Opening the steel door brings a rush of cold air, the sound of blasting fans, and the dull smell of animal hair. The room offers no exceptional sights: just three large white bins against one wall and three large blue bins against the other, a couple black metal shelves, and plastic bags in the bins and on the shelves, all in dim lighting and frigid temperatures. These bags hold dead animals.
Nationwide, six to eight million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year, estimates the Humane Society of the United States. Half of them are killed. New York City’s largest shelter is the Center for Animal Care and Control. The non-profit agency is contracted by the city to take in strays and lost pets, and find home for cats and dogs and a few rabbits. Of the nearly 40,000 cats and dogs brought to the center between September 2006 and August 2007, more than half were adopted. But during the same span 16,000 plus cats and dogs had to be killed. About 110,000 have died by lethal injection since the end of 2002. For these condemned animals, the freezer is their way out.
It is both easy and hard to end up in the freezer, and everyday the staff must choose new residents. Animal Care and Control receives stray animals found by the police, and their own staff also does pick ups from homes and the streets. All animals have a 72-hour grace period from their arrival in the shelter before they are eligible for the euthanasia list, giving their owners a chance to reclaim them. After those three days, an animal can be put down for a variety of reasons. Behavior problems are a cause for selection, as is disease. Sometimes the center just doesn’t have enough room. Even pregnant animals aren’t spared. For healthy, adoptable animals, Animal Care and Control will contact its network of adoption outlets and make one final attempt to get the dog or cat a home.
The 110th Street animal shelter has a veterinary clinic in the back, where the staff performs the euthanasia. The room is maybe twelve by twelve feet with a metal medical table in the middle. Medicine cabinets line one wall, above a counter with clear glass bottles of wooden tongue depressors, white bandages and cotton balls, like at any doctors office. Even with the doors closed, barks and meows penetrate the walls.
Animals are brought in one by one. The cats come in metal cages called Tomahawks that have thin bars running vertically and horizontally, and the top can be opened. The dogs come in on rope leashes. On a bright but chilly Tuesday, Tabitha Rosario, 25, a veterinary technician who has been at the center for two years, has been assigned to put down the animals. Some days this can mean two animals. Once she dealt with 51. The day’s list has 15. Most of group has medical problems, and that’s why they’re here. Rosario wears a yellow disposable smock over her clothes and does her work effortlessly with the help of Charlie Brown, 62, who has been with the center for 13 years.
Rosario does not wear gloves so that she can find the veins in the animals’ legs. The center uses a solution called Fatal Plus, a blue-colored liquid that is mostly pentobarbital sodium, which the Humane Society recommends for putting down animals. The general rule is one cc per 10 pounds, though the staff usually gives a bit more. Most cats get two ccs and the much larger dogs get 10 ccs.
Brown first scans the animal for a chip, to see if it has an owner, then calls out the cat or dog’s animal number, or A number. Rosario checks the facts about the animal in the computer against the animal she sees in front of her. Then Brown holds down the cat or dog while Rosario injects the Fatal Plus, usually into a vein in the hind leg for cats and front leg for dogs. Some of the cats meow as the needle breaks the skin, but most are quiet. With the dogs, Rosario will kneel on one knee and say in the most gentle voice, “That’s a good dog, such a good boy” while administering the blue solution. Most animals slump over immediately or lie quietly. Some of the cats call out a bit more.
In less than twenty seconds the staff can check if the animal is dead. Rosario first uses a stethoscope to check the heartbeat, then taps the tear duct or eye of the animal to see if there’s a reaction. Lastly she opens the animal’s mouth and looks at the underside of the tongue, which should be turning purple already as the blood drains.
Some animals resist their fate. A black striped gray cat named Logan clawed and screeched at Rosario when she stuck the needle in his leg. So he received his injection intraperitoneal, where the shot is applied to the section below the stomach region. Logan was put back in his cage and left on the floor of the adjoining room, where he flung himself against the metal bars and tried to push out through the top, and meowed and shrieked while rattling the metal against the concrete floor until he died a few minutes later, his head leaning against one side of the cage, his tongue extended. He had come in on the first of November and had behavioral problems.
The dead cats and dogs go into black plastic bags slung on each side of a large bin. Brown is not nimble with the carcasses. He grabs the cats behind the neck and supports them on the bottom when he throws them away. Brown and Rosario cart off the much heavier dogs together, each holding two legs. Today’s list included mostly cats, American shorthairs, and also a shih tzu and a couple of bulldogs. They pile together, eyes still open, not looking dead except they don’t move. The bags are thick enough to shield their content, revealing no shape or smell. Red bags carry animals with rabies or that had bitten people.
Rosario remembers her first euthanization: a one-week old kitten, which was sick. “It looks like it’s easy but it’s not,” Rosario said. “Nobody likes to do it.”
The number of animals killed has fallen in recent years. In a twelve-month period from 2002 to 2003, Animal Care and Control euthanized 27,999 cats and dogs. Each year since the number has fallen as adoption numbers have risen. Pedro Rosario, 34, director of the 110th Street center, who is not related to Tabitha Rosario, remembers a few years ago when many more animals where put down. “It was almost like a 100 a day,” Pedro Rosario said. “Everything was packed to the top. The crematory used to pick up 10 bins a week.” Brown said that before the dead animals went straight into the bins, in plain sight instead of wrapped in bags.
At the Upper East Side center, the animals are picked up twice a week by the Pet Crematory Agency, a private crematorium in Long Island. They come every Tuesday and Thursday, carrying away about 50 animals each time, said Pedro Rosario. The crematory agency comes early in the morning, before the center opens to the public, to empty the bins and take them back to Long Island.
The Pet Crematory Agency has two machines that can consume 50 or 60 bags of animals at a time, every two hours, depending on the size of the animals, according to an agency employee who wished to be identified only as Steve. The crematory burns the animals from Animal Care and Control as a group, in their bags, for sanitation purposes. The remains are put in a dumpster marked for the local incinerator.
Asked if he had seen any of the cremations, Pedro Rosario said no. “It’s hard as it is,” Pedro Rosario said. “Can you imagine seeing them get burned too?”