Thursday, March 17, 2016

Killing kitties is hard

     City Council is considering an ordinance that forbids animal shelters, including Chicago animal care and control, from killing unadopted pets. The bill pushed by Ald. Ed Burke, the father of ill-considered ordinances, which makes me wonder whether all aspects of it have been thought through. Will it, like the plastic bag ordinance, make the situation WORSE, by jamming shelters with animals they can't get rid of?  What will become of the tens of thousands of animals that come into custody of Chicago and are not adopted? It reminded me of the time I slid by the city animal control center to watch them euthanize animals.

     Too bad you didn't stop by the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control and adopt that gray-and-white kitty I saw there the other day, because now Jennifer Harnisch has to kill it.
     And killing kitties is hard. They can't simply be put inside the big rolling blue metal cages along with the older animals and wheeled into the gas chambers. Kittens are too young; they have too much hemoglobin in their blood. Harnisch has to grab each kitty, individually, and inject it with an overdose of sodium pentobarbital.
     That isn't the tough part, however. Picking up kittens and injecting them is easy, physically—at that age they are so trusting, so affectionate. The tough part is thinking about it. Although, like anything repeated over and over again, it becomes routine.
     "You get used to it," said Harnisch, 26, who said she is "bothered but not haunted" by her job at the Southwest Side center. "It's still very hard. I try to zone it out and not think of the actual act I'm doing. I don't think I could bring myself to do it if I knew."
     That thought came back to me a lot. I don't think people know. Know, for instance, that the puppies they drop off, rather than being extra-adoptable (people love puppies) are usually killed the next day. They can't be adopted until they're fixed, they can't be fixed until they're 2 months old, and young ones can't be kept that long.
     Even in the new facility, built in the mid-1980s, with cheery red-enameled brick and clean interiors, there is room for only 600 animals.
     That sounds like a lot. But last year 28,314 dogs and cats, with a good number of rabbits, guinea pigs and the occasional strange beast (such as a Sonoran Sidewinder) were brought to Animal Control. Only 1,677 left through the front door -- adopted into homes. Another 1,318 were recovered by their anxious owners.
     And the rest? Do the math. The majority -- 25,319 -- left through the back door, dead, in big fiberglass tubs filled with thick plastic liners. Pull back the plastic and take a look. They appear to be sleeping.
     Putting them to death is relatively painless, supposedly, but still not pretty. The animals, in groups, are placed in one of three gas chambers -- stainless-steel cubes about 4-feet-square, with a sliding door of scratched and smudged glass.
     A worker stands in the next room and pushes a button, watching through two chunky glass blocks built into the wall. The process takes 25 minutes. Carbon monoxide, pumped from tanks, fills the cubes.
     The dogs yowl and scratch. They move even after they are dead. Eventually the chambers grow quiet, and the gas is evacuated. Then the bodies get dumped. The Department of Streets and Sanitation sends trucks to take them to the incinerator on Goose Island: 369,274 pounds of pets last year.
     Last week, the city announced an increase in Animal Control staffing and adoption advertising so that fewer dogs and cats are destroyed. Actually eliminating the practice seems impossible right now.
     To stroll through Animal Control is to pass from sweetness to horror and back. You have to steel your heart.
     There, in the break room, is Popeye, an adorable Boston terrier that is one of three pet mascots at Animal Control. He's missing an eye -- he was hit by a car and his previous owners, confronting the prospect of medical expense, abandoned him.
     There, in the room with the buttons that start the gas, is a guillotine with sheet-metal sides and a long, rusty-yet-sharp-looking blade that is driven down pneumatically. Not that they use it to put animals to death—it's only used in rabies cases, when state laws mandate that the brains be examined. The heads are sent to the Health Department.
     This all makes grim reading, but the executive director of Animal Control, Gene Mueller, didn't try to hang a lot of fancy tinsel on the operation.
     When I asked him how he rationalized his job, he said this:
     "I'm a veterinarian. I'm involved with animals because I love animals. I have the terrible duty for society of disposing of their mistakes. We try to provide a humane method of euthanasia for these unfortunate animals.To end up here is far better than being run over by a car or tortured or some other horrible fate."
     Hard to argue that. Hard to see what happens at Animal Control and then ignore it. Ignoring it is part of the problem. People have these romantic notions about animals. They don't want their pets neutered—oooh, too unnatural. They don't want them to be kept indoors. Oooh, too much like jail. They want them to experience motherhood.
     "What everyone thinks is, 'I can find homes for these six puppies,' " Mueller said. "What they fail to understand are the implications. First, they've taken six homes from shelter animals, animals that already exist and will be destroyed because they don't have homes to go into. Second, you have no control over what is done with those puppies. You give them away, each could have six puppies. The problem increases geometrically."
              —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 11, 1998


