San Diego pound can't get employees to kill dogs with a needle

Down, Boy

"The worst place a puppy can come to is an institution.”
  • "The worst place a puppy can come to is an institution.”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Dr. Alice DeGroot. chief veterinarian at the Animal Care and Education Center in Rancho Santa Fe, speaks in a hushed, almost monosyllabic tone. “It’s a very sad thing. The worst place a puppy can come to is an institution.” We are standing in the euthanasia room of the facility, waiting for the tranquilizer to calm Yucon, an energetic, six-month-old Staffordshire pup. He’s been rooting around the small room, sniffing, slobbering, scratching, and trying to ingratiate himself to me. Yucon’s handler, Rich, who is an animal care technician, pours a few morsels of dry dog food into a bowl, forcing the animal at least to stay in one place.

“It’s usually the wife who gets fed up with all the responsibility for an animal the kids were supposed to have taken care of."

“It’s usually the wife who gets fed up with all the responsibility for an animal the kids were supposed to have taken care of."

“Staffordshires are notorious for being hard-headed, undisciplined animals,” says DeGroot. She inserts a long needle into a bottle of sodium pentobarbitol, her gray eyes fixed on the orange fluid tumbling into the syringe. “Yucon’s not going to be adopted by anyone. He’s been here since early March, and he’s beginning to show signs of neurosis. When we determine mental problems, we put them down. It’s not fair to ask an animal to live in a cage situation. Wanna put him on the table please. Rich?”

“We’re trying to ascertain why there is this tremendous turnover in animal owners.’’

“We’re trying to ascertain why there is this tremendous turnover in animal owners.’’

DeGroot sighs as she pats Yucon on the head. He is calm now, seemingly bewildered by his own lack of energy, panting quietly. His tongue, the color and texture of watermelon, flaps lazily over his lower lip, dripping saliva. Rich encircles the dog with his arms, placing his face on Yucon’s neck and grabbing his right foreleg with both hands.

County shelters perform the despicable task of killing animals every day,

County shelters perform the despicable task of killing animals every day,

DeGroot sprays alcohol from a squirt bottle onto the dog’s leg and wipes it with cotton. She feels for the vein with her middle and index fingers, finds it, and shoves the needle deep into it. Yucon doesn’t notice; he’s more interested in all the attention being lavished on him. But as soon as DeGroot starts to push the plunger into the syringe, the dog tries to bolt.

"We’ve lost the art of caring unconditionally for any fellow living creature."

"We’ve lost the art of caring unconditionally for any fellow living creature."

“Steady, Yucon, it’s okay boy, calm down now Yucon.” Rich and DeGroot croon. The difficulty of the job registers on both their faces. DeGroot forces most of the barbiturate through the needle and into the vein. Yucon’s breathing slows, his body begins to go lax, and by the time the needle is withdrawn the dog’s eyes have rolled upward and the eyelids have closed. Rich lays him on his side on the guttered, stainless steel table and quietly removes the red collar from around the animal’s neck. DeGroot has turned around to dispose of the syringe. The only sound is a rattling murmur from a ventilation port on the wall. The dog’s mouth has closed, leaving a small sliver of tongue peeking through the lips below the snout. ‘‘It’s beautiful,” says DeGroot, whose face has tightened again from its previous slackness. She helps Rich muscle Yucon’s body into a gray plastic sack which is then sealed with a knot and placed in the large walk-in refrigerator. Rich disappears out a side door, leaving Yucon’s leather leash strung out on the brick floor.

“Now, what could be more humane than that?” asks DeGroot. “Death is a beautiful thing for that animal if that’s all there is. It takes a long time for the technicians to realize that. They work with the animals every day and eventually learn to care for them in an unconditional fashion. We’re not trained in this society for that. You have to really come to terms with yourself to get your arms around a dog and love it into a death situation.”

The Animal Care and Education Center is one of the dozen or so animal management agencies saddled with the problem of dealing with San Diego County’s burgeoning animal population. It is one of the three facilities which euthanize unwanted cats and dogs using a drug exclusively. The others utilize the Euthanair chamber, which induces death by anoxia — lack of oxygen — after subjecting the animals to a simulated altitude of 55,000 feet. The low-pressure chamber has been under fire for a number of years from people who doubt its humaneness. Canada has banned its use, as have Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine. Los Angeles County no longer uses the chamber, and even though California has placed the operating procedure of the machine into the penal code and can boast a generally abuse-free record of low-pressure euthanasia. Assembly Bill 3041, if passed, will put an end to high-altitude mercy killing in this state.

“It’s really unfortunate that most of our efforts in this society are vested in such things as aspirins. We live in a society devoted to aspirins,” says DeGroot. Euthanasia, she believes, has become the pain reliever for our gigantic animal population headache. It is not really even an animal problem, DeGroot emphasizes; it is'a people problem, and the real issue is not how the animals are destroyed, but why it must be done in the first place.

