See Spot Die

See Spot Die

by John Dorschner,
Miami Herald staff writer


There are a hundred million dogs and cats in America. We cuddle them, talk to them, make them part of the family. Every year we buy them $5 billion worth of food, not to mention collars, bowls, flea spray, vaccinations and little pink sweaters...

We love our pets. Except, of course, when we have to move, or get tired of walking them, or sick of paying the vet bills. Then we abandon them. By the millions. We tell ourselves they'll find a new home, but the truth is, when we drop them off at the animal shelter, we drop them off to die.

So many unwanted pets, so few homes for them. They get handed over to the dog pound, abandoned in parking lots, let loose in parks, or simply allowed to drift away from home and never searched for: mangy mutts, elegant purebreds, pit bull pups, fluffy kittens, dogs that look like Rin-Tin-Tin, and Lassie, and Toto.

People take their cats to the shelter and say they want to get rid of them because the pets don't match the colors of their new decorating scheme. They want a new cat, one thats color-coordinated. Some people go on vacation and drop off a pet; they don't want to spend the money on boarding; they say they'll pick up a new pet when they get back.

The result: four out of five pets are left unclaimed. Those unclaimed are given a lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital. Then they are thrown into a large plastic hamper, wheeled outside and tossed like bags of garbage into an incinerator. Nationwide, between 12 million and 20 million unwanted pets are killed each year. The numbers are inexact, because this is one subject few want to research. Man's best friend has become man's biggest victim.

When people get tired of their pets, most don't want to deposit them at the animal shelter; they know what's likely to happen to them. And so they engage in a quiet little fantasy, imagining they're a Robert Redford, climbing to a mountaintop to release an eagle. They're not abandoning Fido -- they're setting him free. Often they choose parks or affluent neighborhoods. Perhaps some wealthy family will pick him up. Or maybe old Fido will revert to the wild, learn to fend for himself, catching squirrels and whatnot.

But pets are not wild eagles. Animal control officers know that a roaming dog is much more likely to be squashed by a speeding car than to learn to live in the wild. The Service has trucks that do nothing except travel the country, picking up tens of thousands of dead dogs and cats each year. The animals that survive forage through garbage cans and alleys, desperately trying to avoid starvation.

In the Dade, Florida, animal shelter, for example, where 25,000 dogs are killed each year, the situation is typical: the shelter is dreadfully overcrowded, four or five dogs locked in a run intended for one. It is primitive -- concrete and wire mesh, with screening on the outside walls to allow in whatever breeze exists. Each day, the barking of 300-plus dogs reverberates like the pounding din of jackhammers. The stench of urine permeates everything, despite the dedicated efforts of the shelter workers.

It is here that most of the dogs and cats of Dade County spend their last five days. And so the dogs wait. And wait. The hound from the day-care center spent most of the time lying on the floor, its snout in a puddle of urine and water from her three cellmates. A few feet away, Chica, the beautiful vizsla with fleas, was squeezed into a run with three mutts. She sat by the door, looking expectantly at each visitor who wandered by. The grumpy chow from Kendall was in a run with a massive red Doberman that had killed a poodle. The smaller chow stayed silent at the back of the run, huddled against the wire mesh. The little bearded Tramp sat at the back of a run, with three larger mutts, his shoulders bent forward, intimidated by this turn of events. Max, the boxer, was given his own cage. Boxers are prized dogs, and it was assumed someone would adopt him. Not so the pit bull pup from the park: As with all pit bulls that enter the shelter, his card was stamped NOT ADOPTABLE. It was a death sentence.

The Shelter is always overcrowded, and each morning a sheet is prepared, a simple white piece of paper. On it is a list of tag numbers -- the tags the officers put on the animals -- and the notation, ER. ER stands for Euthanasia Run, the run where the dogs are placed a few hours before they are executed. The execution chamber is at the end of the corridor, close to the incinerator. It's the size of a small bedroom. A wall-unit air conditioner rumbles and rattles, its noise blending in with the constant yapping of dogs. The bare fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling cast a raw, stark light. The floor is concrete, sloping toward a central drain, to collect the urine and water.

