Volunteering at a high kill inner city shelter takes its toll. There's the smell, which even after a shower you can't seem to get out of your nose; the noise, which you hear long after you leave, and the endless pain of watching the dogs-dogs you have fallen in love with at first sight-getting sick with kennel cough within three days and then euthanized for something that could be treated with a quick round of antibiotics. It will keep you up at night, knowing that your shelter can't afford sedatives, so the dog is being muzzled, given a shot to stop their heart, and then walked across the room to the freezer as far as they can go before they die because the vet tech-who wears a back brace-can't carry all those bodies, one after the other, any further than he has to.
What also haunts so many of us is the knowledge that the dogs aren't the only ones suffering. There are the owners who have left them behind.
When I first began volunteering, I would feel frustration with people who relinquished their dogs. I needed to put my anger somewhere, anger that grew as I comforted these crying, shaking dogs in my lap, and it was easy to imagine that these owners had not exhausted all their options. My fellow volunteers and I spent hours trying and often failing to emergently find their former dogs new homes, writing biographies for them based on their intake information ("Buddy has lived with cats and dogs and kids! He's housetrained!") only to walk them to the euthanasia room the next morning. When I would meet people relinquishing their dogs outside the shelter and say, "Have you explored all your options? You know this is a high kill shelter, right?" They would often shrug. It would take years until I understood my unintended arrogance and the kindness of their leaving it at a shrug.
One afternoon, I saw a young man walking out of the shelter, still holding the chain link collar and leash he had used for his dog, falling against the wall and sliding down until he was sitting on the sidewalk, sobbing. Here we were, all people who had the ability to volunteer at a shelter because we had jobs that allowed us free time to donate. People who could call a lawyer if our landlords got ornery about our pets. We didn't know that the ASPCA , which is a no kill shelter, routinely won't take pit bulls. We didn't think that there might not be friends in some bucolic place who could take these dogs for a day, a week, until they figured it out. At the intake desk, we scanned the information they had left about their dog so quickly we saw only the facts that might help us write their biographies to post that night online. We didn't pause to think that Buddy had lived with their cats, their dogs, their children. They had done the housetraining. They indeed knew their dogs' odds of making it out of the shelter were slim. And they were out of options.
I have adopted several pit bulls off of this shelter's euthanasia list, and several years ago my family and I started looking for a new apartment. We don't rely on public housing; we had the luxury of time and hiring a broker. Yet broker after broker quit as he or she came up against breed restrictions at every apartment they found. Wouldn't we consider giving up our pit bull? No. Because we didn't have to.
[Rescue Charlie and his girl, Haven.]