Necessary Evil

— The offices of the County of San Diego Animal Shelter on Gaines Street are currently housed in temporary buildings. The barking is omnipresent -- not like your neighbor's annoying dog, but lots of dogs, as in hundreds. They don't stop, either. A closer look in the enclosure behind the portable buildings reveals a surprising number of purebred dogs as well as mongrels. Cats are housed in smaller cages.

Dena Mangiamele, director of the County Department of Animal Control, seems as surprised as anyone by the variety of animals they get. "We have stray animals, owner-relinquished animals, common dogs and cats to exotic breeds -- exotic parrots, reptiles, and large animals -- cattle, goats, pigs, horses. Some animals are abandoned. For example, someone may be renting a property where they're not supposed to have animals; they get evicted and leave their animals. There's a lot of different issues where animals come to us, and we don't have the choice of saying that this animal doesn't seem very adoptable, you need to take your animal somewhere else -- that's something humane societies can do."

Mangiamele, 47, responds to the questions as if she's heard them all before, memorized every answer; most likely, she has. She's a prominent spokesperson for Animal Control and frequently appears on television to promote the adoption of animals. Before coming to San Diego in 1999, she was the chief veterinarian and interim assistant general manager for the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Control. Small and energetic, her face alternates between intense grins and serious stares. "The construction you saw over there is for the new Animal Control Shelter site. When we move to our new facility, these trailers will be moved and the kennels leveled. The Humane Society will then build their facility here, and there will be an animal campus on this property.

"We do a lot of other things with the Humane Society. We do humane investigations, dogfighting cases, animal-abuse cases. If it requires more manpower, or our skills complement each other, we work together. We frequently get overpopulated in the summer, so they'll come in and choose some animals that fit into their adoption pool to take to their facility, and that helps us. Animals are more active [for breeding] when there are more daylight hours, so when cats and dogs reproduce, it becomes an issue for us when those animals are unwanted. We are mandated to take in every animal, no matter what it looks like, what its size or species is, or what condition it is in.

"We have a larger number of kennels than cat cages, but our numbers are pretty close between cats and dogs. In our new facility, we will be doubling our cat-cage space and increasing about one and a half times our dog space. We hope that will relieve some of the stress, but as many cages as we have we could fill."

The most common abuse suffered by animals is similar to what happens to humans. "I think it's more of a neglect issue. Folks may take animals and put them in a backyard, so they're not as socialized; they may not receive fresh water every day or the food and shelter they require -- that's a lot of it.

"I think some of the cases highlighted in the media are more extravagant. We had our little pit-bull puppy that was tied up in a park that had his ears cropped off so brutally that they were to the skull. There was no anesthetic used. Those folks were cutting his ears off to make that animal nasty and prepare him to be a fighter. Since that was not that dog's personality, they abandoned him. That was actually a success story for us. The dog was taken in by one of our staff members, fostered until its ears healed, and he was adopted. His name is Vincent -- for Vincent Van Gogh! We are a law-enforcement agency, and it's our job to investigate cases like that, where there are no leads, no witnesses; it's our responsibility to follow up and see if we can find out who did that and take those people to court for violating humane laws and animal-cruelty laws."

The elimination of suffering appears to be the standard by which decisions are made for the animals' future. "Some folks who bring in relinquished animals may be requesting euthanasia for their pets that are elderly; maybe they have a chronic condition, like cancer or something of that nature. Sometimes a healthy batch of puppies will come in and the person will say, 'I just found these puppies,' or 'They were near my yard, and I'm going to turn them in to you. They're not mine -- they're stray.' Sometimes they really are owned by those people, but they'll bring them in as strays. Some areas of San Diego County have higher populations of stray animals that are in poor condition. They may have prior injuries, fractures; maybe they've been hit by a car or they've been roaming for a long time or they're emaciated because they're not being cared for. They'll have skin conditions, like mange, that are really severe in animals that may not have proper nutrition and are immuno-compromised -- sometimes with 90 percent hair loss. Secondary bacterial infections may take over their skin and those sorts of situations. That's very painful and uncomfortable. They may have respiratory infections and be highly contagious in the kennels.

"When animals come in that are injured or ill, we perform emergency triage, although we're not a full-service veterinary hospital. Our medical division will assess each particular animal. Let's say we have an animal with a fracture. Hopefully, we'll have identification, and we can contact the owner, but that doesn't happen very often. We will hold the animal for the legal holding period, giving the owner an opportunity to come in and find their lost pet." (Legal holding periods vary by category of animal.)

