Got your attention, right? There’s probably some journalistic name for that. Tag line, or something? What the hell do I know. I’m not a journalist. Although that would kind of be an awesome job. But only if I could say “I’m with the press” a lot, and if I got to wear a fedora.
I worked at a humane society for two years in my twenties, and, among other things, one of my duties was putting animals to sleep. I think this may have led to my jaded worldview. It’s hard to be all unicorns and rainbows when you have to give ten perfectly good dogs a shot that puts them permanently to sleep and they die in your arms, and then you have to move on to culling out the cats.
If you say this to someone, they look at you like you're a Nazi. They get big, scared eyes, like you might be concealing a death syringe in your blouse. They say, "how could you KILL the BABY ANIMALS?" I didn't slaughter them with a chainsaw or a club. I put them to sleep, quickly and humanely, so there was room for other animals in the cages. It was not something I enjoyed. I can honestly say there wasn't an employee there who was twisted enough to enjoy that part of the job. The main reason I had to do this? Because dumbasses kept either abandoning or not spaying their pets, and because people would rather adopt an inbred puppy-mill mall pet than an awesome shelter rescue.
Surprisingly enough, I loved working there. I got to work with animals, was the main reason. Yes, I had to put them down – sometimes daily, sometimes weekly – but I also got to play with them every day, and adopt them out to good homes, and reunite lost pets with their owners, so that was enjoyable.
I started out as a kennel employee and worked my way up – well, that’s really not the case, it wasn’t my can-do attitude that did it, it was the fact that people with more seniority quit – to front desk over the course of my employment. Each position had its pros and cons.
Kennel employee. Pros: more contact with the animals. More time to loaf around and chat with fellow employees. Cons: more “blue room” duty (that was the name of the room where we put the animals down – the whole room was, for some reason I never was able to ascertain, painted blue. Hence the name.) More cleaning of poo.
Sidebar. Poo. Oh, the poo. SO MUCH POO. The animals weren’t often in the best shape when they came to us. We were the only shelter in the county, so we got all of the animals – sick, healthy, stray, what-have-you – and often, the animals weren’t well. And this led to messes. Which we had to clean up constantly with hoses. And I was often covered with poo, so I’d have to hose myself off. Yes, I know. Glamorous! You didn’t really bother so much with “looking nice” when you went to work there because what was the point? There would just be poo, later. Poo everywhere.
Front desk employee. Pros: less poo. More time to sit and relax and read. More errand-running. More time to chat with the payroll clerk, who I really enjoyed talking to but who only worked in the front desk area. Cons: more chances to get bitten by animals who were freaked out by getting checked in by their owners (you’d think it would be the other way around, but I actually got bitten more as a front-desk employee than as a kennel worker.) More interaction with the public, who were 60% assholes and 40% nice.
I also got to have a gigantic bunch of keys, like a prison warden, so that was kind of impressive. I'm pretty sure this cements my total badassery for all time.
The people who came into the shelter could be broken into the following:
People who wanted to adopt, and were lovely, and left happy.
People who lost their pet and were despondent and nice and I felt bad we didn’t have it.
People who lost their pet and were angry, as if it was our fault we didn’t have it.
People who lost their pet and were there to pick it up and were happy we’d found it.
People who lost their pet and were there to pick it up and were furious they had to pay to get it back.
People who wanted to volunteer and were nice about it.
People who wanted to volunteer but had a hidden agenda, like condemning us for being a “kill” shelter.
People who were crazy. (Cat lady on The Simpsons? Pretty sure modeled after a shelter customer we had.)
Very stupid people who asked for things like "baby kittens - like, one week old? These are TOO OLD."
The nice people were outnumbered by the jerky ones, who were always there. They wanted to yell at us for killing animals (but they didn’t want to take any off our hands to alleviate the overcrowding that caused us to have to put animals down in the first place.) They wanted to harass us for charging them money for things like licenses and shots and adoption fees. They wanted to adopt pit bulls to fight them and they didn’t want to get them fixed, which was mandatory at our shelter, and when we refused on both grounds, they wanted to fight us about it. (Seriously. One guy asked me if I wanted to “take this outside.” Um, not really? What are you going to do, sic one of your other dogs on me?)