  1. Just awful. One of the rare times I've not enjoyed reading a column of Neil's. Anyone with a heart would want to support the "no kill" ordinance, but realistically, how can the shelters be expected to feed, house, and take care of all the animals? The obvious problem is over-population, so the answer lies in controlling reproduction.


  2. I've always agreed with Bob Barker on this one - Spay or neuter your pets, people. There are more than enough animals already out there that need help, a home, and love. Adopt! Neil, this was a very difficult column to read. I know that was probably your point, and you did it well, because now I'm actually feeling sick to my stomach.

  3. While this was difficult to read, I know it is reality and sometimes we need to be reminded of reality. A no kill shelter sounds good in theory, but may not work in practice because there are so many unwanted animals. It must have been extremely difficult to tour the facility and witness the conditions. I can relate on a personal note as well. We just recently had my aunt's cat euthanized. Although the cat was old and in poor health and my aunt couldn't adequately care for him anymore,it was an extremely difficult decision for an 87 year old to make. You always wonder if there wasn't something else that could have been done instead.

    Linda B.

  4. Or worse yet, when people were gassed. That puts things in perspective.

    A no kill shelter is not realistic.

  5. This is why I like pets, as long as they're other people's.

    Bitter Scribe

  6. "Like anything repeated over and over again it becomes routine" brings to mind something the Inspector in "Crime and Punishment" says: "Men can get used to anything. The scoundrels."

    I do like calling Alderman Burke "the father of ill-considered ordinances."

    Tom Evans

    1. Also brings to mind The Fixed Period. Now I see why Trollope chose not to use the omniscient narrator that most of his novels have -- he wanted to distance himself as author from the advocacy of euthanasia, at least as sensitive a topic then as now.


    2. Burke also claims to be the city's authority on Chicago history.
      All I'm sure of is that he's the authority on bribes & arrogance.
      Not only is his seat in the council chambers in the wrong place for the 14th Ward, the front row, but he has a door from the council chamber to the aldermanic offices that he & he alone is allowed to use!

  7. I believe "The Fixed Period" was the only one of his forty something novels that didn't sell well enough to cover print costs. Small wonder.


  8. Here's a link to an article by veterinarian Dr. Fox about no-kill shelters in the Washington Post today.


  9. Sorry, that link doesn't work, but the title of the article is "A Closer Examination of No-Kill Shelter Policies is Needed." By Doctor Michael Fox.

  10. This wouldn't work in a city the size of Chicago, but a program in our community captures stray/feral cats, neuters and tags them, then releases them back into the neighborhoods. This wouldn't work for animals from homes abandoned into shelters, but cats that can fend for themselves aren't destroyed.

  11. When we found our cat, a stray, we sat down with him and said, There is a price you must pay to live with us. You must surrender your balls. He considered the alternative and consented.
    We have feral and semi-feral animals in great numbers here on the Big Island of Hawaii: goats and pigs, which get hunted,donkeys which are descendants of the animals brought over to transport coffee, as well as large numbers of feral cats.
    There is a no-kill shelter in one of the villages. The night and day barking, the filth, are not fun. The owners are chronically short of money to buy food for the animals, and the neighbors hate them.
    It's tragic that we bring animals in and abandon them if they don't "work out," a common fate of difficult dogs.
    I do feel sorry for the superfluous animals and the people who have to kill them.

  12. There are no easy answers to this. It is sad, but I guess, unfortunately that's the reality of it.


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