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Hard Lessons Learned: My First Trip to a Kill Shelter

On a Monday morning in late June, I started my new job with Pawmetto Lifeline. It was like the first day of school; I was excited to meet my new colleagues and find out exactly how these hardworking people were able to do so much to help the homeless pets in our community! But on that first day, when I walked in the doors, I thought to myself, “How sad that these animals do not have homes. So many of these kittens, puppies, dogs and cats are just looking for a forever home.” I said that to myself on Tuesday, then again on Wednesday, and yes, again on Thursday as I entered the building of my new office. I just felt so sad.

My first Thursday with Pawmetto Lifeline, I joined the HEART(Helping Every Animal Reach Tomorrow)Program Director, Donna Casamento, as she walked the shelter kennel runs at the two county municipal shelters.  The HEART team of Pawmetto Lifeline visits two municipal shelters in the Midlands every day. When they go to these shelters, they work with the employees to identify homeless pets who are in immediate danger of being euthanized (note: all of them) and try to raise funds to adopt them out of the kill shelters and get them to rescue facilities all over the US.

To give some perspective to the sheer size of that task, every year in the Midlands, over 17,000 animals end up in municipal shelters. Over 14,000 of those same animals are euthanized. That is almost a 74% euthanasia rate. Over 50 animals are killed each day in every shelter in the Midlands. Pets that have been surrendered by their owners, strays that lost their way and couldn’t find their home or perhaps don’t have a home, and other animals that have been trapped by local animal control services all come into the municipal shelters, but only about a fifth walk back out.  The rest are killed.

I knew the numbers going in. I had been working for three days and consuming as much organizational knowledge as I could, but nothing I could have heard or read or learned could have prepared me for what I saw.

There were some things Donna, my colleague and HEART director had to explain to me before we arrived for my visit. I had always thought of the municipal shelter employees as a caricature of the “Evil Dog Catcher”, folks who didn’t care for animals and wanted to rid the world of them. But those aren’t the people I met. Once inside, I was introduced to an administrative staff that was accommodating and friendly.  One staff member even remarked that she was so pleased we were doing what we could to get animals out and into no kill facilities. As our shelter escort took us back into the kennels, they remarked about certain dogs they were glad HEART had been able to rescue and questioned the status of other animals that were waiting for a sponsor and a rescue to be available, because their time was running out. Not the “Evil Dog Catchers” at all, but real people discussing a real issue and doing a job that is thankless and quite depressing.

Then we walked into the kennel runs.  Noise. Noise from all sides. All at once, dogs from every angle, from every kennel began to bark and whine, most excited to see people and hoping for a quick pat on the head or even a loving scratch behind the ear.  But because municipal shelters are rife with illness, you can’t touch them due to the risk of transmitting an illness from one dog to another. Another item of note, to prevent widespread illness, which municipal shelters are not equipped to deal with, in most instances animals that fall ill are euthanized immediately. They often do not get the opportunity to be treated, to be shown to potential adopters on “Adoption Row”, or to even try to combat the illness themselves.

As we walked through the rows that contained dogs of every breed, every size, every age, I was overwhelmed with the volume of animals that were in the shelter. When we had first arrived, I had seen “adoption row” and considered it a bit small, but thought they rotated potential candidates through so if you didn’t see your “match” on one visit, maybe when you came back, another dog would

be there to see. Once I saw how MANY animals were in the shelter, I realized that the majority never make it to even have the opportunity to be adopted. If “Adoption Row” is full and the animals aren’t finding forever homes, then that means they can’t move another animal up. What the public sees in “Adoption Row” is about a tenth of the animals that arein the shelter, waiting to be killed.

The other thing I noticed when walking around the dog kennels were how many purebred animals and trained animals were in these shelters. They were neglected and abused. I thought of how often I had seen individuals buy something that looked good at the store and then got it home and never wore it. People do the same thing with animals. The puppy was cute, but it WILL turn into a DOG. These pets were surrendered or taken in as animal cruelty cases because they grew up and never go the socialization or training that every dog needs. That was all.

