Amy 1 year loss

Aug. 19, 2006. Amy gone 2 years

She could not go through that again. Coming home expecting to see her. The crying. Crazy, excessive crying. It's stupid, she sometimes thought, this attachment to a dog. She would not let another one in like that.

She would not take another one home.

* * *

The day after the raid, they put down 24 more pit bulls after the vet decided they'd never recover. Dogs were killed every day here, because of sickness or temperament or space. It was easier if it happened sooner, before their quirky habits and eager faces got too familiar.

Karen cared for the ones that were left. She gave them the best donated food: the Purina Beneful brand with the vegetable-shaped kibbles. It was her way of making up for whatever she imagined they never had, of compensating for whatever else she could not provide. The other food, which reminded her of rice puffs cereal, she gave to other dogs - dogs that maybe had it better before, and maybe would have it better again when they got out.

She gave the pit bulls just a cup a day. She wanted to give them more, but the staff worried that their shrunken stomachs couldn't handle it. More practically, there was no point in overfeeding animals they would probably kill. They couldn't spend too much on medical care either. The dogs would get what the staff veterinarian called "nursing care."

Karen grumbled about that. She knew it was simple economics, but she wanted their needs met, whatever the cost.

She worried about Grandpa's ear infection. She took his kennel card to the vet room and asked that he be treated, but she didn't have much hope that he would be.

One of the beagle puppies died not long after the raid - an upper respiratory infection, it seemed. Karen lifted it out of the cage and hoped the second one stayed healthy. She didn't know whether the owner of all these dogs had named them. She didn't know what he had fed them, whether he had ever wormed or vaccinated them or had taken even the slightest care of them. She imagined the worst. His name was on every cage door, and the monotony of it was overwhelming.

Hewitt Grant, Hewitt Grant, Hewitt Grant, Hewitt Grant . . .

She wondered about him all the time. His picture had been in the newspaper, but she hadn't seen it.

He was a ghost. She hated him.

* * *

Hewitt Grant knew Grandpa as Voodoo. He thought that dog was funny-acting, too. He noticed the same things Karen noticed about him, the way he would chew up water bowls faster than you could fill them.

He noticed things about all his dogs: Crybaby's funny bark, the way Lil' Demon was scared of the water hose. He had bred Old Yeller just before the raid, hoping for some pretty tan puppies, and he wondered whether she was pregnant.

He swore he didn't fight dogs. He had gotten overwhelmed, managing his three kids, his rocky marriage, his girlfriend, his grandmother and his mother, who had cancer. It was all too much, and he knew it. Some of his dogs were sick, and he knew that too.

Hewitt A. Grant II was a 39-year-old forklift operator who made $11 an hour until he was fired after his arrest. He had no serious criminal record. His mother called him Doughnut. He deejayed in clubs under the name DJ Nasty. He made a remix CD after his release from jail. The first track was called Hate Me Now.

He had retained his attorney's services with $300 and a bag of shrimp.

Most of the people at Polk County Animal Control didn't know any of that and didn't care. Some, including Donna and Karen, had heard only that Grant was a real nice guy. They shut that out. Donna had been to his property when the dogs were taken. There was no excuse for what she had seen.

The staff despised him for the position he had put them in. They drew on their rage to do the hardest part of their jobs.

To them, Hewitt Grant was not so much a person as a representation of the worst of what they dealt with day after day, case after case. Karen, for one, did not want to consider the complexities of his story.

"I don't want to feel sorry for him," she would say.

* * *

You ought to go see the chihuahua, someone told Donna. Donna knew she shouldn't. She did anyway.

The dog was skittish and dirty. Donna thought her collar was ugly.

She undid the latch. Opened the door. Picked up the dog. Let her wriggle into the crook of her neck. She put her down and let her skitter around the floor, toenails clicking. The dog did a dance on her hind legs. Donna leaned down to pick her up, and she flipped on her back.

She had this funny way of flattening her ears against her head when she was nervous. That was what really got to Donna. Those ears. Lola, she thought. She didn't know why.

Donna tried not to think about why a pit bull breeder had a chihuahua. Sometimes dog fighters use small animals as bait for the bigger dogs. Cats. Raccoons. Chihuahuas? It was easy for Donna to wonder whether this little trembling dog had ever looked into the jaws of a snarling pit bull.

She had never imagined herself a chihuahua person. The next weekend, she found herself painting Lola's toenails. She purchased a red rhinestone collar. Every girl deserves her day at the beauty parlor, Donna thought.

