How I Became A Rescuer
I am often asked when I became involved with the issue of animal rights, and I remember the day clearly. It was the day I was called a murderer.
In December of 1993, I was going through a rough time. I had ended a long-term relationship with a veterinarian, a woman I had planned on marrying, and had to move out of her home. My place of employment burned to the ground, and I was out of work. I had just quit drinking about two weeks before all of that happened, and was, to say the least, shaky. Fortunately, a friend of mine agreed to put me up in her home and I moved in with a few books, a battered typewriter and some clothes. I was starting over from scratch.
After a few months of collecting unemployment I found a job through a friend of mine who worked for the local shelter. I was a kennel worker, responsible for cleaning out cat cages, dog runs and handling the animals. When I started to work there, the facility was undergoing a period of record numbers of incoming animals. Space at shelters is always at a premium, and there are only two ways to solve the problem of overcrowding: adoption and euthanasia. While we had a fair number of adoptions during this period, we were forced to eliminate many viable animals to create space for the new influx. I didn't have many deep feelings about euthanasia; I saw it as a necessary tool to be used at the shelter to allow us to keep operating.
So, about three times a week we would go through the records, talk with the staff and pick out the animals that were going to be eliminated. At the end of the day, the animals would be brought, one at a time, to our workroom, and given a lethal injection of sodium phenobarbital. After using a stethoscope to verify that the heart had stopped, the animal's body was moved and the next animal was brought in. When we were done with the injections, we transported all the bodies to a chest freezer in the garage near the crematorium. At least once a week we burned frozen bodies for an eight-hour day.
For the first few months, I never really thought about what I was doing; it was unpleasant work, and hard enough to do without dwelling on it. This was my job - I kept the limited space at the shelter available through the use of a needle and some poison. I disliked having to kill in the name of population control, but saw no other option. All of that changed, however, the day the director of the facility called my partner Mark and I into her office.
A large contributor to the shelter owned an animal that was extremely old and about to die. For some reason, they asked us to perform the euthanasia on the animal, and requested that they be present for the end. While I wasn't thrilled with idea, we agreed and the arrangements were made.
Later that day, the man who had made the unusual request came to the facility with his dog, his wife and his two children, a girl about 14 and a boy about 12. Immediately, my partner and I started having second thoughts about what we had agreed to do. While we made the necessary preparations in the back room, the family were shown to a conference room and allowed to say their goodbyes.
When they were ready, we led the dog and the family to our workroom. I was extremely self-conscious about everything I was doing. I was explaining the procedure to the family, and I noticed my voice was too loud. When we arrived in the back room, I took a first good look at the dog whose life I would be ending. He was an old chocolate lab with a lot of gray hair on his muzzle. He had limped when he walked, so he was probably in pain all the time. And his family loved him, because the two kids were crying, and even mom was a little teary.
Mark and I lifted the dog onto the table. I used the electric clippers to shave some hair off his forepaw while Mark got out the drugs and syringes. We explained to the family what we were doing, and why it was being done, the entire time we moved slowly and carefully around the small examination room.
When it came time to muzzle the animal, something we did to prevent from being bitten, I looked for the first time in the dog's eyes. I saw that it didn't understand what was happening, but that it trusted me because his family was there and he knew that they wouldn't let anything bad happen to him. I am not entirely sure how I knew all this; maybe I was just projecting the emotional content of the room onto the animal.
My hands shook as I took the syringe from Mark and prepared to make the injection. First, a tourniquet is applied to the upper forepaw, then the shaved are is rubbed with alcohol to make the large vein pop up. Next, you have to use your thumb to roll the vein and hold it still while you slip the needle in. Mark was holding the body of the dog down, and I was trying to make the injection. The vein kept slipping on me, and I found it hard to concentrate because of all the crying and wailing from the children. Finally, after several tries, I was finally able to make the injection.
The dog snuffled once loudly and then his entire body relaxed. When we had discussed the situation earlier in the day, we decided to increase the dosage of the drug to speed the dog on his way, and I was glad that we did. I picked up the stethoscope, placed it over the dog's heart and listened. He was dead. I said to the family, looking at them for the first time since I had entered the room, "He's gone."
The boy stared at me, and shouted out "You murderer! You killed him!" I didn't know how to take that. I knew that the boy was upset, and that he was angry with me for being the instrument of his dog's death. But I also suspected that he was right. The weight of all those euthanasia procedures that I had done in the past three months fell on me and smothered me in their finality. The boy was right; I was a murderer.
We escorted the family back to the conference room to give them a chance to pull themselves together before leaving the facility. Mark and I went back to the room and moved the dog's body, and then cleaned up after ourselves. We didn't speak much because neither of us knew what to say. Later that night, when I was alone and at home, I cried for hours.
After that, when it was time to perform the euthanasia regime at the end of the workday, I always remembered what the boy had said, and I began to feel like a murderer. Eventually, I couldn't do my job anymore.
There will be some who read this that work at shelters, and I have to say that I admire you for the work that you do. I am not one of those people who think that all shelters are inherently evil; they do necessary work and perform much good in communities throughout the world. But I found that for me, there has to be a different way.
These days, the work I do for animals is a kind of penance that I perform to ease my conscience. And I hope to do it for years to come. I am trying to raise funds to open a no-kill shelter in my community. I have helped organize and operate a no-cost/low-cost spay and neuter clinic. My wife and I take in stray cats, rehabilitate them, alter them and find them new homes. I write to try and raise awareness of these and many other issues.
But no matter what I do, I can still hear that boy's voice
ringing in my ears. I will always remember what that boy said to
me and I will try to do work that will allow me to some day ask
for his forgiveness. Someday, I hope that I will be able to tell
myself that I am not a murderer, and that I made a difference.
Right now, I can't do that.
Brian Baker is a writer and animal rights proponent. He has been published locally and nationally, most notably in Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul. Currently, Baker spends his time working with a local organization (www.safehavenforpets.org) that not only operates a shelter for animals but also does extensive work with feral cats. To exchange correspondence with the author, write to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org