We had a handful of people who stole animals right out of their cages and ran out the back door with them – their own pets, because they couldn’t afford to get them back, or animals they wanted to adopt. We ended up having to lock the animals in their cages, it got so prevalent. We had a woman who did a super-secret “expose” about the shelter and our practices and put it in the paper and THAT brought the kumbaya people out of the woodwork for almost a month. (There was nothing wrong with the shelter or our practices. We had to accept every animal that came in the door. Because of that, we had to put animals down. We had a finite number of cages. There is nothing confusing about this. We treated the animals well, we were kind to them, and ask anyone who works at a shelter where there is overcrowding, euthanization is a sad, but necessary, fact.)
There were exciting moments. One year, there was a rabid skunk outbreak in the county, so the animal control officers had to set up skunk traps all over the county and bring us skunks, which we then had to put down with a syringe attached to a long pole and send off to be tested. At least once a day, one of my coworkers would come in, all, “Have to go home, got sprayed” and we’d be a man down as they tomato-bathed the smell away (it never completely went away.) Once someone brought us a buzzard they found by the side of the road and I got to feed it hamburger meat. Once we got to take care of a horse. Once we got to pull porcupine quills out of a doped-up dog who kept trying to bite us but was so drugged he was moving as slow as a sloth so we could avoid his slow, slow jaws. We also had, over the course of my employment, chickens, rabbits, ferrets, snakes, birds, fish, and raccoons.
We had court-case dogs on lockdown in a back room – dogs that were being held while their fate was decided by a judge. We’d have them for anywhere from ten days to almost a year. We all fell in love with a German shepherd who’d killed a goat and were all rooting for him, until the court ruled in favor of his destruction. All of the shelter employees, who’d been taking care of him for the better part of eight months, crowded around him as we gave him his shot, and all five of us, who, just to look at us, were kind of badasses, bawled our eyes out.
Another dog being held was a lab-pit mix with amber eyes. He was the most beautiful dog. And protective, and sweet, and very intelligent. Unfortunately, his protective side had led him to bite someone, who was suing to get him destroyed. One of my coworkers – a quiet, tough guy with tattoos and a shaved head – loved that dog. When the order came to destroy him, he said he’d do it himself, and brought him into the room. My heart hurt. When, a couple weeks later, that same coworker showed up at work with his new dog – a lab-pit mix with amber eyes, but now, a different name - our eyes met. We never discussed it again. As far as I was concerned, it was a different dog. A different, loving, protective, sweet, intelligent dog, who acted like he’d known me for the better part of a year.
I was bitten a number of times, but never badly. Only on the hand, and only by cats. Cats are mean! Dogs telegraph when they’re going to bite, usually. Cats are snake-quick and have sharp little teeth. When we got bitten, we had to go to the free clinic for antibiotics. It got to the point where they knew all of the shelter employees by name over there. I was on antibiotics more than I wasn’t. One of the hazards of the job, I guess.
People were also a joy in that they’d do things like leave boxes of tiny kittens outside our door in the middle of a winter night so that when we came in in the morning, we’d have a box of dead kittens to deal with. Thanks! Apparently the “Humane” part of the name escaped you when you decided this was a good idea. We also got a dog someone had shot in the head and left for dead – somehow he’d survived, and a very nice family adopted him – a dog someone had set on fire who needed skin grafts, and a number of cats people threw out of the window of their car at the shelter building and just peeled out of the lot. Just in case you think the human race is on an upswing, go work at an animal shelter for a few days.
Also, in case you think this was a totally glamorous and high-paying gig? Minimum wage, 10 hour days, no two days off in a row until you had seniority (it took me almost two years to get the seniority to get the two consecutive days off, and then I moved to another state, which meant giving up my plum time-off position, dammit), no sick time, and vacation time only after you'd worked there a year (and it was up to the discretion of the director if you could take it or not, or when you could take it, after that.) None of us were there for the glamour, I can assure you.
So yes, I’m an advocate for adopting your pets, not buying them from a puppy mill. I’m an advocate for spaying and neutering. I donate to animal-related charities. I still go all smooshy when I see a big, tough pit bull being walked down the street (contrary to popular belief? They are honestly very, very sweet. We had more chow and small yappy-dog bite cases over the years than pits.) I am fantastic with animals, but I also know the dark side of it all. I’m very practical about it. Chalk it up to skills I have, but hope to never have to use again: I can tell how old a cat is by looking at its teeth; I'm not easily grossed-out by some of the nastier messes an animal can produce; I can tell you what sex your kitten is with a quick peek; and I used to kill animals for a living.