The animals being put to sleep are the progeny of our own irresponsibility, according to the experts. They are let into this world by the majority of pet owners, who will not have their animals sterilized. A lot of them end up at county shelters — injured, hungry, and frightened — because the soft-hearted owners dumped them somewhere in a deserted field rather than take them to the pound when they might have a chance of being adopted. Another source of shelter puppies are those brought in by parents whose children toted them home from stores or street corners, where well-meaning dog owners dispense puppies by the boxful. The result of all this is that 60,000 cats and dogs were euthanized last year by the county’s Humane Societies and animal regulation departments. (That figure does not include a significant number of animals put to sleep by private veterinarians.)

While it is true that some animals have to be euthanized because of old age or severe injuries, the vast majority are killed because there is no room for them or they are not adoptable — in that order. Usually a dog is not adoptable because it is simply not attractive; people don’t want ugly dogs. In fact, it is not uncommon for a Humane Society or county shelter to get an entire litter of puppies, from which they choose the dogs with the best markings and features, and euthanize the rest.

“Everybody loves a puppy, but not many puppies actually find a nice home.” says Tim Bonneli, chief animal control officer at the El Cajon Animal Shelter. “People don’t think of the responsibility, the cost. We get a lot of young dogs in here. A person will come in here, relinquishing responsibility for that animal, totally relinquishing responsibility, and they’ll say, 'But I don't want him put to sleep.’ We'll tell them we don’t know if we can find a home for him and they’ll snap. ‘Well, what kind of person are you?’

Bonneli and his colleagues at other county shelters receive a lot of criticism from the public. Not only must they perform the despicable task of killing animals every day, they must assert their authority in areas people consider very personal — the way they treat their pets.

“With some people,” says Bonneli, “if you ask them to get their dog neutered or to restrain it, it’s like attacking the basic laws of freedom. Some people get a kick out of their dog running loose and being promiscuous. The dog’s a symbol of what they themselves can’t do or be.

“Then you see the couple that doesn’t want to spay or neuter their animal because they want their kids to experience the ‘miracle of birth.’ Well, they oughta bring ’em down here so they can experience the miracle of death, too.”

Bonnell leads me into the euthanasia room where the miracle of death was inflicted 3000 times last year. Two low-pressure chambers, a large one about the size of a pickle barrel and a small one similar in size and shape to a beer keg, are being held at altitude. The law states that the chambers must reach a simulated altitude of 55,000 feet within one minute and remain there for twenty minutes. The animal is unconscious within twenty seconds of leaving sea level. Through the small portholes I can see two dead animals, a dog in the big chamber and a cat in the small one, each nothing more than a pile of matted fur and twitching legs. Neither Bonnell nor any administrators at the other shelters would allow me to view the loading or emptying, ascent, or descent of a Euthanair chamber. They feel that the public, as it has in the past when the scene has been described, would react against the people doing the killing, further damaging their already tainted image. But Bonnell is quick to defend the chamber as the best method of putting animals to sleep.

“There have been several pilot programs to try the needle method,” he says. “They’ve found it’s more expensive. But the biggest factor is the operator. He can’t remove himself like he can with the chamber. It’s psychologically damaging; you can’t keep a guy to do it.”

Jim Johnston, director of the South County Animal Shelter, generally concurs. “We experimented with the needle for a month,” he says. “Cost broke down about evenly. In twenty minutes with the needle you can put down six or seven animals. But our biggest hang-up was the human factor— they just can’t sit there day after day, petting these animals as they put them to sleep. It’s the hardest part of the animal control officer’s job to begin with, and the needle only makes it worse.”

Johnston estimates that about twenty-five percent of the animals brought to his shelter find homes. If the animal is not neutered or spayed, the person adopting it must leave a deposit, returnable when the animal is sterilized. This is standard at all city and county shelters. The shelters and Humane Societies have organized low-cost spay and neuter programs. “But the only way to really solve this problem is through education,” says Johnston. “We feel we’ve lost the present generation of adults. We’re working on schoolchildren from sixth grade on up.”

Animal control professionals all agree that education is the only way to halt the flow of 60,000 animal carcasses out the back doors of the shelters each year. Their efforts are apparently bearing fruit because there has been a steady decline in the number of animals euthanized yearly since the early Seventies. But the shelters and Humane Societies, which ideally would phase out as the animal population dwindles, have probably become permanent fixtures. San Diego County estimates have put the dog population here at 390,000 and the cats at 234,000.

At least one of the roots of the problem is the way owners view their pets: they are possessions, playthings. “Animals have really just become another commodity in this society,” says Dr. DeGroot. “Take these chain pet stores. If you buy a puppy from them they’ll guarantee that it won’t get sick for a few weeks. If it does, you can take it back and get another one. Now, what is that teaching us about living creatures?” DeGroot maintains the only place she would buy a dog is from a legitimate breeder. But there are dozens of so-called breeders in town who, in the words of Tim Bonnell, “are doing more to demolish breeds than anything nature could do. The dogs are born nervous, half-witted, sometimes physically handicapped because of the close in-breeding.”

