Words by Matthew Merchant
Illustration by Samantha Nold

I didn’t want to put the gloves on. It would be the last step in preparing for the euthanasia process, the smooth latex gloves acting as a barrier between my hands and the cat on the operating table.

I forced myself to turn and look at her: Matted gray fur grew along her neck and back and the skin around her Siamese-blue eyes was swollen red. She let out a pitiful meow, a cry for help. I knew it was pointless to put this moment off, so I slipped my hands into the gloves.

For weeks I had carefully bathed her inflamed skin with a soapy washrag, held her in my arms to comfort her and fed her special food when she refused to eat. For weeks she had slowly recovered from an unknown skin illness; she went from having no hair at all to having nearly a full coat. For weeks I had fought to keep her alive, arguing with my co-workers and the shelter manager.

Now, as a tear dropped to my gloved hand, I knew she was going to die.

Everyone has a number. Mine is 12. Twelve animals I have helped euthanize. I told myself after the first I wouldn’t keep track, like some sick joke you laugh at when, in reality, you know it’s inevitable. Twelve times I’ve watched the blue barbiturate liquid inject into the veins of shelter animals, felt their hearts stop beating. Never was I forced to help with the process. I chose to participate with the mindset that my presence would somehow be comforting to the animals that knew my face, my scent and my voice.

When people found out I worked at an animal shelter, their first response was usually to let out an “aw” sound, cock their head to the side and mutter something like, “That’s so cool that you do that.” To the public, animal shelters are great places for rescued animals, places where loving people give hope to creatures with none and where they have a chance to find new homes.

I don’t deny that the shelter I worked at did these things. The mission of the shelter was to care for the sick and injured animals that came into its custody, to determine if they were adoptable and eventually to find people who would care for and love them in the long run. It was not a “no kill” facility but a “limited access, unlimited stay” shelter—we could select which animals were accepted into the shelter. The semantics of the shelter philosophy statement were something I took issue with personally because it left a gray area for interpretation when it came to defining quality of life within the shelter. Either way, the staff working at the shelter did its best to act in the best interest of the animals.

Decisions are made behind closed doors that determine whether an animal is beyond hope of recovery, whether an animal has a chance to be adopted into a responsible family and whether or not an animal will live or die.

However, working with shelter animals is not as glamorous as it might seem. Decisions are made behind closed doors that determine whether an animal is beyond hope of recovery, whether an animal has a chance to be adopted into a responsible family and whether or not an animal will live or die. They are neither decisions taken lightly nor decisions easy to enforce.

I started at the shelter as a volunteer in 2012. Growing up in Portage County, I had always wanted to work there because I had adopted my own dog from the shelter as a child. The day we picked him out from the litter I remember telling my mother I would work at a shelter when I was older. The idea of working with animals captivated me: I envisioned working at the Cleveland Zoo, or with exotic animals—the circus even, to tame lions.

What I didn’t know then was that most animal care consists of inglorious tasks: cleaning cages and kennels, removing feces from litter pans, vaccinating for diseases and educating the public on animal rights and safe health habits. More than a decade later, I found myself being hired at the same shelter I had dreamed of working as a child. The job was just a job at first—I worked for the money. However, my attitude shifted as I became more involved with the cat department and I witnessed the inner workings of a shelter environment.

The day I met the Siamese cat with patchy gray fur, my boss, the shelter manager, wanted to euthanize her immediately. Her fur looked like it had been melted by a blowtorch, and you could see her ribcage under the matted skin of her chest. I knew from a year of experience working at the shelter that she was going to be a difficult case. It was by far not the worst case, but bad enough. A visiting veterinarian told us she would need to be handled with care but we somehow knew that she was going to be a fighter, so we kept her and gave her a chance. The staff named her Mulan, a twist on her Siamese breed and the Disney character.

Cats and dogs come and go at shelters but, unfortunately, most animals that come in through the doors are in poor health and leave only in body bags. It’s the nature of the system: the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, estimates animal shelters in the U.S. handle 6 to 8 million animals each year and that roughly 4 million of those animals are euthanized. That also means roughly fewer than 2 million find homes and new life with loving families. Despite our desire to help, they cannot all be saved.

Marketing and advertising for shelter animals can also be difficult. Raising awareness of animal rights and shelter needs to establish the line between genuine pleas for much-needed resources and emotionally charged, Sarah McLachlan-esque advertisements. Many animals are put to sleep because there are simply not enough resources to care for them in the long run, especially if their health is poor or they’ve been caged too long. At some shelters the mindset is that it’s better to die humanely than stay cooped up for years. The term euthanasia is symbolic of this: it means “good death” in Greek.

Staff members at animal shelters have the position of living in two worlds: The face we have behind closed doors that the public doesn’t see, the one that sees maggots and lice living in the fur of feral animals, along with the broken and bloody limbs of those hit by vehicles; and another face, the friendly, upbeat public face of the shelter when dealing with potential adopters. Expressing the sometimes-harsh reality of animal shelter environments to eternally optimistic adopters is all but impossible. Explaining a “good death” does not bring about the most positive emotions. So we keep that reality hidden in the back rooms.

Expressing the sometimes-harsh reality of animal shelter environments to eternally optimistic adopters is all but impossible. Explaining a “good death” does not bring about the most positive emotions.

Mulan is symbolic for me of the other animals that were euthanatized under my watch. During the summer of 2013, I became the cat associate at the shelter when the previous associate left for maternity leave. Day after day I found myself in charge of the health and wellness of more than 140 cats. Because we were understaffed, I had to keep track of the paperwork for each animal, maintain the health records, clean a portion of the shelter cages and then face the public when dealing with adoptions.

Every day I struggled to maintain a positive attitude. Knowing I would go to work and have to see the animals I was in charge of looking at me through cage bars drove me to work harder to find them homes. I would go home after stressful days and sit with my own cats, some adopted from the shelter. Spending time with animals whose lives I had saved was
comforting.

There is a phrase I heard of often at work, and it goes back to the philosophy. It’s “quality of life.” For me, it strikes a nerve because it is subjective and open to interpretation. I have studied human rights violations in class as a student at Kent State, volunteered at homeless shelters like Haven of Rest and soup kitchens like Center of Hope, even visited hospitals for ill family members more often than I would have liked to. I have seen life struggling to survive, if only from a distance. I can, and do, empathize with situations and individuals, even animals, because I have been exposed to and educated about the harsh realities life can present. Sometimes that reality is up close and very real. Some quality of life is most always better than no quality of life.

I left my employment at the shelter because I felt a moral obligation to leave. If I could not save even a few animals from even a good death, how would I save them from the death of being labeled hopeless? The eyes of those animals behind cold cage bars got to me in the end. I did not leave angry. I did leave feeling defeated, having failed a personal goal of never giving up. Since that time, photos of animals in cages, and talk of adoption agencies and charities, bring about memories of lessons I learned the hard way: how to confront adversity and how to move on to things that capture my passions.

Standing in the lab room of the shelter that day with Mulan, I looked at my boss. I practically begged for more time. More time. Is that not what everyone wants? I also found myself realizing part of my humanity: Despite how much I try, I cannot save everyone. Does that make it hopeless to try? Earlier that morning, a loving family adopted a cat that had been at the shelter for months. Why was Mulan not being given that chance?

The realization that I couldn’t save her sank in as my boss shrugged off my pleading words and Mulan’s pitiful cries. The gloves were on, but as the needle pricked her vein, I had to put on the back room face: The face that sees the hard decisions, the face that knows the world is much harsher outside that small lab room, the face that cringes when someone says how great it must be to work at an animal shelter.