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Life-and-death decisions made quickly every day at Pinellas animal shelters

The orange cat rubs against Dr. Caroline Olausen's leg. She picks him up and turns him on his back to rub his tummy. The cat's paws wrap around her hand and just like that, he has flunked the test.

The cat will be euthanized.

The county's director of veterinary services has made this decision thousands of times. Olausen passed judgment on 8,166 dogs and cats during the first eight months of this year, records show.

Fifty-four percent were killed.

Those 4,411 deaths don't include 534 pets euthanized at their owners' request.

Olausen isn't the sole arbiter of life or death for stray and rejected pets in Pinellas. It was a decision made at least 21,500 times last year by the county's four biggest shelters — Animal Services, the Humane Society of Pinellas, SPCA Tampa Bay and Pet Pal Animal Shelter. Of those, 10,315 were euthanized, or about 48 percent of all the animals taken to those shelters. (The Humane Society and Pet Pal say they are no-kill shelters.)

Officials say it's an ugly necessity for shelters facing a burgeoning population of stray and abandoned animals and limited space and money. It's a side of animal rescue seldom spoken of except in stark numbers.

What the stats don't convey is the toll on the people who work there — they love animals yet find themselves making life-and-death decisions.

The result, said Olausen, is compassion fatigue, a sort of emotional burnout that affects caregivers — from professionals to volunteers — who constantly face heart-wrenching emotional challenges. Symptoms can include substance abuse, depression, negative attitude, emotional numbness and isolation.

Olausen, who stopped using her married name of Thomas after a divorce this summer, is leaving the job Friday after two years. She is going into private practice.

People who work at shelters see animals left suddenly homeless by an owner's death or murder, or loss of home. They see the results of abuse and neglect. They also see people turning in a dog or cat and saying things like, "I don't want this animal because it doesn't match my couch," she said.

"How do you not hate that human?" Olausen asks.

And while it's tough to decide which animals live or die, it's even harder to be the one who kills them, she said.

"It's a world of difference psychologically, giving the final injection," Olausen said.

Caregivers try to focus on the ones that are saved, a decision that is complex, she said.

Breed may play a part. Health and age count. So does behavior.

Take the orange cat.

The cat was friendly, "but I couldn't pick him up without him clawing, so I can't put him in the adoption cage."

"Those are the hard ones," Olausen said. "It's never an easy decision, but it's easier if they're vicious."

In the end, the decision comes down to which animal is deemed to be the most adoptable to the people who pass in front of the rows of cages.

"They want something that's healthy, young and happy, with no behavioral or medical issues," Olausen said. "You can understand that. When they go home, they want to enjoy the animal."

The decision to euthanize the orange cat was done in about the time it takes to snap your fingers — a pace necessary when 20 to 80 cats a day need to be evaluated.

Dogs undergo a longer evaluation. Veterinary technician Wendy Tate-Palumbo, who evaluates dogs for Animal Services, likens the process to speed dating.

It includes evaluating the dog's reaction to someone who touches its paws and tail, hugs the animal and pets it. The dog is fed and its food is taken away midway to ensure it doesn't have "food aggression," which could cause it to bite someone, especially a child, who interferes during feeding. The evaluation also can involve how well it interacts with other dogs.

On a recent day, Tate-Palumbo evaluated three dogs:

One, a female chihuahua mix with one floppy ear, began the session pacing, nervous. But for all her initial nervousness, the dog passed the test, allowing her paws to be touched and her food to be removed.

The second was a purebred Schipperke, a breed developed in Belgium as a watchdog. Five-year-old Lucky was turned in because his owners were moving to Arizona. They noted that he was afraid of cats.

Lucky spent much of his time staring at the door rather than paying attention to his surroundings.

"It's so heartbreaking" to see animals confused about why they're no longer with their owners, Tate-Palumbo said. "It just gets exhausting at times."

The department ended up calling a Schipperke rescue to pick up Lucky.

The third dog was a black mixed breed with a corkscrew tail named Monkey who was surrendered by his owners because they were moving to a smaller place. The owners said Monkey was a year old, but an examination showed he was more like 5 or 6.

Monkey was unsure of himself and didn't get along with other dogs.

"He is a challenge with his dog aggression," Tate-Palumbo said. "If no doors open for him, we will euthanize.

"I'm not going to let him live out his life in a kennel," she said. "They're meant to be with people. It's almost a form of abuse for them to keep them alone in a cage."

There's no panacea for pet overpopulation. Spaying and neutering helps. So does promotion of adoptions. It would also help if owners took responsibility for finding new homes for their pets instead of dumping them into the system, Olausen said.

"In a perfect world," she said, "more would live."

Information from schipperkeclub-usa.org and compassionfatigue.org was used in this report. Anne Lindberg can be reached at tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Life-and-death decisions made quickly every day at Pinellas animal shelters 10/01/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 6:56pm]
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