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Animal shelters: The final refuge for ravaged pets

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Gormless

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Animal shelters: The final refuge for ravaged pets**

Our first Saturday volunteering at the Durham County Animal Shelter dawned lovely and warm, with cumulus piled on cumulus. While I answered phones, my wife, Kim, was bonding with a hurt golden lab--two bum legs and so much pain that she couldn't raise her head even to eat. She was classified as "stray," which meant that legally she had to be held for a week waiting for the owner, who, lacking the heart to have his old companion put to death, had dumped her on the side of the highway.

When Kim stopped by the following Monday, the dog had been euthanized. In shelter parlance, the verb is always preceded by "lovingly," which isn't as mealy mouthed as it sounds. With the meager salaries the county pays these people, I figure they have to be soft-hearted to work there, especially considering the personal attacks they endure (not from dogs). Try confiscating a mastiff off his three-foot long chain when it's 110 degrees in the shade and he's sitting in the yard with no water and you'll probably encounter a nasty editorial about government invasion of privacy.

There are all sorts of cruelty that gormless simpletons like me would have to work hard to imagine had we not seen them. Victims of abuse so routinely wind up at the shelter that animals are sometimes referred to by their conditions--"Has anybody hugged the embedded collar in 42 today?" For many dogs who end up getting euthanized, their week in stir represents the greatest kindness they've ever known--three squares a day, a toy to play with and someone to fuss over them a little. People always assume there's a gas chamber somewhere, but actually it's done by injection, which allows you to stroke the dog's face and muzzle and whisper to him at the end.

The moribund are often strangely loving. On another day we met a female pit who was so starved, with bones sticking out all over, that only her head looked normal. She had a massive mammary tumor and was quite weak, though not in deep pain. Within five minutes of our cleaning her run, both she and it were smeared with crap from one end to the other owing to horrible diarrhea. Yet for all this she was a delicate bitch who took treats gently, smiling and lifting her head from where she was curled up on her rug. As we closed up for the day I saw the technician leading her, emaciated and docile, to the euthanasia room. I still had a couple more treats in my pocket for her.

Once or twice during the summer we were the only dog volunteers, which meant it took almost four hours to feed everybody before we could socialize with them. You have to wash and disinfect last night's bowls, mix up wet and dry food (one for dogs, one for puppies), dish it out while they're in the outside runs, add water to the water bowls from a bucket and give seconds; then when the inside runs have been cleaned, pick up the bowls, wash and disinfect them all again and re-feed using dry food. There's a small mountain of towels and toys to wash and redistribute. Last you sweep and mop. Each time you enter a run you need to disinfect your shoes afterward, stepping into a shallow tub of corrosive green stuff they call A33. After you've held a dog in your arms you have to spray A33 on your clothing, and wash your face and forearms up to the elbows with antimicrobial soap. Germs travel fast there. All it takes to spread contagion is for one visitor to go around touching noses.

And then it was last weekend. We met a brown mutt with the handsome eyes of an Australian Shepherd. He'd been caught in a dog trap and set on fire by little boys before the animal control officer could get there. The kids covered the trap with newspaper to be certain it would catch, and melted a plastic Pepsi bottle onto the dog's hind end. He wouldn't look me in the eye, and I could hardly bring myself to look him in the eye either.

As I write, Duncan is cleaning Curtis' ears, Bess is lying on my foot, and Sasha says she's ready to go you-know-where to do you-know-what. I wonder what it would take to talk Kim into adopting a fifth one? Well, gotta go--my sneakers have rotted out from the A33 and I need to get a new pair today.

Paul Baerman is a University employee.

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