The last appeal for animals: It's just another day at the Guilford County Animal Shelter.
The low concrete building looks like a prison. A pit bull sets off a chorus of raucous barking from the kennels out front as a car drives up. The smell of dogs and disinfectant fills the morning air.
Inside, Candy, a silky, white Lhasa apso with big brown eyes, wags her tail in greeting. Smoky, a Great Dane-Labrador mix who stands nearly 3 feet high, pads over and tentatively sticks out his broad head for a pat.It's 8:30 a.m. at the Guilford County Animal Shelter, three hours before the facility opens to the public, but the staff is already hard at work. Kennel manager Ron Rutledge, 43, is overseeing the morning cleanup of the kennels. Shelter assistant Tom Meachum, 27, is bottle-feeding a 3-week-old puppy for whom he's become a foster parent.
And in a treatment room just big enough to provide walking space around the stainless steel table, technicians Cindy Parrott, 27, and Kathy Whitt, 33, are examining a beautiful but thin keeshond-chow mix brought into the shelter overnight by animal control officers. The dog has pneumonia and, even worse, distemper.
Parrott shakes her head as she hands Whitt the bottle of pentobarbital sodium. ``It's always the cute ones,' she mutters.
Parrott puts her arms around the dog, quickly wraps a rope around his muzzle so he doesn't bite her or himself, and holds out the dog's front leg. Parrott strokes the dog and speaks to him gently as Whitt swabs a spot, inserts the needle and injects the blue liquid.
The dog doesn't whimper or cry, and his expression never changes. In a few seconds, he just crumples. This nameless dog is the first of 48 animals that will die today.
Some are ravaged by disease. Some are dangerous. But in many cases, there just isn't room to house them.
Try to save them all, and the kennels become overcrowded and unsanitary breeding grounds for disease. Try to save the sick ones, and you risk the health of the others.
Euthanasia is rational, practical, humane and necessary. But it is a subject in which emotion sometimes overpowers reason.
At various times the shelter has been criticized for giving out for adoption animals with diseases picked up in the overcrowded kennels. It's also been criticized for euthanizing so many animals so quickly.
``You take a lot of abuse from animals and people,' acknowledges shelter director Dr. Christine Hunt. ``Working here is physically and mentally grueling.'
The shelter is the court of last appeal for animals. And every hour of every day, these workers have to decide which ones live and which ones die.
``You go up and down all day, emotionally,' Whitt says. ``It never gets easy. You have to look at the ones you save. The ones that get adopted by nice people.'
Whitt and Parrott begin the day's evaluations, doing lab tests and treatments on candidates for adoption. Parrott nuzzles a terrier mix puppy who's getting his first shots and de-worming. He licks her nose and she laughs, holding him close to her throat. ``Oh, the wonderful smell of puppy breath in the morning,' she coos.
Parrott has adopted three dogs from the shelter. Getting attached to the animals is something that happens to all the staff members.
``I don't even tell some people where I work,' Parrott says. ``When people hear 'animal shelter,' they say, 'you kill puppies.' They don't understand that you care about animals. That's what keeps you going.'
Next up is a cat they call Nosey, a black-and-white kitten with a black streak right down her nose. She hasn't been eating well and has diarrhea. Hunt takes a stool sample to the kitchen, which doubles as a lab, and peers at a smear through the microscope. There's no evidence of disease, other than a fever. But that can be a death sentence at the overcrowded shelter.
``A temperature usually indicates they're incubating some kind of disease,' Hunt explains.
Because of her engaging looks and personality, Nosey gets a reprieve. Each staff member has the power to commute a death sentence, Hunt says. But the staff can't save them all.
Some 12,500 animals were brought to the shelter last year. One thousand were reclaimed by their owners, and 1,500 were adopted. At most, the shelter can accommodate 150 animals at a time.
The rest will die.
Around 10 a.m., Bennie Felton and Tom Meachum prepare for the morning euthanasia of dogs whose time has run out. Meachum holds a trembling spaniel while Felton gives the injection. The dog collapses, and Meachum lays it gently to one side. Another spaniel, two chows, several mutts. The more you see it, the worse it gets.
``You don't ever get used to it,' Meachum says. ``But some come in, and you're glad you can do it.'
He pulls back the tarp that covers animals euthanized yesterday to show the corpse of a dog with a raw trench around its neck almost an inch deep. ``That's where the owner let the collar grow into his neck,' Meachum says. ``I've never seen one that bad.'
The shelter opens to the public at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays, and the cars start pouring in immediately. There's a college student with a Siamese that he took in two months ago but can't afford to keep.
Like everyone else who brings in an animal, he's given a surrender card to read and sign. It explains that chronically overcrowded conditions at the shelter require strict guidelines on which animals are put up for adoption.