As we started to take photos of the animals we were allowed access to, I started to ask more questions about “Owner Surrenders”. Why would people give up their pets? For some, it was the pet’s behavior, for others-financial hardships, and for others still, they just got tired of their pets. Another important lesson I learned that I didn’t understand, if an owner surrenders the pet (drops off and signs a surrender agreement) then that pet is automatically eligible to be euthanized. The 5 day time limit is first extended to strays to allow for owners to come and claim them. If the shelter is full of strays and has no space for owner surrendered pets, that animal is put down immediately.

We finished with the dog kennels and moved on to the cat cages. There, loving cats with a lot of personality were waiting to die. Many were sick, including kittens, and most would not find a home before the end of their stay at the municipal shelter. These cats could have been toe warmers, book buddies, or mouse catchers, but instead, they were ghosts already. I had really started to hate the knowledge I was getting, but another lesson had to be shared. Adult cats rarely make it out of the municipal shelter, unless a rescue organization gets them out or they make it to “Adoption Row”.  But even then, adoption isn’t guaranteed. People want kittens, but do not want to take home a cat.

As we finished up our stop at just one shelter, I was having a hard time breathing. I had done my best to keep a poker face to ensure the relationship with our shelter colleagues was not damaged.  They know what they are doing every day and no one I met seemed to want to be doing it. I didn’t want to upset them with my emotions. I had only spent two hours there; they spent DAY after DAY there. As we were walking back to the main office to sign out, Donna pointed out a smokestack to me. “That’s the crematorium, where they burn the bodies.” I don’t remember the trip back to the front desk, I just remember shaking.

When I got to the car, I fell apart. Not in a professional way, not in an animal lover way, but in a HUMAN way. I was trying to wrap my head around the scars of abuse and neglect I had seen, around the NUMBER of homeless animals, many of whom would not be getting out of the shelters and the idea that so many people in my community had NO IDEA what this looked like. Everyone sees the numbers, hears the pleas of rescue agencies, and watches the commercials, but being there, seeing it, was just too much. Donna held my hand as I sobbed in the front seat of the car, asking over and over “Why does this happen?”, “How do you do this?”, “Who could be so cruel?” I couldn’t answer them, and neither could Donna.

I visited two shelters that day. When we got to the second shelter, I was dramatically less personable with the staff, although they were just as accommodating and warm as the other shelter had been. We saw the same sad eyes in the dog kennels and the same sweet needy cries in the cat cages, but something had changed for me. I was no longer absorbing information, I was getting angry. There are so many ways to prevent pet overpopulation, the first step being spaying or neutering your pet when you get them. Then, once you have an animal, being responsible for that animal’s well-being is part of the deal. Pets are not LAWN ORNAMENTS. They are living, breathing, and feeling beings.

When I got back to my office, my supervisor very gently offered me time to get myself back together for the day, but I was ready. I had walked back into Pawmetto Lifeline with a fire in me. With a disappointment fueling that fire and a great, overwhelming desire to educate my community, empower my fellow human beings and animal lovers, and to change the way we treat our homeless pets.

On Friday, when I walked into Pawmetto Lifeline, I didn’t feel sorry for the animals I saw walking in. I knew that every animal at Pawmetto Lifeline is SAFE. They will not be killed for any reason, being too old, being sick, or just not being adopted. And Pawmetto Lifeline is a pretty amazing temporary home for them coming from the shelter. Because Pawmetto Lifeline’s HEART does more than just adopt out animals, they save lives.

Lives saved by Pawmetto Lifeline's HEART

Since my shelter visit, I have seen a few familiar sets of puppy eyes, but not nearly as many as we would need to be a no-kill community. But we are getting there, and the fire inside of all of the people, like me, who desire to stop the unnecessary killing of innocent animals, will take us there.

To find out how you can support the mission of Pawmetto Lifeline, please visit our website.

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