"N.W.," say the papers the wardens fill out when the animals come in: Not Wanted. For most of the dogs and cats brought here, it is a two-letter sentence of death. It is man's last message to man's best friend.
"Euthanasia," says a plaque on the blue door to Room 162. The cats are carried in, sometimes wary, sometimes purring. The dogs are led on a leash down the corridor, some curious, some nervous, past the barking from the adoption kennels.
Just as the staff was arriving on this morning at the Baltimore City Animal Shelter, a little after 8, a man and his teen-age son pulled up in a pickup truck and unloaded the family dog. He was a timid, off-white mix of sheep dog and something indeterminate.
The attendant filled out the form: N.W. There was no elaboration. Six years old, not particularly handsome, not a purebred -- another dog the staff knew had not even an outside shot at adoption.
And so, a couple of hours later, the dog is led into Room 162. Carolyn Machowski strokes his head, talks softly to him, and finds with the blue syringe a vein in the dog's left leg. In a few seconds, the sodium pentobarbital stops the heart and the dog slumps to the tile floor.
He is the second dog destroyed this morning, the first being a mangy, emaciated stray picked up on the street overnight. Six cats and three kittens have already been euthanized, because the cat room is full.
Attendants are carrying in more cats in blue boxes, Not Wanteds and strays fresh off the trucks, to fill the few empty cages.
In the year ending June 30, the city shelter euthanized 5,043 dogs and 6,771 cats. The SPCA on Falls Road put to death another 2,500 unwanted animals. Baltimore County's shelter on Manor Road euthanized 6,255. The Humane Society shelter in Reisterstown killed about another 1,300. Anne Arundel County's two shelters put to death more than 8,000. The list
Maryland's animal shelters destroy about 90,000 dogs and cats a year, according to a survey by Professional Animal Workers of Maryland.
Nationwide, the Humane Society estimates the total at 7.5 million -- which, if accurate, would make the Maryland figure below average.
A small proportion of the animals are old, sick and suffering. But by far the majority are simply unwanted.
Nearly all the bodies are collected by Baltimore's only remaining rendering plant, which adds them to other waste meat and converts it all to poultry and livestock feed supplements, soap and industrial lubricants.
From shelters and vets in metropolitan Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, Valley Proteins picks up 20 tons a week of cats and dogs euthanized or killed on the roads.
"I hate this part of my job," says Ms. Machowski, the veterinary technician supervisor. She simmers with anger as she talks about the scale of euthanasia, which she feels an ignorant and negligent public forces on the shelter and then blames the shelter for carrying out. She says she and her colleagues at other shelters are made to bear the emotional cost of pet overpopulation for the rest of society. "At least once a day," she says, "someone, either on the phone or in person, calls me a killer. If someone has another solution, we'd all be overjoyed to hear it."
What, she asks, is the shelter to do? People casually acquire pets, fail to spay or neuter them, allow them to breed, and dispose casually of the offspring. People keep them while they're cute and dump them when they're inconvenient. It is neither financially feasible nor humane to keep all that are not adopted indefinitely in cages.
"We had a woman," Ms. Machowski says, "who turned in her cat because it didn't match her furniture. She'd bought new furniture and she had a white cat and now she wanted a gray one. So she gave us the white cat, and said, 'I hope you'll find a good home for it.' "
'We'll get another one'
The mathematics of pet reproduction are breathtaking. A dog can go into heat twice a year, a cat three times, and litters of both animals can number as many as 10. At such fecundity, in six years, a single female dog and her offspring can theoretically produce 67,000 dogs, according to the Humane Society; a female cat and her progeny can be the source of 420,000 cats.
Yet many pet owners, for reasons of squeamishness or economy, still fail to spay or neuter their pets.
Men are the worst offenders, says Deborah Thomas, assistant to the president of the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Men especially don't want to have a male dog neutered," says Ms. Thomas. "They say, 'Let 'em do it to the females.' But there really is no excuse."
Everyone who has worked for long at a shelter has a tale of neglect spawned by pet overpopulation.