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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.

KATIE METTLER (IDS)

GoodDeath

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.

-CS

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