The dog in her arms was shaking, its rheumy eyes wide with fear. "Just relax, sweetheart, it's OK," crooned Chris Powell, the manager of the Peninsula Humane Society animal shelter, where 10,000 unwanted pets are put to death each year.
The dog settled into Ms. Powell's embrace, making it easier for a veterinarian to inject a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital.
In seconds, the dog was dead, carried to a refrigerated room and dumped in a trash can, atop a mound of puppies and kittens, all awaiting pickup by a rendering company that would turn the animals into fertilizer.
"There's not a day when you don't think about walking away from this misery," Ms. Powell said.
Tired of carrying out the daily killings, officials at the Humane Society in San Mateo, on San Francisco Bay, have proposed a novel solution to the pet overpopulation problem: a moratorium on breeding cats and dogs that will be considered by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 13.
The ordinance, thought to be the first of its kind in the nation and opposed by professional breeders, would fine animal owners who allow their pets to reproduce and would prohibit transporting cats and dogs outside the county for that purpose.
The requirements would be enforced by the same animal control officers who respond to complaints about unleashed or unlicensed dogs.
The law would be phased in over a three-year period, with education but no prosecution in 1991, the option of free spaying or neutering instead of fines in 1992, and full enforcement in 1993.
It would remain in effect until the county achieved "zero pet overpopulation" and the shelter was not killing any healthy animals.
The Peninsula Humane Society has long been at the forefront of efforts to control the number of unwanted pets. In 1970, it opened one of the nation's first low-cost spaying and neutering clinics. In 1985, it led the fight for passage of a state law requiring that all animals adopted from shelters be spayed or neutered.
For a while, the number of unwanted pets seemed to be shrinking, but now "statistics are flat," said Kim Sturla, the director of the shelter. In each of the last 10 years, the shelter has taken in about 16,000 animals.
Of those, 3,000 have been reunited with their owners and another 3,000 placed in adoptive homes; 10,000 have been put to death.
The killings are the "most abhorrent duty of our job," Ms. Sturla said. "It's a revolving door, it's constant and it has to stop."
The people who bring unwanted animals to the shelter are often ignorant of what goes on inside, Ms. Sturla said. But her employees, all of them animal lovers, cannot turn their heads.
For some, the most unpleasant job is picking the cats and dogs to be killed. For others, it is holding the animal and feeling the life ebb from its body. Administering the injection is not so bad, Ms. Sturla said, because "you concentrate on technique."
Until now, Ms. Sturla has built her anti-breeding education campaigns around dry statistics. She has told audiences that a single fertile cat's offspring can produce 420,715 kittens in just seven years. She has told them that 10-million domestic animals are destroyed each year in the United States.
But numbers did not do the trick, Ms. Sturla said, so now she is trying shock tactics.
Last week, the shelter bought advertising inserts in three local newspapers, and 178,000 families on the peninsula south of San Francisco looked at pictures of trash barrels full of dead cats along with their morning coffee.
Then, reporters and television crews were invited to witness what one newspaper called a "public execution" of four kittens, a cat and three dogs. One reporter cried, another began adoption proceedings, and a third left the room because the dog being killed resembled one he once owned.
"You have to see it to experience the immorality of it," Ms. Sturla said. "We tried to tell the public with numbers, but it didn't work. It's time to take a 2-by-4 and hit them over the head."