Jessica slipped a white lab coat over her red T-shirt and joined Lily, a feisty woman with glasses and short curly hair. Lily's the vet-tech; she's been there 14 years. Her job is to handle the needles, Jessica's to hold the dogs. Jessica began bringing in the dogs, attaching their leashes to the screens of the cages. The dogs yapped loudly, expectantly. For the first time in days, something was happening and they were excited.

As the dogs arrived, Lily prepared the tray. It consisted of a half-dozen plastic bottles, each six inches high, filled with a turquoise liquid. On the side was the word POISON, printed in red, flanked by two red skulls and crossbones. Inside was sodium pentobarbital. For euthanasia of animals. For veterinary use only. The brand name: Fatal-Plus.

Lily filled a series of needles with six cc. of Fatal-Plus and placed them on the tray. Then she slipped on a pair of thin plastic gloves, the kind surgeons and dentists use.

When they were ready, Jessica shut the metal doors, so outsiders couldn't see in. She spread a section of a newspaper on the two-by-four-foot, stainless steel table. A red pad had been placed under the table so that the table was precisely the same height as the gray plastic hamper next to it.

Jessica grabbed the first mutt -- a knee-high gray-black guy -- and lifted him to the table. She leaned forward, her chest on the back of the mutt, forcing him down on the table, front paws straight out, her arm wrapped gently around the dog's head.

Lily took a ragged yellow sponge out of a plastic bucket and sponged off the right paw, flattening the hair so she could find a vein. "Okay," said Lily, stepping forward with the needle. She searched for a vein, then plunged in the needle. The mutt tensed at the prick of the needle, scanned the room frantically for a few seconds. Then his head slumped onto the table. Within 10 seconds, he was dead.

Jessica slid the dog back into the plastic hamper. It landed with a heavy thwupppp. And so it went. Get up on the table, hold tight, inject, and thwupppp.

Lift up, hold tight, thwupppp.

Lift up, hold tight, thwupppp.

Sometimes, especially with the big muscular dogs, Lily had trouble finding the vein. Some dogs panicked at the prick of the needle, struggling desperately in Jessica's grasp.

One large black dog struggled, breaking loose from Jessica's strong grasp, jumping on the floor. The dog dashed frantically around for a few moments, then its rear legs collapsed. It rose, took a few steps, collapsed again as the Fatal-Plus seeped into its brain.

With some of the larger dogs, especially the obedient German shepherds, Jessica lifted the front paws up, so that they rested on the table, the rear haunches on the floor. Lily injected the animal, then Jessica tugged at its leash, pulling it off the table, trotting ahead of it five or six steps to the outside door. "Come on, boy, come on, boy," she said, gently, swinging open the door and getting another six steps out of the dog, until -- a few feet from the incinerator -- the dog suddenly stopped, falling over on its side, dead. Obedient to the end.

Meanwhile, next door, in the vet's lab, the vet had the hound from the day-care center on his scale. He was examining her, but when he saw her teeth, he shook his head. "Eight years," he scribbled on the card. "No person is going to adopt a dog so old." An assistant trotted the dutiful, anonymous hound back to Run 9.

And the vet was right: The hound was too old. Several days later, she was injected with Fatal-Plus. No new owner stepped up to adopt the chow. He, too, met with Fatal-Plus. So did the pit bull pup found in the state park. So did the two black Lab-mixes picked up at the South Dade nursery. As for Chica, the beautiful viszla with fleas: She was adopted, but escaped from her new home. She just fled, said her new owner. "Volo como una paloma." She flew like a pigeon.

Could she still be running the streets, foraging for food, desperately seeking her original owner? Was she hit by a car? Or was she picked up a second time by Animal Services and put back in the shelter? All we know is that for Chica, as with most dogs and cats, the odds are horrendously against her.