Then Donna caught herself. Weeks went by. She refused to see Lola again.

* * *

State law was clear about what would happen to the adult dogs. If they had been fighters - and the sheriff was saying they had been - they had to be put down.

There was no policy for dealing with the puppies. Were they as sweet and innocent as they looked? Or had they been programmed, through breeding, to be vicious? What if one of the puppies went to a new home, grew up and ate somebody's Yorkie? If Animal Control got custody of the dogs, they'd come up with a policy then.

The cute red puppies - the ones whose picture had been in the newspaper - were about 3 weeks old when they had come in, too young to be housebroken.

Soon their jaws grew round and knobby. Their legs bowed. They walked with a swagger. They panted as if they were laughing, and when they sat in a row at the cage door, they flattened their ears against their heads and lifted their noses and seemed to grin like school kids in the principal's waiting room. They wagged their tails in a we're-up-to-no-good kind of way.

Whenever the cage door opened, they bolted for freedom. They were slick and slippery. When they ate, they fought too hard over the food. During cage cleanings, they attacked the squeegee. Sometimes they latched onto each other's throats and shook until someone intervened with a thick boot or a stick. No one taught them to behave this way. They just did it. Every one of these impromptu cage matches was another black mark on their records.

Karen hoped to convince Donna and the supervisors above her that some of Hewitt Grant's puppies could safely be adopted. She believed that pit bulls were inherently good. Meanness came from their owners, not their nature. To her, the puppy question was about principle. Giving the puppies a chance was the right thing to do. Killing them was profiling.

* * *

A half-dozen of Hewitt Grant's dogs had come into the shelter pregnant. Almost all the puppies were born dead or died soon after. It was a hard place to bring new life into the world. So much sickness, so little time or money to nurture helpless newcomers.

Karen took fresh blankets to the skittish pregnant mothers and removed the dead puppies from the cages after the births. She always hoped for healthy puppies, even if hoping didn't make perfect sense.

One morning, she stared into a cage at a yellow dog with almond eyes. The yellow dog stared back, protectively. After so much death and disappointment, Karen could not fight the wave of joy that smacked her.

Five healthy puppies, butter yellow from nose to tail just like their mom. She hadn't even known this dog was pregnant. How could these puppies have been born so perfect when so many others had sickened and died?

Three boys, two girls. Unexpected life.

Over a few days, she considered each one and what the future held. They were blind and deaf, nothing but instinct. They cried when they wandered off the blanket onto the cold concrete. They cried when they were hungry.

In two weeks, a judge would decide who was going to get the dogs, Hewitt Grant or the shelter. By then the puppies' eyes would just be open. They would be trying to stand. Then the shelter supervisors would have to decide whether they were too mean to live. If this birth was a miracle, it was a complicated one.

When Karen's boss, Donna, first saw that litter, she didn't feel a wave of joy like Karen. What she felt was the reality of 18 years of hard decisions.

"That's going to suck," she said, seeing two weeks into the future. "That's going to be hard."

Karen's instincts grew loud inside her. Yellow from toe to tail. One indistinguishable from the next. The kennel card just said 3/20 OK puppies. It didn't say how many were in the litter. Four puppies or five, who would know?

She studied the mom and studied the puppies. The mom's temperament was sweet, shy. She did not appear to be aggressive with people or with dogs. Karen scanned the male pit bulls in the other cages to determine paternity. "What did he breed you with?" she asked the mom. Was he trying to make little fighters? Even if he was, she believed that if she smuggled one out of here and raised it right, it could grow up safely with her other dogs and her kids.

She just wanted one pit bull to make it out. Call it Puppy No. 5.

One day she carried the puppies around all afternoon, thinking.

Four puppies or five?

The puppies nuzzled against her, seeking warmth.

* * *

As Hewitt Grant's hearing drew nearer, Lola the chihuahua reclined on the bed at Donna's house.

She had been shampooed with floral-scented Herbal Essence. She wore a new rhinestone collar. She had her own contoured, vibrating pillow on the couch, into which she liked to settle her tail end in the evenings. She lived with an enormous feline named Puppy Cat, who maintained an arrogant rule over the house. At night she slept motionless in the bed between Donna and her husband.

Donna was terrified of losing her. She gave Lola's nails a fresh coat of polish and cried.

* * *

The week of the hearing came. That Monday night, Karen watched her boys ride their skateboards and thought about Puppy No. 5. Another case will come in after this one, she told herself.

