Working in an animal shelter, I see all sorts of sights, but nothing prepared me for this...

Snow was sifting down and blowing around the parking lot of the Johnson County Animal Shelter as I entered the building. I had come to wish the employees a Merry Christmas and to drop off some blankets for the canine residents.

The front door opened behind me, the gloomy sky and the snow outlining a man’s figure. A deputy hurried in, his head tucked over a small bundle wrapped in a baby’s white quilted receiving blanket. Was he carrying a baby? Snuggled in his arms was a tiny, motionless animal, its eyes peering over the top of the cover, but it was hard to tell whether the black mini poodle was alive or dead.

“I don’t know if this little fellow is going to make it - he has so many things wrong with him,” said his rescuer. “I found him out on Highway 31 - don’t know how he managed to dodge the car,” said the officer. “He just collapsed in my arms when I picked him up.”

I looked the dog over as he was deposited limply on a heavy pad on the floor of the animal shelter office. To say this unkempt, homeless poodle was neglected and abandoned was an understatement. The poor little dog shivered uncontrollably, even with a heater blowing hot air over his damp fur. His hair had not been trimmed for a long, long time. Toenails, perhaps an inch and a half long, curled around his toes. Balls of ice clung to his feet, and both his feet and lips showed signs of frostbite. His muzzle was gray, beginning to turn white, signs indicating his advanced age. Rheumy eyes showed evidence of future cataracts. But the worst was yet to come. Pulling up the upper lip, the deputy remarked: “Look at his teeth—they are completely rotten. And the gums . . .”

One of the women deputies behind the desk ran a cotton ball over the blood-red gums. “O-h-h-h,” she gasped. “Oh, this is terrible. Can you smell that?” The gums were so infected that gangrene was a strong possibility. And yet, this still was not the most shocking part of the exam. As the little guy lay back and absorbed the warmth from the heater, the first deputy reached under the matted fur at the back of the dog’s body. “Oh, my God!” he said. I checked the area just behind the ribs. I could feel nothing. No fat, no muscle, nothing. Nothing but ribs, and a big, caved-in, empty spot!

I asked, “Is it possible to save him?” The dog’s glazed eyes looked into mine. Was he pleading for help, or so far gone it didn’t matter anymore? I couldn’t be sure.

The deputy who had rescued the dog looked sadly at the animal and shook his head. “I think, with all his problems, it would be merciful to put him out of his misery.”

He cited the teeth and gums as a major hurdle to either qualify of life for the dog or his being adoptable as someone’s pet. The dog was so weak he couldn’t stand and would not be able to survive any necessary oral surgery. Age was against this former pet (he had a collar and rabies tag which gave “1998” as the last year vaccinated, and the lack of current records at the vet’s office that issued it prevented the shelter’s locating his owner, if there was one).

We wondered who had dumped the tiny pet, if that were his history, or how he had managed to survive in such shape for as long as he had. Unimaginable suffering had to have been his lot - the condition of his mouth was enough to cause extreme pain, and frostbite would have added to his misery.

I watched with tears in my eyes as the man who had rescued him now had to administer a numbing injection. As the diminutive poodle began to get drowsy from the medication which would ease his exit, the deputy prepared the final shot. In a few minutes, he picked the little bundle of fur up gently and carried him into another room. He shut the door to the room and in a few minutes reappeared.

“Did he die peacefully?” I asked. “He’s already gone,” the man replied. I felt not only a sense of loss, but anger that someone had condemned an innocent, tiny animal to such a horrendous existence, in what should have been a comfortable old age with a loving family, and the utter waste of a living, breathing soul.

For I believe, unlike many people, that animals feel pain and cold, sense loss, understand abandonment and loneliness, and miss love that has been taken from them. I can’t help but think that animals have souls. Otherwise, why would they love us unconditionally, no matter how we treat them, and bond with and comfort people as they do?

One other last word: I have been to the local animal shelter many times. All but twice I saw primarily the good side of this operation. Today I was presented with the dark side, the side most people escape: The side Animal Control deals with more days than not, the side these people must carry home with them after working hours are over and the pay stops. It would be good if people could give these hardworking employees of our county a kind word for the job they do in a tough situation. Think of them this Christmas, and think of the animals.


Myla Smith

Franklin, Indiana

December 2003

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