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April 2, 2006
'THERE ARE DAYS HERE I CRY'
Euthanizing Thousands of Animals a Year Takes a Toll on Shelter Workers
By Gary White
The Ledger

The sturdy black cat probably never had a name. It almost certainly never knew the feline bliss of curling up on a human lap or sharing a bed with a slumbering owner.


PIERRE DUCHARME/THE LEDGER
Patt Glenn, operations director for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Lakeland shelter, draws a syringe full of sedative to still a cat's heart. The SPCA is forced to kill animals for various reasons, including disease and wildness. But the majority of euthanizations result from overcrowding at the open-admission shelter.

The male cat's four-year life was a desperate quest for survival repeated day after day, a pursuit that brought him into violent conflict with other untamed animals -- as evidenced by a truncated tail and a raw, quarter-sized wound below his left eye.

The cat's grim and contentious life, though, ends with a gentle, human touch, perhaps the first it has ever known. Patt Glenn, operations director for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Lakeland shelter, quells the feral cat's existence on a recent morning as gently as possible, mixing compassion with doses of a sedative and a fatal solution that stills the rugged cat's heartbeat.

Glenn has the power to dictate life and death for animals, but she doesn't relish playing God.

"There are days here I cry," she says. "There are days here a lot of people cry."

AN UGLY TOLL

Glenn and others perform an unpleasant task made necessary by our collective failure to control the dog and cat populations in other ways.

The Lakeland SPCA shelter matched some 4,000 animals with human companions last year, but that meant 6,566 cats and dogs had to be killed at the shelter -- an average of nearly 18 a day. Meanwhile, the Polk County Animal Control Division euthanized about 14,000 in 2005, said Lt. Robert Oakman, the division's director.

Many of the county's dozens of veterinary offices also euthanize animals, probably adding thousands more each year to those sums.

Mitsie Vargas, a Winter Haven veterinarian, says she has known people who wanted to become vets but couldn't accept the idea of putting animals to death.

"Some cannot get over that, but it's a circle-of-life thing," Vargas says. "I'm there for the C-sections to get them out of their mother's bellies, and I see them die."

Spring means the approach of the heavy breeding season for domestic animals. Glenn says admissions to the SPCA shelter peak in June through August, when more than 1,000 animals a month arrive at a facility with a maximum capacity of about 250.

The SPCA is forced to kill animals for various reasons, including disease and wildness. But the majority of euthanizations result from overcrowding at the open-admission shelter.

Glenn is the one who usually makes the decision. If the shelter is full, an animal might be put down the day it arrives. But Glenn also tells the story of Hunter, a German shepherd mix that spent nearly four months at the shelter before being adopted.

Workers must undergo 16 hours of training before being certified to euthanize animals. About eight SPCA technicians are certified, while others might assist with the process but prefer not to be the one to insert the syringe.

Glenn says the SPCA used to do euthanizations at the end of the workday, a routine that left workers emotionally depleted. The procedures now take place mostly in the morning, allowing the staff to finish the day with more pleasant tasks.

Even so, Glenn remains watchful for signs of "compassion fatigue" among her employees. The syndrome can take two forms -- callousness or hypersensitivity.

"I will pull them out before they get to that point," Glenn says. "I think we pulled somebody out a couple months ago. She said, `I don't need to be pulled,' but afterward she said, `Thanks, I needed that.' "

Lisa Baker, executive director of the Humane Society of Polk County, says people who euthanize animals sometimes develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many shelters make grief counselors available to workers.

"You get into the business because you love animals, and then to have to take the life of the very thing you love is a horrific thing," says Baker, whose limited-admission shelter euthanizes a small number of animals a year. "Just about every one of them will weigh on you."

FINAL TOUCH OF KINDNESS

When professionals decide an animal must die, they strive to make its final moments free of trauma.

The black cat and a calico are delivered to the SPCA shelter one morning after being trapped near Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport. Staffers take them into an examination room so Glenn can assess them -- first by gently thrusting a pen into the cages and then by holding a thickly gloved hand to the bars.

Glenn at first says both cats have the potential to be adopted, but when she tries to extract the black cat it bites her gloved hand. Judging by its behavior and the physical marks of a savage existence, she determines it has no chance of being domesticated.

The cat is brought back into the exam room, and Glenn begins the all-too-familiar protocol by filling a syringe with ketamine, an anesthetic. The cat is in a double structure that allows Glenn to squeeze it against one side. She plunges the needle into the cat's flank and deploys the anesthetic, getting no discernable reaction.

Glenn covers the cage with a towel to shield the cat from unfamiliar sights during the three mintues it takes for the ketamine to work. She marks "F" for feral under "reason" on a form required by the Food and Drug Administration and adds the date, the drugs and dosages used and her initials.

When she lifts the towel, she finds the cat unconscious.

"In my mind, he went down very quickly so it's OK with him (to die)," she says.

She and an assistant place the cat on an examination table, and Glenn scans it for a microchip, an identifier sometimes found even in feral cats. Glenn can reverse the anesthetic if a chip is detected, but as she expects this cat has none.

She draws a solution of sodium pentobarbital into a syringe. Because it's so difficult to fit a needle in a cat's vein, she will inject the fatal chemical into the heart.

The motionless cat could be asleep except for its open eyes with dilated pupils. Glenn, testing the sedation, squeezes the flap between two toes with increasing firmness and gets no reaction.

Without further delay, she slides the needle into the cat's chest and squeezes the plunger. She strokes the cat's dark fur, determined to give an animal that couldn't be handled in life a caress on its way out.

When the cat's chest ceases moving, Glenn removes the needle.

"And he is gone," she says in a soft voice, her eyes wet. "That's the hard part; they're not asking to be born."

Even after the cat's death, Glenn treats it with dignity. She cradles the lifeless body against her and carefully wraps it in a black plastic bag before inserting it into a freezer.

Every few days, euthanized animals are collected by the county's animal control office, which processes the carcasses and delivers them to the nearby North Central Landfill. (The bodies are double-bagged to decrease the chance of scavengers' consuming toxins.)

GRIEVING OWNERS

For veterinarians like Vargas, a euthanization usually involves another party -- the animal's owner. She strives to make each administered death as gentle as possible -- for the humans as well as the animal.

Vargas and her partner, Patricia Mattson, offer a separate "comfort room" removed from the din of the clinic and complete with a leather chair and a homey rug, sparing owners who bring pets to be euthanized from sitting among frisky animals due for routine services. In cases of longtime clients, the office's employees might stop in to bid farewell to the animal.

Vargas delivers the fatal injection in that soothing room. She gives the owner the option of staying throughout the procedure or leaving after the sedation.

"Luckily I don't do this the whole day," Vargas says. "It's an occasional thing."

For Glenn, though, it's almost a daily occurrence. She doesn't recall going more than two or three days without having to order an animal killed in nearly four years at the SPCA. But those are her favorite days.

"When I can walk in and say, `Nobody today,' it's like a party," she says.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or at 863-802-7518.

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