Before Hewitt Grant, there had been a cruelty case involving 23 dogs. Then came the 53 Pekingese, with their underbites and buggy eyes.

If she saved Puppy No. 5, what sad case would take its place? Who would take care of those dogs after they fired her for stealing a puppy?

Would the next person like or understand pit bulls? Would she give them the good food?

At work that week, Karen pleaded with Donna to save the puppies, but it wasn't really up to Donna. It was up to her boss, Lt. Robert Oakman. He would consult with his superiors at the Sheriff's Office and with the shelter veterinarian.

Karen kept after Donna anyway.

"What if we found a rescue that would take pit bulls?"

Well, maybe.

"Just one pit," Karen said. "They're just puppies."

* * *

The morning of the hearing, they felt relief that the wait was ending, and dread of what that really meant. They'd been building toward the odd, uncomfortable moment when they would celebrate getting custody of dogs they would then kill. At least that way Hewitt Grant wouldn't get them back.

Karen gave every dog a special last meal: one can of Alpo prime cuts in gravy. It was hard to know when to let go. Would the dogs die that night? Over the weekend? Karen said her goodbyes quietly. To the tan female with the missing ears. To the dog that had bitten her (she knew it was just playfulness). To the pretty brown and white dog with the freckled nose. The empty cans lined the halls. The row seemed to go on forever.

* * *

Outside Hearing Room 15A1, Donna clicked her fingernails.

Hewitt Grant seemed friendly and at ease, smiling at the bailiffs. In the newspaper he had worn braids and a mug shot stare. That picture was 6 years old. Now he looked clean-cut.

Donna had glanced at him, walking by. She didn't want any part of him. She sat with one of the deputies, far away from him, and tapped her feet.

She had wondered what Grant would think if he knew she was keeping Lola at her house, hoping to adopt her. Lola's picture was now in Donna's cell phone. A little brown head on a big bed pillow.

"I'm telling you right now," she said quietly, "if this doesn't go well, you're going to have to get an ambulance and carry me out of here."

When the hearing began, Grant went into the hearing room and sat at a table with his attorney, Julia Williamson. Donna and the other witnesses waited outside.

His criminal trial would come later. This hearing was a civil matter to determine whether he could have his dogs back.

One by one, witnesses entered and sat on Grant's left, facing the judge.

Dr. Joseph Ertel, the shelter veterinarian, was called in. He testified that though some dogs were healthy on the night of the raid, several appeared not to have eaten in more than a month.

"A lot of scarring of ears, noses, muzzles. Evidence of dogfighting. The worst was the starvation," he said. "Your body feeds on its own tissue to get the nutrients to stay alive. It eats on cartilage, moving parts, organs, structures, and damages it forever."

He flipped through his photos. The puppy on the chain. The dog in the crater.

"Here's a tail with no hair on it."

Officers testified that they could not wait for a search warrant to enter the property because the dogs they could see from outside the fence were in distress. They said there was little or no food on the property. They said dogs might have been starved to make them aggressive. On the other hand, they were too weak to fight.

There was much discussion of a "cat mill," a small cage on a mechanical arm that trains dogs to chase an animal in a circle.

Grant faced 43 felony charges of animal cruelty - for each dog euthanized in the first few days - and 80 misdemeanors. He was charged for every adult dog, including the beagle and the chihuahua. He was charged with another felony for owning dogfighting equipment: the cat mill.

When it was over, Judge Steven Selph called the case "abominable." He ordered Grant to pay the county $38,305 for boarding his dogs. He said he could not own dogs again.

Selph gave all the dogs to Polk County Animal Control and said the agency could dispose of them however it saw fit.

Donna called her husband. "She's ours."

She sent Karen a text message, a code they had worked out in advance: 11.

We won. We can start any time.

* * *

First thing the next morning, before 7 a.m., Donna walked to the kennels on Karen's row. The dogs were leaping at the doors. Pick me! Pick me!

No, she was thinking, you don't want me to pick you.

She had decided to do 10 this morning and 10 in the afternoon. The rest they'd do tomorrow. It would be easier on everyone that way. She pulled a kennel card and a pen.

Ok to euthanize. 4/6/06 Donna Seiler

She went down the row, crying. The first 10 cages. Q-1 through Q-10.

Grandpa, Karen's favorite dog, was in Q-7.

