The euthanizer: Not a sheltered life

Death: Every year, thousands of animals no one wants wind up at Baltimore's animal shelter. It's then up to Carolyn Machowski to end their lives peacefully.

May 21, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Carolyn J. Machowski's fingers brush dangerously close to the maw of a caged, boulder-sized Rottweiler named Zeus.

"Good boy," she says, sticking a finger through the cage to pet Zeus' nose, though there seems nothing good about Zeus' low growl.

Animal control officers had picked up Zeus the previous night after he tore into a neighbor's leg. Machowski met Zeus and a dozen other new arrivals on a recent morning - vagrant dogs, a litter of kittens, a possum caught at Morgan State University - just some of the 10,000-plus visitors to Baltimore City's Animal Shelter each year.

For most, the visit is brief.

Machowski walks past cages full of yapping dogs and sleeping cats, deciding which ones get to spend another night - usually the young ones, the cute ones, the ones with adoptability - and which ones don't.

She makes a mental note of which ones are, sadly, expendable.

Then, before she's had a second cup of coffee, Machowski begins leading the don'ts down the hallway to a quiet room with a high ceiling and a tiled floor, mostly empty except for a folding table with syringes scattered on top.

Euthanasia is Greek for "happy death." And Machowski tries to give her animals a happy, peaceful end. She speaks softly, pets them and whispers kind words in their ears. She is upbeat and playful. "You're a good girl," she might say.

Then she, or her assistant Miriam Winakur, injects what they call the "blue juice" into a vein in a dog's front paw. The sodium pentobarbital - brand name "FatalPlus" - stops the dog's breathing, then its heart.

Then, with another animal, she does it again. And then again.

She tries not to think too much during this part of the day. Just be professional, and careful, she tells herself.

Soon, a dozen or more dogs lie lifeless on the tile floor. This morning, there's a litter of kittens, too. The remains are bagged and stacked in an adjacent freezer to be picked up later by a rendering company.

Some days, Machowski has euthanized 80 animals by lunch. Over 12 years, she's probably helped euthanize more than 100,000. With each one she asks the same questions: Did we do the right thing? Was it better to leave the dog in a bad home? Or to keep it here to face at least a slim chance of adoption?

"It's not so simple," she says. "We have issues."

Machowski's hands and wrists are scarred from the bites and scratches of those that did not willingly accept her needle: "Bites are part of the job. They hurt, but you get over it."

Tougher to get over are those kittens.

"We've euthanized on Christmas Day. Think about what that does to you," she says. "And the bulk of our euthanizations are done first thing in the morning, so that's how we start our day."

Machowski grew up in a Manhattan apartment. Her parents didn't want pets, but she walked many of her neighbors' dogs. When she moved to Maryland, she learned to ride horses and eventually left a retail career to work for her horse's veterinarian in Mount Airy. Then she saw an advertisement for a job with Baltimore's animal shelter, and started in June of 1988.

Machowski recalls the innocence - quickly lost - of her first days working at the shelter, when she was euthanizing dozens of animals each day and thinking: This must be a fluke. Twelve years later, it's no fluke.

"It never stopped," she says. "None of us likes doing it. There's just no other answer. People have a warped idea of animal shelters. This is not meant to be their permanent home."

Baltimore's animal shelter, run by the health department's Bureau of Animal Control, sits on a waterfront lot in the shadows of PSINet Stadium. It has enough kennel space for 175 dogs but usually holds 250 or more. Plans to expand or relocate the shelter have been shelved, year after year.

Last year, the Humane Society report found that the shelter should be handling three times as many animals as it does each year and placing more dogs and cats in adoptive homes. But, the report noted, due to staff shortages, Machowski is responsible for both adoptions and euthanasia.

Bob Anderson, director of animal control, says even if his $1.8 million budget were increased to allow him to hire more workers, it wouldn't eliminate the daily deaths of so many animals. "The shelter is just not big enough," he says.

That means euthanizing will continue at a pace of 10,000 to 12,000 a year. From July 1, 2000, to March 31 this year, the shelter euthanized 8,212.

Nationally, as cities - including Baltimore - argue over how to control vicious dogs, especially pit bulls, the squeamish issue of euthanization has also entered the debate. Yet even the Humane Society sees it as a necessary evil.

"The fact that a shelter has to euthanize is not the fault of the shelter, it's the fault of the community," says Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues at the Humane Society headquarters in Rockville. "Somebody has to take all the animals."

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