"During that time, we'd stabilize the animal, stabilize the fracture, make sure that they're more comfortable, and wait. Someone may become interested in adopting the animal when it becomes available. Some animals may require a lot of medical attention after they leave the shelter. Some folks who fall in love with a particular animal are willing to pay for that. Others may want to adopt the animal but can't afford the medical care. There are organizations that will assist with that and welfare groups that will help with some of the medical fees, so there's a variety of things that we do to promote adoption and get animals into permanent homes with healthy status.

"But there are also animals who come in with more than one problem, as I described. Injuries, several illnesses, secondary infections. We get animals that have been in dogfights and been discarded -- they've survived but are doing poorly. Some are feral or not tame, that you can't handle -- cats especially. They're difficult to place because they're not really socialized. Our staff is trained to handle those situations, to handle animals humanely and make it safe for themselves and the animals. If appropriate, we make animals available for adoption. We try to hold on to animals as long as we have space and they're still healthy and don't risk illness for the rest of the population."

Mangiamele speaks more guardedly when discussing the destruction of animals. "Humane euthanasia, to us, is our ability to have trained personnel who are certified in euthanasia who can perform it so that the animal does not suffer. It means a quiet, calm death, and if that has to be done, we're proud that we can do it professionally and that each animal is handled as an individual, and they don't suffer.

"It's a responsibility of all veterinarians in private practice and, especially, in the shelter environment. I have to participate with my staff in everything we do. I help in humane investigations. I assist in the euthanasia room.

"We assess each animal individually. We look not only at what the population is but the animal itself to see whether or not it has any contagious illnesses, and it may. It may need isolation, it may need medication. Is it responding to medication? What background information do we have on the animal? Maybe that can help us do a permanent placement. Is it responding to the public or staff in a positive way? Is it not being aggressive, not showing signs that may be a public-safety issue? There are a lot of factors in analyzing each individual animal. Every single day we walk through our kennels and do a team approach with our kennel-management staff and our medical staff to assess animals. We make sure we've done everything we can to try to get those animals into a situation where they have a chance at permanent placement."

Are there situations when a healthy animal isn't placed and must be euthanized? "Again, it's an individual, case-by-case basis. Some animals we may keep for two months, some for two weeks -- it depends on our population. Some animals, after long periods in a kennel, start to get 'kennel crazy.' It's not fair to them because we feel that we just want to give them a 'quantity' of life when we really are strong advocates of 'quality' of life for animals.

"We perform euthanasia by intravenous injection with special euthanasia solutions. All species are kept separate and euthanized separately. The animals do not suffer. It is a very quick procedure, and they are usually unconscious in close to 30 seconds. They are monitored and disposed of. There's a service here in San Diego County that disposes of animal bodies -- they are not disposed of in this county -- I believe they go to Los Angeles. Animals that are dead on the street are picked up and taken to a rendering plant."

Many of the euthanasia procedures are performed by private veterinarians contracted to work for the county. Dr. Alexander Doss, 41, euthanizes animals for the county when his private practice permits. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Doss obtained his DVM at UC Davis and has practiced since 1986.

"I'm not an employee of the animal shelter or the county. I'm a contract veterinarian. I help out and work on days that they might need me when I have the time. The county does not employ veterinarians on a full-time basis. I've worked for the shelter for the last year and a half or two."

Doss's description of the euthanizing procedure is more specific. "We use a solution called Euthanol. That's really a brand name, but there are three or four manufacturers that make it under different names. All of them are very similar, and the main ingredient, sodium phenobarbital, is the same. It's a long-acting, very deep anesthetic. An overdose of that in concentration will achieve an instant stopping of the heartbeat. It's a very instant, very painless thing. But it's a very concentrated overdose of anesthetic that can and does kill people. Every size of animal has a different dosage.

"It's the same thing whether it's in a shelter or veterinary hospital. You have an RVT [registered veterinary technician] who holds the animal. Basically, we just find a vein and give it an intravenous injection. That's all there is to it. It's a very, very quick thing. Once you find the vein, it's instant. When you're done, the breathing has stopped, the eyes are not blinking, the heart has stopped. Of course, a good veterinarian will check the heart right after doing it. The bodies are put in a freezer -- there's a freezer at every animal shelter and veterinary hospital -- and a service comes in, picks them up, and mass cremates them."