If you can judge a nation by the way it treats its animals, as Albert Schweitzer claimed, then Dr. DeGroot is ready to hand down an indictment. She says one of the reasons so many young animals end up in shelters is that they are mistreated at a very young age by the dog-peddling industry. At the “puppy mills” in the Midwest they are taken from their mothers at around ten weeks of age, put in a cage, and shipped all over the country. DeGroot says they never recover from the trauma.

“A puppy’s most critical fear imprint period is from eight to twelve weeks of age,” she says. “If it’s locked up in a cage during this time, separated from its litter mates, it learns only how to survive in a cage. There is no gradual transition from life with the mother to life with people. Consequently, we’re producing dogs who have a very difficult time learning to live in society. A really serious animal lover who understands animals on a superconscious level can teach the dog to behave in a suitable manner. The average person cannot.”

There are, of course, many more reasons why a pet may be abandoned to an agency, and Captain Bill Virden of the San Diego County Humane Society has seen them all. “We know conclusively that more than half the people who bring in animals lie to us about why they’re giving them up. A couple will have a fight and the husband will bring in the wife’s cat or dog, or the boyfriend will bring in the girlfriend’s, and ask specifically that it be put to sleep. They’ll even pay the fee to have it done.

“Economics, can’t control the animal, not everyone in the family is agreeable to having the pet — these are the most common reasons,” says Virden. “It’s usually the wife who gets fed up with all the responsibility for an animal the kids were supposed to have taken care of. So many people buy out of emotion, not reason, with no thought at all of the responsibility.”

Virden has six units out in the field every day investigating complaints called in against animal owners. The small traps and cages bang around in the back of the white Travelall as officer Jim Baker pulls out of the compound to check out the day’s complaints. On the way to our first stop in University City, Baker explains that the job of the State Humane Officer is to protect animals from people, so we’re on our way to investigate a complaint that an English sheep dog is locked up in a house without food all day. Baker says he has to look into all complaints, but many of them turn out to be false alarms. “One of the first things you learn is that complainants aren’t saints,” he says. He doesn’t expect to find anything really wrong with the dog, but when we arrive, the owner explains that he was burglarized the night before and the dog was stolen. Baker fills out the paper work and we head for Ocean Beach and a report that a woman is living in a car at a beach parking lot with two dogs and a cat, which she leaves locked up all day.

Out on the freeway Baker is full of dog stories. He talks about “this crazy little old lady who was a dead ringer for granny Clampett” and how she had sixty-five dogs in her house. They all had the same markings and a lot of them were crippled from the close inbreeding, he says. When the officers went to her house they knew she had the dogs — they could hear them — but the woman wouldn’t let them inside and they couldn’t enter without probable cause. She was screaming and swinging a broom at the officers, and the way they got in was to carry her into her house after she fainted. They took away about forty of the dogs.

Baker also says there have been times when they’ve had to take animals away knowing the pets were the only source of warmth and affection a person had. “This one guy was living in a wheelchair and he was almost blind and pretty much out of his mind,” says Baker. “And he kept the dog tied to the chair and never fed him. When we took the dog. it was half-dead from starvation.”

We reach Ocean Beach and find the car the woman is supposed to be living in. She is nowhere in sight, but inside the car, where the air must be nearly a hundred degrees, a cat and a dog are panting on the floor, trying to stay out of the sun. Through a crack left in the windows wafts the horrendous smell of hot animal effusions. A dog bowl with water in it sits on the floor. The car is old and dirty, the interior a mess from accommodating the lives of a person and three animals. The people who called in the complaint say the woman went to town with the other dog. They tell Baker that the woman says if it weren’t for her animals she'd walk off into the ocean and kill herself. Baker writes out a citation, instructing her to call the Humane Society within twenty-four hours. “Sounds like some suicidal nutzo.” he says as we drive away.

Back at the Animal Care and Education Center, after Yucon has been put in the freezer. Dr. DeGroot is waiting for the tranquilizer to calm the next dog she must put down, a brown-and-white yard dog named Pebbles. Her handler. Michelle Copley, says the dog s been at the center two and a half months and it’s already becoming neurotic. Its owners gave it up because they were moving. “We’re trying to ascertain why there is this tremendous turnover in animal owners.’’ says DeGroot. “We're an exploitative animal. We’ve lost the art of really caring unconditionally for any fellow living creature. It’s the basis of the whole problem. It’s not about cats and dogs: it’s about humans, their sense of loving, caring, responsibility.” Her face goes slack again. “Wanna put her on the table please. Michelle?” she sighs.

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