When Donna got to him and reached for his kennel card, it was missing. It was still in the vet room, where Karen had taken it in hopes someone would treat his ear infection. Donna didn't have the card, so she couldn't sign it. Grandpa would survive the morning.

Donna moved on to the dogs in Q-8 through Q-11. She walked each one to the euthanasia room herself. She told each one she was sorry. "It's not your fault," she said.

* * *

When the first wave of killing was over, Grandpa sat alone, looking out with his tilted head, surrounded by empty kennels.

The silence around him was tremendous. It made the air feel heavy. Karen did not talk to him or to anyone else. She could hardly look at him.

Karen got bleach water and a broom and started to scrub the kennels around him. He sat patiently. The water splashed on him and made him wet.

That afternoon Grandpa was led to an outdoor pen to get his picture taken for the newspaper.

In the sunlight Karen could see every scar, every bare spot on his knotty spine, every hairless bump on his tail. He was bald on his hips, his knees and elbows, every joint and bony place that rubbed a concrete floor or a wooden kennel. His skin was thickened by a stew of conditions that were difficult to assess: infections, bacteria, who knew.

Grandpa didn't run or roll in the grass. He just stood by Karen's leg. She stared into the distance. After a few minutes, she dropped a hand and let her fingers brush the knot on top of his head.

Then she was sitting with him in the grass. He rubbed his puffy face on her uniform shirt, and she put her arms around him and leaned into him, fighting tears. She held him and hugged him, and when it seemed impossible, he made her smile.

She smelled like him the rest of the day, like grease and urine and infection. He clung to her clothes and her skin.

That day she plugged in her earphones and played a song for him. It was called Ironic, but she called it the Doggy Dying Song. She played it endlessly on days like this.

Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you

When you think everything's okay and everything's going right

And life has a funny way of helping you out

She held him that night while he died.

* * *

The work that lay ahead - dozens more dogs - haunted them all. That night, one officer dreamed he was being euthanized with an injection to his heart. His dog kept nuzzling him in the night, and he wondered if the dog could know.

Friday morning came. They would go through the day and start the killing after the shelter closed.

A decision had been made about the puppies. Lt. Oakman had talked to Dr. Ertel, who had talked to the Humane Society of the United States, whose advice was straightforward: No fighting dog should be adopted out, at any age.

There were several reasons, beyond the potential for aggression. For one thing, shelters were so overcrowded with pit bulls that only the best of the breed should be adopted out. For another, there was a chance dogfighters would recognize their potential and try to adopt or steal them. Euthanasia, the Humane Society said, was the kindest option.

So that was the policy the shelter adopted.

Debbie Fuller was the one who would have to fill the needles. She was the head of the euthanasia team.

Today during her rounds, she made decisions about dogs who had never belonged to Hewitt Grant. She would try to save a blind schnauzer but not a lab with mange. Any small dog, even blind, had a chance, but the shelter had no resources to treat mange. She had done this a long time. She had saved as many as she could. But it wasn't just about keeping them alive, it was about making sure they had a good life. If they couldn't have that, someone had to take care of them at the end.

Debbie looked in on the red puppies that afternoon. They were lined up in a row, tails wagging.

"The last couple days, I mean they were fighting. I mean this was not playing. I had to get a stick," she said. "I'd sprawl the food so they wouldn't eat together."

She thought about Hewitt Grant. He was the reason they all had to go through this, as far as she was concerned. "Just to see what he has done, I'm upset. I'd like to sprawl him out like a starfish on a beach and let the fire ants get him."

The puppies fought so much that they'd been separated into two groups. In one cage, the alpha male was clearly fatter than the other two. He would not let them eat as much. The skinny, dark-colored female had a welt on the side of her head. The tan dog liked to grab her there and hang on. "She's very sweet," Debbie said. "She's very loving."

The puppies growled.

"Stop it," she said.

Her dog Harley had died six weeks earlier. She couldn't help comparing his life with theirs. "He got what he needed. He ate people food. He had all his shots," she said. "They don't even know what's on the other side of the fence."

No one thought the dogs were really happy here, but everyone thought they were happier than they'd ever been. They weren't starving. They got a little affection. They were clean and warm and dry. But they weren't chasing tennis balls at the park or snuggling by the couch or sneaking hot dogs off the picnic table. That's what got them most. It wasn't the death of it. It was the life.

"I ask my minister, am I going to go to hell because I kill animals? He says no. Because you're not killing them, you're caring for them."

