Animal Shelters and Animal Rescue Groups Are Not For Wimps

Animal shelters and animal rescue groups have been working together for a long time to move dogs and cats into pet homes. One rescue group, Nuts For Mutts, a relative newcomer to animal rescue in Rochester, NY, was holding an adoption event at PetSaver on Monroe Avenue yesterday. Theirs was a small event: three people with three dogs tucked behind a table at the back of the store.

If you believe that any dog weighing less than 15 pounds isn’t “really a dog,” (my husband and every other lover of giant breeds), the two elderly chihuahuas didn’t count. The third dog, one of the Nuts For Mutts volunteers explained, had just been pulled from the downtown animal shelter.

“They’re calling rescue groups and telling them to “just come, take what you can,” she said. 

When animal shelters have no kennel space left for incoming dogs because they are filled to capacity, one of the things they do is reach out to rescue groups for help. If those rescue groups don’t have room in their organizations, that animal shelter’s next step is to tag dogs for euthanasia to free up space for incoming dogs or cats. Sometimes, perfectly healthy, young pups that are dog friendly and have developed their own fan base among the kennel staff, get put on that list.

It’s not a perfect system. This kind of euthanasia is when that system truly sucks. And, not just for the dogs that are caught in this killing cycle. I imagine know that it sucks for shelter employees.

Over the years (more so when I was actively involved in animal rescue), I’ve talked to a lot of shelter workers. And, I still keep up.  I don’t have the statistics to back it up but, I’ll bet that the number of animals killed in shelters is higher now than its ever been. What I wonder is if the emotional fallout among shelter employees is at an all time low?

When I shift my focus away from the animals and think about what it must be like to be on the front lines of animal care in an animal shelter on a daily basis, profound sadness washes over me. Being responsible for the day-to-day care of shelter animals is a physically grueling, emotionally draining job.

Talk to some of the staff or just watch them perform their duties the next time you visit an animal shelter. This one has a weight restriction of not being able to lift more than 30 pounds because she’s already had two back surgeries. She needs a third surgery but can’t afford it.

See that harried young woman with the angry, tight-lipped frown on her face? She’s just found out that once again, one of the things she’ll start doing next week is training yet another brand new employee. In less than six months, she’s trained three and all three have quit.

That guy hurrying down the corridor to get back to the vet clinic? He’s one of the staff veterinarians who just finished yelling at one of the kennel workers because the stool sample he needed yesterday never made it back to the clinic.

“Can’t you do anything right?” As he stomps off, the kennel worker stands in shocked silence. No one told her to collect a stool sample. Turning on her heel, she bumps into one of her co-workers. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago!” she snarls. “Where the hell have you been?”

The young man stands quietly, not quite meeting her eyes. “My shift just started. Saturdays I don’t come in until 8AM remember?”  She never thinks to apologize.

Slowly, he turns in the opposite direction and heads for the cleaning area where dog and cat bowls get washed between feedings. As he starts to walk into this area, one of the staff (she’s considered “senior” to him because she’s been working at the shelter for almost three years) looks up from the industrial sink and glares. “Get out of here!” Her voice ratchets up the scale, a ten on the spoiled brat meter. “You’re not cleared to be in here. Get Out!”

Later in the week, these two meet up again. She’s walking along one of the hallways with a 75 pound, male pit bull mixed breed on leash. The dog’s eyes light up because he sees this young man coming towards him. The dog’s tail begins to wag, and he starts to prance. Clearly, this young man is someone this dog knows and likes.

“You’re not cleared to handle him!” With that, she jerks back on the leash, pulling the dog away from him.

These are not happy or kind people. All of them work in animal shelters that have euthanasia policies in place which I believe creates a culture of heartache and a PTSD mentality.

It’s as if, without realizing it, some animal shelter employees – the ones who grit their teeth and stay – lash out at their co-workers because they can’t do anything else to get rid of the stress, the kind of stress that builds up over time when you work in a place where animals die routinely.

Two things:  1. I’m not so sure that there are “healthy outlets” for handling the grief that follows the pointless death of a healthy animal. 2. I am making a distinction between humane euthanasia for animals that are too sick to adopt out and for animals that are a huge risk for being placed in homes.

Where more discussion needs to happen centers on that phrase “a huge risk,” as in what determines when an animal should be killed because of its behavior. And that is not the focus of this post.

I do speak with some authority. Years ago (as some of you know), I was the volunteer Director for an ex-racing greyhound adoption group. During the seven years that I held that position, our organization re-homed 700 dogs, moving them from a race track into a network of foster homes throughout central and western New York.

700 dogs placed in pet homes. We euthanized two in that seven year period. The heart breaker was the 2 year old, fawn male that bit 10 times in the 24-48 hour time period after arriving in Rochester. The decision to euthanize him resulted in a lot of anger and a lot of sadness.

Some of our volunteers felt that this dog should never have been surrendered to the track adoption holding kennel; that with so many bites in such a short time, that surely, the race kennel he came from knew about his bite history.

Some volunteers eventually split off from our adoption group because they felt so strongly that this dog’s life should have been spared.

Some of us felt strongly that this dog’s behavior was a huge risk; that ethically, we couldn’t place him with a family and we weren’t comfortable having him stay with one of our volunteers. We didn’t make the decision to euthanize him quickly or easily. It was agonizing.

Strip all of the soft syllables off of that word “euthanize.” What we did was kill him. Humanely, yes. With a vet in attendance to perform the procedure, three vet techs and me. And, he didn’t fight us. He died easy. But I don’t lie to myself. I can still see that look of uncertainty in his eyes, that look of not knowing what was going to happen to him.

Sixteen years ago, I resigned from that group. I didn’t have it in me any longer to keep up the 24/7 roller coaster ride that greyhound adoption had become. Like a lot of other kind, well intentioned people, I’d burned out. What I wanted to do was to quietly return to being a private citizen. No more public platform. No more “stupid dog people.” I needed time for my heart to heal.

Somewhere in that long process, I turned into a wimp. But, not just your average wimp.

I’m a wimp who knows about feeling stressed out when it comes to working with animals, volunteers and a staff. What I don’t know first hand but what I know from what I’m told by people who work on the front lines in animal shelters, is that the elephant in the room – the thing that nobody seems to be talking about- are the long term emotional effects on shelter staff due to the nonstop euthanasia of animals that have simply run out of time.

If you’ve read this far, something I wrote stuck with you. Please share this post with your friends on Facebook and with your Twitter followers so that we can keep this conversation alive. And, let me know what you think by posting your comment here on my blog. 






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