It never gets easier
St. Catharines Standard, 2012
Teddy crouches beside his water bowl.
The gash on his nose is healing, but thick brown liquid now drains from the inside corners of his eyes.
They are barely open.
He is quiet.
It’s a marked change from the scrappy stray cat brought to the Lincoln County Humane Society three days before.
An animal control officer picked him up after a man called to complain Teddy had been picking fights with his cat.
Teddy isn’t his real name. Britney Boston, an animal care technician at the shelter, named him when he arrived. No microchip, no collar. Just a few war wounds from a backyard skirmish.
So Teddy sat in one of the several cat rooms beyond a door marked “staff only.”
According to the Animals for Research Act, the shelter must hold an animal for 72 hours, not including the day it came in, before deciding its fate.
When Teddy’s time is up, he could be moved to the adoption room. But other cats are waiting for that chance, too, and there are no empty cages.
Or he could become one of many cats euthanized every week at the shelter for space.
In 2010, 1,996 stray cats entered the Lincoln Humane Society in 2010 – 1,508 didn’t leave alive.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Teddy is just fighting to keep his eyes open.
A mere sneeze can be the difference between life and death for a cat in the back room. And that day, it does.
Deborah Smith is starting the night shift. There aren’t any empty cages in the back and two stray cats were just brought in.
So she walks through the cat rooms, reading notes on clipboards hanging outside cages, deciding who must die to make room.
“When you work the night shift, you definitely run out of cages,” she says. “And it never gets easier.”
She passes Teddy’s cage. He watches her through the metal bars.
Smith stops at a cage holding a white cat with orange and black stripes.
“She has been sneezing,” Smith flips through the chart.
It’s decided. This cat will have to go.
But Smith needs to choose one more.
A black and white cat. Healthy, but unlucky.
“Picking is harder than doing,” her bottom lip trembles. “Sometimes, one just does something to you.”
She brings them into a room to be euthanized. The black and white cat is purring. The other, meowing.
An old dog waiting to be euthanized whines and scratches the metal inside a cage nearby.
Smith drapes blankets over the cages. Sometimes, the dark and a blanket makes them feel better, she says.
It never gets easier.
“We all find our ways of making each other feel better,” she says. Her eyes are red. “I’m proud I work in a place where we take them in. They’re not hungry or hurt or suffering. We take them in, help, try to adopt them, but then…” Smith looks at a picture on the wall. It’s a finger painting she made of a forest in winter. The ground is blanketed in snow and there are footprints leading away.
“We don’t need more cages, we need more people to adopt,” she says, leaving the room. That day, the vet will euthanize the two cats and the dog.
She re-enters one of the cat rooms and chooses another cat. This time, it will move to an empty cage in the adoption room.
A small relief at the beginning of her shift. Most days aren’t like it.
The week passes slowly. Staff don’t hide their smiles when cats are adopted. But then, more strays and surrenders arrive.
It’s Friday morning and Boston is preparing for the weekend. She needs to free up several cages to make sure the weekend staff have a place to put the inevitable flood of cats that will arrive.
She’s doing a last-minute check of the cat rooms.
“They probably have’t been fed yet,” she says. There are days cats won’t be given bowls of fresh food and water until the afternoon. There aren’t enough staff or volunteers to do it, she says.
Boston stops at a washer and dryer and throws a load of towels in.
“We’re understaffed here. A lot of us work overtime and we’re not paid for it. We’re supposed to get two 15-minute breaks.” Her eyes are red. “We don’t.”
Lincoln County Humane Society executive director Kevin Strooband admits the shelter needs more staff. And he says he’s actively trying to hire another person, in addition to another veterinarian.
“In humane societies in general, staffing is always an issue,” he says. “And this is one of the busiest years we’ve had.”
The shelter is also considering a benefits plan that includes an employee assistance program. It would provide emotional support to those who need it, he says.
Despite the stress, Boston says she is dedicated to her work.
“I couldn’t just up and leave,” she says. “Everyone who works here loves animals.”
Boston enters the cat room where Teddy is caged. It’s time for her to start making space for the weekend.
She passes him and walks to another room down the hall. Her decision is quick.
Boston choses a year-old black cat that arrived Jan. 18. It wasn’t named.
“So this one’s time is up,” her voice is flat.
Boston gently lifts the cat and strokes its head.
“I always pet them before .” Her voice trails off. She places the cat – who she has decided to name January – in a carrier.
It takes 10 to 15 minutes to sedate a cat before a staff member administers a deadly dose of euthanol, injected directly into the cat’s heart.
“I just don’t want to think about any more today,” she says. That was the only cat she chose to euthanize Friday.
But then, someone enters the shelter and drops off a cat that’s been left in an apartment by a previous tenant.
“We just took the life of a cat and its spot was immediately taken by another cat,” Boston shakes her head. “When you take an animal, it has to be a lifetime commitment. You need to have backup plans. A lot of people don’t, and that’s why we’re overflowing.”
She makes space this time by moving two cats to the adoptions room.
A couple is standing at the reception desk with a completed adoption form in hand. They have found a new family member. And they plan to take it home that day.
“This is what makes it worth it,” she smiles.
Teddy spent the weekend at the shelter. He received medical care for an upper respiratory infection, something that spreads quickly in a shelter environment. Every day could have been his last.
But on Tuesday, Teddy became part of the 1%. His owner visited the shelter and claimed him.