Doss concurs that many factors go into deciding when to euthanize an animal. "It's not really the veterinarian's decision. Yes, I have the ultimate say on it. I can say, 'This animal is treatable or savable.' But in the everyday operations, the veterinarian does not get involved in the hours it takes to make those decisions.

"It's not the thing that veterinarians want to make as the focus of their practice, for obvious reasons. It's a necessary evil. We do it in private practice just as much or even more as they do in the shelter. It's a fact of life, and we just happen to be the custodians of making that decision for animals, since they can't make it for themselves."

While Mangiamele insists that the number of animals she has euthanized herself are too numerous to remember, she can provide statistics for the four county shelters (Gaines Street, Escondido, Carlsbad, and Bonita). For the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the combined shelters euthanized 6768 cats, 9097 dogs, 133 livestock animals, and 1232 other animals (birds, reptiles, rodents, etc.), totaling 17,230 animals. She admits that it can be emotionally draining to face so much death. "I try really hard to keep it in perspective that every animal we have to euthanize here... We've done everything we can for that particular animal.

"I still think of certain animals that I knew in Los Angeles, like, Maybe I should have adopted that one... You always have certain animals that you think of and certain situations. But I try to focus on things like, What can I do to make sure that doesn't happen again? or How can I change that? That's where I try to focus my energies, and that's what I try to do with the staff. A specific animal may come up over and over again in their thoughts and the things that they do, but we try to focus on a project to make sure that some bad things never happen again. Once [the staff] feels that they are a part of the solution, I think it relieves a lot of their stress."

Animal-rights groups don't present much of a problem for the shelter when it comes to euthanasia. "I think they realize that we are not the problem. Opinion has been misdirected that animals are euthanized because the shelter's staff wants to do that, and that is not the case. The reason for the animal-overpopulation problem is people in the community who are irresponsible with their pets. We're taking care of them here, and when we reach a finite population, it's because we have a finite amount of space.

"If no one wants to take those pets, adopt them, rescue them...then we have to make some decisions. I know that [animal-rights] groups know what methods of humane euthanasia we use. Most importantly, my staff monitors themselves because they care about animals, and they want everyone to treat them the right way.

"I think that animals know we are trying to do the best job we can for them," says Mangiamele. "When you get a large number of dogs in one area, there are some territorial issues. Some of the cats are stressed -- especially feral kitties that come in here and don't want to be around people. We try to keep it as calm as possible. When you have stress, you have the possibility of more disease transmission. Knowing that, we try to keep our isolation areas and sick and injured areas quiet. But if we act calm and treat them appropriately, it makes a difference.

"There are sensitive issues in this world, and two of them are children and animals. They can be similar in their intensity and in the way people respond to them. Animals are special, especially domesticated animals, because their survivability depends on us -- to care for them, to feed them, and to sustain their lives. Because of that, we feel a tremendous obligation to provide the best we can for them, so it's painful to see animals that are not cared for properly -- especially for someone like me who's a veterinarian and has a background with animal care and disease control -- knowing we can solve these problems and we have the resources to do it. You can help solve one of those problems by having your pet altered so it's not reproducing and contributing to the animal population.

"We bond to animals. You can talk to some of our animal-care attendants -- they really fall in love with a lot of these animals. It's a lot like people. You bond with certain people and everything just clicks, and that happens with these folks. They become part of our family, especially domesticated animals like dogs or cats that bring their special personalities to a family. It can be a tool for children to learn about responsibility. They can also be a lesson of what we don't want to do when we see animal cruelty and animal neglect. As humans we get a lot out of the positive relationships we have with animals. A lot of documentation shows that folks recovering from heart conditions and surgery, if during the recovery period, they have a pet -- a dog, for example -- they recover faster. Elderly people who have pets are usually a bit more social, because they're out walking their pets -- people come up to them and talk to them about their pets -- when, otherwise, no one would come in contact with them.

"Pets play an important role in families," Mangiamele concludes. "They can be extremely comforting in stressful situations -- a divorce, a death in the family. I have two dogs. One is 15 and the other is 11. They spend a lot of time with me, and we've been through a lot. They know a lot about you, and they respond to you. We're fortunate to have pets in our lives."

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