* * *

Debbie had set up two tables several feet apart. She insisted that the dogs face away from each other so no dog would see another dog die. She didn't want dogs walking too close to each other. She didn't want them feeling the urge to fight in their last moments. She wanted everything to go quietly and easily.

Everyone wanted to kill the dog they loved most. They needed to see that it was done with kindness, the way you want to be there when your own dog dies, so it's personal.

"Where's the little female? The one with the big chain on her neck?" asked Susie Long. She had been out there that first night as an investigating officer. She had visited the puppy until it got too hard.

"Deb, you remember." It was the 11-pound puppy on the 12-pound chain.

"I think she's in S-08."

"I'm going to smoke before we start this," Susie said. "S-08 is mine."

Karen's favorites had died on Thursday. She hadn't come to work today. She and Donna had agreed it would be too hard.

Donna went over the list of Hewitt Grant's dogs again and again, counting. There were 96, plus some newborn puppies. The non pit bulls would go to rescues. The Rottweiler was too aggressive and would be put down. The chihuahua, of course, would become Lola Olivia Seiler. She was at home.

Donna walked back toward the office, which was closing for the day. She walked past the yellow puppies, nursing vigorously, into the front office and past the front desk.

This counter had once been flooded with calls from people wanting to adopt these pit bulls, back when they were a fresh news story. Someone had brought food from as far as Tampa. That always happened when a dog made the newspaper.

When word got out that all these dogs were dead, people would be upset, Donna knew. She always had the same reaction. There were 200 healthy, friendly dogs in the shelter that needed homes. It wasn't too late for them.

* * *

Donna walked through the kennels toward Susie's dog. She wanted to get this one over with.

She lowered the orange leash around the dog's neck. The dog crouched low to the ground, uncertain, and scooted that way down the aisle. Another kennel worker scratched her ears. Susie met them at the end of the row.

"Are you ready?" Donna asked her.

"Ready."

Donna lifted the dog onto one of the tables and held her. She put her cheek on top of the dog's head. She wrapped her right arm around her body and grasped her front leg, holding it out for Susie to find the vein. Donna bit her lower lip. The dog's eyes darted. Donna said, "Shhh, shhh." Susie found the vein quickly. "Shhh, shhh."

Across the room, Debbie had a pretty brown and white dog on the blue table.

The chemical works so fast that sometimes Debbie can smell it on their breath before they go limp.

She put down the syringe. She stroked the dog's face and put a stethoscope to her chest: beat . . . beat . . . beat . . .

beat

Both dogs went into silver garbage bags at the same time. Then into a big plastic bin.

Lt. Oakman dropped by to watch. It made some of them nervous. He wasn't usually there. He didn't really want to be there.

"The sad part of this is the puppies," he said. "When we brought them here they were little bitty puppies, and by the next morning they were at each other's throats."

A brown and white dog came in, saw a dog on the euthanasia table and got into a fighting stance in the doorway. "Come on, pumpkin," Debbie said to the dog on the table. "It's all right."

A phone rang. One of the techs said into the phone: "It's going to take a few hours."

A rhythm developed. A half-dozen people roamed the kennels with leashes. They lined up in the doorway with their dogs, trying to keep them separated, then crossed the dogs off the long master list.

Debbie baby-talked to them, called them pumpkin and sweetheart and girl, even if they were boys. The big Rottweiler came in foaming. Debbie called her baby. "Easy, easy," she said. "Just lay down." Then she did, eyes open. She was heavy in the bag.

Lt. Oakman asked Debbie if she was okay. "I'm okay," she said. "I've been preparing for a week. They're going to a much better place."

"No doubt about that," Oakman said.

A happy brindle wagged his tail and licked Debbie's face until he collapsed. She took a minute to note the scars on a black and white puppy. The new guy, Jackson, was bitten on the hand. It went on for a couple of hours. They crossed dogs off the long list and remembered what they had looked like when they had come in, how they had grown. The plastic bins filled with heavy garbage bags, were emptied, filled again. The tables became spotted with blood from the needle pricks.

Donna showed Jackson how to comfort a dog while extending its leg for the needle. She had to reassure both of them at the same time. "It's okay," she said to Jackson and, "You're so good," to the dog.

Then she took a leash and went out to get another dog. Alone for a second, she wiped her eyes on her shirt. They were about halfway through.

She heard keys jangling from the end of the aisle. She looked. Around the corner, down the row of cages, dressed all in black. Karen.

