Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Fighting for the underdog

In IDS on February 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm

The IDS produced a very newsy paper today, and I’ll be covering the paper’s reaction to this week’s merger news in the coming week.

But Ms. Katie Mettler’s beautiful, engaging profile of a woman who euthanizes animals is the real standout of the day.



Photo by Mark Felix, Design by Matt Callahan

The City of Bloomington Animal Shelter is a place where the specter of death lingers daily, but it’s still full of life.

Dogs are always barking, cats are always meowing and unwanted animals are always scuffling through the front door. Employees clean kennels, walk dogs, pamper cats, vaccinate the sick and feed the hungry. They give every animal that comes through the door a name and engage them in one-sided conversation. They fall in love.

And then, sometimes, they have to kill them anyway.

Illness, overcrowding and bad behavior make euthanasia a necessity, one used for safety and health control.

“There’s no time period where we say, ‘you’ve had so many days,’” Herr said. “We don’t do that here.”

Unless they exhibit dangerous behavior or regress in some way, the animals can stay. Sometimes otherwise friendly animals deteriorate while they’re at the shelter, developing bad habits and destructive behavior, a result of living between concrete blocks and constantly competing for attention. The animals interact with staffers and volunteers, but the shelter isn’t meant to be a permanent home.

Shelter animals don’t have a shelf life anymore, but they used to.

Herr remembers a day during her first year at the shelter in 2008 when they euthanized 27 cats and 10 dogs.

Katie has done some damn good work here and it’s worth taking a look at just how she was able to pull off what she did.

Let’s look at this transition:

She could save Roxy, adopt her and bring her back home. She and her husband had the room. But she never intended to adopt Roxy, and they wanted children one day. Could Roxy handle a curious baby?

Herr woke the next morning and came to work. She walked past staring eyes and drooling tongues behind chain link fences until she reached Roxy’s kennel. Clipped to her paperwork, which hung on the fence, was a colored clothespin. It meant she was in line to be euthanized.

Herr asked if she could be the one to kill her foster dog.

She owed it to her.

* * *

In Ancient Greek, euthanasia means “good death.” But for employees like Herr, it’s hard to find the good in killing the animals she cares for.

“I always try to keep that in mind and provide, which sounds horrible, but provide the best death that I can for that animal,” she said.

Herr has a ritual.

She tries to give cats wet food and plenty of attention before injecting them. She takes the dogs outside to romp around the yard. Herr likes to hold the animals when she euthanizes them. It’s not their fault, and she wants their last moments to be filled with compassion. Her face is the last they’ll ever see.

Sometimes Herr sedates the restless animals before intravenously injecting them with Fatal-Plus, the drug used to put them down. It’s a lethal dosage of Pentobarbital Sodium, the same drug used to control seizures, and works within seconds.

This is exquisitiely manufactured. Katie starts with the tight lens of Roxy’s story specifically. Just when we’re ready to hear what happens next, it’s time for a commercial break, creating suspense which takes the reader into the next section.

Cliffhangers are great, but what happens next is even better. Katie’s wide lens gives us general background about the process in a very clinical way that would be impossible while still telling the story of Roxy. Once Katie explains Fatal-Plus (what an awfully wonderful name for a euthanasia drug), she goes back into the tight-lens story. Simply elegant. Well played, Mettler.

Let’s just read this next section and all hug each other for a moment.

There was no owner to rescue her, no saving grace to keep Roxy alive. There was just Herr, the dog’s gentle, unrelenting advocate who for the past week tried to save the three-year-old’s life.

Now she had to kill her.

If only she’d had more time. If only the shelter had programs to help the pit bull mix.

Sobbing, Herr stroked Roxy’s ginger fur and injected the dog with Fatal-Plus.

Roxy stopped breathing within seconds.

Katie’s mix of heart-breaking narrative and well-researched news is divine.

GoodDeathIn the last decade, the shelter has cut its euthanasia rates by two-thirds, increased its adoptions significantly and decreased its intake numbers. Since Ringquist’s first year as director, the shelter has undergone a complete structural overhaul, rooted in promoting community interaction. The goal is to save more, kill less.

They educated the public on spay and neuter practices to reduce unwanted reproduction and solicited foster families to care for newborn kittens or sick dogs until they were healthy enough for adoption. They sought collaboration with organizations like Canine Companions to buy time for temperamental, untrained dogs to learn manners.

Euthanasia is still an undesirable alternative if the shelter’s preventative efforts don’t measure up. And sometimes they don’t.

This isn’t a sob story reminicent of a Sarah MacLachlan commercial, this is a compelling story about how, despite the love for animals, sometimes “the good death” is the only option in the shelter. Katie did a wonderful striking that balance. We can all take a note from what she did and how she did it. I know I did.

Job well done, Grumps.



Two solid dailies

In IDS on February 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Daily writing is tough.

These two folks really nailed it this week. Kudos.


Every winter, murders descend upon Bloomington.