If an animal has any sign of infectious disease, is underweight, aggressive, overly shy or duplicates breeds already available for adoption, it likely will be euthanized.
Some days, there's a steady flow of animal surrenders, and some pets will die before the former owner is out of the parking lot.
Others bring pets that need to be euthanized because of age or disease. Loudelia Lovingood, 74, leads in Lady Huffling, her daughter's old beagle.
``My daughter and son-in-law are just heartbroken,' Lovingood says. ``They took her for a walk last night to say goodbye, and I said I'd bring her in. They couldn't take it.'
Linda and Chris Hakala have come to adopt a pair of kittens. They take their time, playing with the kittens through the bars of the cage, then taking out their favorites one by one.
``This one will be the cuddler,' Linda Hakala says. ``We chose the other one because he pitched a fit when we put him back in the cage.'
Kittens and puppies have the best chance at adoption. Adult animals are generally more difficult to place. But age is sometimes secondary to breed. Dolly Ford, 39, was immediately charmed when she saw a fox terrier.
``My mother used to raise Chihuahuas and terriers,' Ford says, as children Christopher, 9, and Nancy, 17, trade opinions on what the newly named Spuds would like to do when they get home. ``The only problem will be deciding whose dog he really is.'
At the counter, Kathleen Swaim, 30, of High Point, rests her cheek on the edge of a cardboard box. Tears roll silently down her face as she strokes the soft, caramel-colored puppies inside.
``I hate to give them up,' says her husband Brad, 34. ``But our kitchen is a mess.'
They meant to have their shepherd spayed, but a neighborhood dog got to her first, Swaim says. Of the seven puppies, they're keeping one and found homes for three.
``Somebody's going to want these puppies,' Brad Swaim assures his wife. But the tears continue to fall.
``I can't help it,' she says. ``They're my babies.'
As the Swaims move away, Tom Hawk of High Point comes through the door, leash in hand.
``You've got my dog,' he says. ``He found a hole in the fence I didn't know about.'
Zeke is a golden retriever with a wandering streak. Hawk realized he was missing almost immediately and followed the animal control truck around all morning. Hawk is fairly jittering with eagerness to reclaim his best friend.
``He's pretty special to me,' Hawk says.
Animal control officers bring in strays throughout the day. Strays are kept a minimum of three days. If still unclaimed after that, the animal is evaluated as to health and disposition. The best of the bunch are kept and prepared for adoption.
``Some animals we just can't salvage because they had a poor start,' Hunt says. ``They were put on chains or not touched very much or not taken care of.'
Edwina King, 29, of High Point, brings in three tiny kittens in a flowerpot. They claw at the sides, mewing madly. Their fur is wet, and mucus has collected around their eyes and noses.
``I almost ran over them,' King says. ``I'd like to get my hands on the people who put them out.'
Ron Rutledge knows before they make it over the counter they'll have to be euthanized. The discharge indicates an upper respiratory infection.
Kam Biggs, 29, is making her fifth visit to the animal shelter in search of a small-breed puppy for Brennan, 3, and Blaine, 6. Brennan sticks her pudgy fingers through the cage and is rewarded with a lick.
``She wants a pet so bad,' Kam Biggs explains. ``She loves animals. I find her in the tub with frogs she's brought in from outside.'
Rutledge opens the cage so the children can get to know the three puppies. Brennan likes the feisty one, while Blaine is drawn to one of the quieter pups. But eventually the choice is made, and both children contribute to the name: Holly Babe. Holly because it's a female and Babe for Babe Ruth (Blaine is a baseball fan).
Blaine sits on a chair with Holly in her lap while her mother fills out the paperwork, and holds one tiny paw. ``Feel his little hand,' she whispers. ``It's soft.'
Rutledge smiles as he watches them go. They'll make a good home for the puppy, he says.
Sometimes he isn't so sure. The shelter doesn't give animals to anyone who's ever been convicted of animal cruelty.
But responsible pet ownership goes beyond kindness. To Rutledge, it also means proper health care for the animal and making sure it doesn't indiscriminately reproduce, giving birth to unwanted animals.
People adopting an animal from the shelter must agree to have it spayed or neutered. Anyone who has a problem with that should take a walk out back, where mass euthanasias are done, Rutledge says quietly. They should see what the animal control officer brings in late in this afternoon.
There are 14 kittens, probably from three different litters. Some are newborn, some are older, but all are sick or starving. Some have deformities and birth defects. Rutledge hands them to Parrott one by one, and she injects the blue fluid into their abdomens. Their veins are too tiny for the needle.
Afterward, Parrott lights a cigarette and takes a long, slow drag. With every injection, her smile has died just a little. By the end of the day, it's almost gone. She looks at Nosey, who's now bouncing around his cage, and a ghost of a smile flashes across her tired face.
``You gotta make choices,' she says. ``We're playing God.'