Hardest part of animal lovers' job

2 `compassionate' women euthanize at shelter

February 21, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The orange cat in the back of the holding room at the Anne Arundel County Animal Control facility meows loudly from her small carrier cage.

"I know, I know," says technician Cheryl Shiflett, trying to shush her as she attends to a blind kitten nearby.

Shiflett and her co-worker, Yvonne Hall, spend a few minutes comforting sick animals in the room before they turn their attention to the meowing cat.

The animal has not been adopted. There's nothing else to do. Shiflett carries its cage into the euthanasia room.

As Anne Arundel County's two Animal Control technicians, Hall and Shiflett have a difficult job - especially for a pair of animal lovers. Dogs and cats that the women hold Tuesday often are the same animals they put to sleep Thursday.

About 4,000 of the 11,000 animals admitted to the shelter each year are adopted, returned to their owners or sent to another animal organization. Mother cats and dogs are kept until they are adopted.

But Hall and Shiflett have become known throughout the county for their kindness to animals who aren't so lucky, and to people saying goodbye to a beloved family pet.

It's not uncommon to see one of them humming a lullaby and rocking a cat like a baby as it slips into unconsciousness. They follow up with sympathy cards to those who have had their pets euthanized.

Local residents appreciate the gestures. Framed thank-you cards and letters cover one side of the training room, and co-workers believe their thoughtfulness has led to the steady increase in the number of people who are choosing to have their pets put to sleep at Animal Control rather than at a veterinarian's office.

"These two ladies are the best at what they do," says Tahira S. Thomas, director of Animal Control. "They are in the right frame of mind to help people follow through with one of the most difficult decisions they will ever have to make."

Snowball, a white 12-year-old terrier mix, was dying - probably from liver disease - and her owner, John White of Linthicum, wasn't quite sure what to do.

Unable to watch her suffer any longer, White decided he needed to have the dog, whom his family rescued as a pup from the side of a road, put to sleep.

It wasn't a simple choice. An earlier experience at a local vet's office, during which Henry, his black Lab, gasped for air for several minutes before dying, had left him disturbed about the process of euthanasia.

"You can tell when you look in your dog's eyes what he is feeling," he says. "He suffered."

Shiflett and Hall promised to sedate Snowball at no extra charge before putting her to sleep. Living on what White calls a "very limited income," the $60 fee that local vets were asking was out of the question. So he turned to the county Animal Control office, which charges $5.

The women set up the euthanasia room and then gave White a few moments alone with Snowball.

Then, White stood beside his pet as the technicians injected her first with a sedative and later with a chemical that stopped her breathing and her heartbeat.

"They did everything in the world they could to make the dog as comfortable as could be," White says. "The two ladies at the Anne Arundel shelter are the most compassionate anyone I know has ever dealt with in this situation."

The women, both 39, say they try to treat all animals the way they would want their pets treated - and there's no shortage of animals between the two of them.

Hall ticks off a list of at least a dozen pets, including a horse, three cats, three turtles and an African dwarf frog named Pellet.

Shiflett says she has "one cat, one dog, and one husband I love very much who would not be happy with any more animals."

Most of their pets came from the cages of Animal Control.

"There are some who you just look at and fall in love," Shiflett says. "It breaks your heart when they're put to sleep - any of them."

Hall, a former insurance saleswoman, started working on a part-time basis about eight years ago. Shiflett, who previously worked at a dog kennel, began cleaning kennels for the agency four years ago.

They spend eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, examining incoming strays, caring for those that have made Animal Control a semipermanent home and euthanizing the strays that have little or no chance of adoption.

Back in the holding room, the meowing orange cat looks - and sounds - healthy, but she has just a few minutes left. Shiflett says she arrived at Animal Control about a week earlier, when her elderly owner was admitted to a nursing home. No one wanted to adopt the aging cat.

By law, Animal Control must hold animals at least five days, but, agency director Thomas says, "We don't go by that at all."

"It's not like we're looking at a clock waiting for the fifth day," Thomas says.

The average stay, she says, is nine days, but some animals stay weeks, even months, depending on how crowded the shelter is.

"Putting an animal to sleep is the last thing we want to have to do," Thomas says.

Hall and Shiflett take the orange cat into the "euth room," where the walls are painted a sunny yellow with white clouds splotched on top.

"It's going to be OK," Hall repeats.

As the meows grow softer, the pair ready the room for the next animal. They don't linger - with hundreds of other cats and dogs to care for, there is never much time for reflection.

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