No, not a spike in crime — a “murder” is one name for a flock of crows.

“It’s a rather draconian term,” said John Castrale, a non-game bird biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Castrale explained why the birds flock to Bloomington by the thousands each year.
“Crows are social animals,” he said. “During the winter they form night roosts in protected areas.

That lasts through the winter until mating season in the spring.”

Though the cacophony of crow caws can be an annoyance, Castrale said they do not pose a large health threat.

“There are some potential health concerns with accumulations of droppings below the trees they roost in,” he said. “The richness in the droppings can stimulate some naturally occurring fungus in the soil that could cause health problems.”

My two favorite things about this story. The tricky lede that makes you double-take (play on “murder”) and some sublime mid-story phrasing: “the cacophony of crow caws.”


The show must go on. Sometimes.

Before The Lowdown stand-up club took the stage Tuesday at the Collins Living-Learning Center, comedians expressed heavy doubts about performing for their scant

“If we get to 10 people, we do the show,” comic Tom Brady said.

“How about five?” regional touring act Ben Moore asked.

“Not four,” Brady replied.

Stand-up comedy, which regularly draws large audiences around Bloomington at venues like the Comedy Attic or the Indiana Memorial Union, sometimes experiences down nights.

Tuesday was one of those nights.

Jeff must’ve read “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” before going to cover this show. Excellent reporting chops to make a story out of a dead performance. Quick pacing. Nice dialogue. Great scene-setting.

Kudos to Ms. Jula and Mr. LaFave.


Two weeks of great writing

In IDS on February 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I’m a little biased, but the last two weeks of the IDS have produced some really great stuff.

Specifically I’m thinking of four great stories that have been in the works for a few months.

I’ll get the conflict of interest out of the way and start with my story on Bob Knight. Knight recently auctioned his championship rings, and I used the auction as an opportunity to evaluate Knight’s legacy and his relationship with the university.


0000-Kn2069423603The coach’s messy departure from IU — the firing, the lawsuits, the riot — was almost as legendary as his winning record. Since then, the university had repeatedly tried to reach out to him, inviting him to be honored at public rituals of commemoration. But the answer was always no.

Now, when the Hoosiers were back on top, Knight was selling off emblems of collective memory, even the ring symbolizing the unmatched perfection of 1976.

Was he just being a good granddad? Or was he telling IU that all those years together meant nothing?

After my Knight story ran, Claire Wiseman wrote about the many factors that lead to a 107-2 score at a girls’ high school basketball game between Bloomington South and Indianapolis Arlington.


0000-sp1906392057These teams hadn’t faced each other in eight seasons. The last time they had played, in 2004, Bloomington South won 52-42. Back then, Arlington’s enrollment in seventh through twelfth grades was around 1,500 students. This year, unofficial numbers provided to the Indiana High School Athletic Association place it at 422.

Bloomington South’s enrollment last year was 1,699. This season, Arlington was by far the smallest school on Bloomington South’s schedule.

The December game between them was far from typical. Holmes said Arlington asked Bloomington South to play them when Arlington needed to fill a hole in their schedule. Both sides, he said, were aware of the teams’ differences.

“They knew it was going to be a mismatch,” Holmes said, “but they wanted their girls to experience playing against good teams.”

Arlington asked. Bloomington accepted.

Later in the week, Colleen Sikorski took a look at the phenomenon of “victim blaming” that sexual assault victims experience. She talked to victims, counselors and professionals to get a fully-balanced story.


0000-YE-1796640068He said his name was Brandon. He said he was a 23-year-old psychology major at IU and that he was from Ellettsville, Ind. She now doubts his story.

She invited Brandon to head home with her that night from the Taco Bell parking lot. She made it clear to him she didn’t want to have sex. She thought they wouldn’t go much further than making out. He seemed accommodating.

While “fooling around,” he pinned her arms back so her hands were at the sides of her head. She froze. And then he raped her, taking her virginity.

Nearly 17 months after the rape, she’s more eager to be the sober driver for nights out drinking. But she refrains from making a rule to always be in charge of car keys for the night. Making rules doesn’t help her admit it wasn’t her fault. Friends still suggest she not get drunk “this time.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Instead of ‘don’t rape,’ people say ‘don’t get raped.’ It’s not fair.”

Then there’s the rebirth of the IDS investigation desk thanks to freshman Sam Schmidt’s look into race at IU. As it tuns out, the percentage of African-American students at IU has consistently hovered at 4 percent since 1975. Along with online multimedia, really solid work from the investigations team.


0000-Un-1887071935For five years, Williams has been “the black girl” in class, the one who is always called on to answer questions about race, she said.

She said she no longer wants to be one of only five black students in a 200-person lecture hall.

Lott said she is tired of walking around campus and not seeing students who look like her.

“We dedicate four, five years of our lives here,” Lott said. “This is our world. I should feel like I have some say, some impact. I should be taken care of.”

Great stuff all around, and it’s only February. Mr. Auslen and his team are doing some fine work.