"What can I do to help?"

"What are you doing here?

She just couldn't not be here.

"Get a leash."

* * *

Karen didn't walk the dogs, she scooped them up and carried them. Carried them while she crossed their numbers off the long list, carried them while she got a garbage bag from the box.

"This is Debbie," she'd say in baby talk, introducing the dog when she put it on the table. "Say hi, Debbie."

The special ones came near the end. One tech brought in her favorite, a black dog with cropped ears.

"You'll have floppy ears in heaven," Debbie told him.

The red puppies, now so big and rough, one after another after another.

When they were almost through, Karen brought in the mother dog, all ribs and eyes. The puppies had drained the weight from her.

In her other hand, she carried a cardboard box.

Karen crossed the mom off the list, then lifted her onto Debbie's table.

"Hey," Debbie said.

The mother dog looked at the box. Looked away. From inside the box came faint scratching sounds. Tiny toenails trying to walk. Karen leaned on the dog, petted her, kissed her head. Tears welled in Karen's eyes and spilled down her face.

Everyone waited a long, awful time while Donna filled out documentation on the computer. Because the puppies were born here, they had to be officially created before they could be deleted. Each entry asked Donna, "Are you absolutely positively unequivocally sure?"

When they were ready, Karen wrapped her arms around the dog, leaned her cheek into her fur. Debbie said, "Your puppies will be right behind you, honey."

The dog collapsed and went flat on the table. Into the bag.

Donna looked at Karen. Karen's face was bright red.

"Karen," Donna said, "leave."

Karen looked at Donna. She didn't want to go.

"Leave."

She walked out.

The puppies whimpered. Donna cradled them. "I know. I know."

Debbie considered the tiniest needle she had. "That's a big shot for a little baby," she said. "How many babies are there?"

Two on the table. Someone counted in the box.

Three more. Karen had delivered Puppy No. 5 to the euthanasia room.

Donna took all five and lined them up against her chest in a row. They sucked on her fingers.

Their veins were too thin. Debbie knew she'd have to put a needle straight into their hearts. She could hardly stand to do it. She sedated them first, so they wouldn't feel it.

After they fell asleep, Donna held them as Debbie loaded syringes with tiny doses of Fatal-Plus and injected the puppies in their hearts.

"I'm very sorry, sweetheart," Debbie said to the first one.

"I'm very sorry, honey," she said to the next.

They put each one in the bag with their mother.

"I'm very sorry, sweetheart, I'm sorry.

"I'm very sorry, I'm sorry. Go find your mom. You guys can go play."

There was just one left, No. 5. He had stayed awake the longest, sucking on Donna's shirt. Donna handed him over.

"Look at that face, Debbie," she said. "He was a fighter. He would've been a bruiser."

Debbie gave him a shot in the heart and a kiss on the nose.

"I hope that's the last one," she said. And she started to cry.

* * *

Donna signed every kennel card. She cried her way through the pile. She had thought it would be easier to sign the cards without the dogs looking at her, but it was harder, because there was no going back. The cages were quiet. Someone would have to bleach and scrub them. There was no escaping the emptiness of the place, the heavy, awful silence.

That night Debbie headed home to an empty house. She wanted to take a hot shower and cry for a long time. She wanted to vacuum. Housework calmed her. Donna went home to Lola the chihuahua. She told her the rest of the family was dead.

Karen listened to the Doggy Dying Song on the way home in the car, pictures of her boys on the dashboard. The smell of the dogs clung to her clothes. Their hair and slobber stood out against the black fabric.

She changed clothes in the garage, as always. Every night she would strip off the smell of the dogs and the germs of the kennel outside the house, step inside clean. She went inside to cook dinner and check homework. She didn't talk about it. No one would understand, anyway.

*   *   *

About this story 

With the permission of Sheriff Grady Judd and supervisor Donna Seiler, staff writer Kelley Benham and photographer Cherie Diez made repeated visits to Polk County Animal Control during the last two months the dogs were there.

The reporter and photographer were present for most of the scenes described in the story, including Hewitt Grant's court hearing and the mass euthanasia of dogs on April 7. Other scenes - such as the killing of the first 10 dogs on April 6 - were verified through interviews with the people who were there. The description of the raid on Hewitt Grant's property is based on police reports and photographs, the sworn testimony of investigators, and interviews with shelter workers and the veterinarian who helped gather the dogs. Accompanied by Grant, Benham and Diez also visited the property.

Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com.