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Down to their last shot

Looking bewildered, the mixed-breed puppy is lifted to the same stainless steel table on which its mother had been placed moments before. A worker approaches carrying a small needle containing a bluish liquid that looks like Windex.

"Here's the mama's puppy," says Debbie Lee, a Pasco County Animal Control technician, as a co-worker gently holds the dog and strokes its head. Its tail wags. "I'm going to give that one four, too."

The "four" Lee is about to give the dog refers to 4 cubic centimeters of sodium pentobarbital, a drug sold under the trade name Fatal-Plus. The puppy's mother had already been injected.

It killed her in seconds.

Someone holds the syringe near the dog's right front leg.

"I don't know," says a co-worker, hesitating. "He's cute. He's just at three months. Do we save him?"

"Put him back," says Lee's supervisor, Nancy Barco. "Maybe we can find a home for this one."

For the 22 employees of Pasco's Animal Control office, Wednesday was a typical day. In less than an hour, they euthanized 15 dogs and 11 cats. Others will be saved. In a year, Animal Control workers will kill as many as 9,000 animals.

The workers don't do it because they are cruel. Almost every worker in the Pasco office has a household full of pets. They do it because someone has to _ it's a job few envy.

"Can you identify a more difficult, more unpleasant or more stressful job?" says Dan Johnson, an assistant county administrator for personnel services. "They are caring people who love animals, so I appreciate what they're up against."

Pasco officials say it's a necessary job for one overriding reason: A legion of pet owners are too irresponsible to take proper care of their animals.

Many don't get their cats and dogs spayed or neutered, allowing pets to breed indiscriminately. That leaves the county with more pets than owners to care for them _ and guarantees that many of the offspring will end up at Animal Control.

Others abandon their pets as though they are unwanted toys. Strays are allowed to wander, to suffer from starvation or disease. Cars claim hundreds of animals a year.

"The vast majority of pet owners are responsible," says Animal Control director Gordon Ulrey. "Then you have those who just don't care. People get mad at us because we have to euthanize animals. My workers aren't the cause of the problem. But they get blamed for it."

Ulrey says he wants to save every animal that makes its way to his office. But he knows that is impossible, especially when his annual budget is $961,000.

"There's no way to build a shelter large enough to hold all the unwanted pets that come in here," he said. "Do you want to build a shelter big enough to hold 100,000 animals over 10 years?"

Statistics show how hopelessly the odds are stacked against any stray animal brought to the agency.

During 1995, 9,628 dogs and cats were brought to Animal Control or captured by Animal Control officers who patrol the county and respond to complaints.

Of those, 415 animals were adopted. Another 728 will be returned to owners. The rest will die on that stainless steel table.

Put another way, of the animals brought to Animal Control, technicians will kill 78 of every 100 dogs and 97 of every 100 cats.

"When I find a cat or dog out on the road, I do everything I can to find the owner," says Animal Control officer Patrick Phillips. "I don't want to bring them back to the office because I know what's going to happen."

A day at Animal Control begins at 8 a.m., four hours before the doors are opened to the public.

Almost immediately, workers begin prepping the dogs that are scheduled to die that day by giving them injections of a tranquilizer called Ace. The shot relaxes the dogs, making them easier to handle.

It isn't necessary to tranquilize smaller cats.

The condemned dogs, selected the previous day, are kept in a row of cages separated from dogs held elsewhere in the building. Workers call it death row. Cats are caged in a separate room.

Technicians, whose pay starts at $6.82 per hour, start with the cats. Most are strays, many either injured from battles with other felines or debilitated by disease.

"It's all right, kitty," says technician Troy Lamson, 32, as he draws an ill and badly scarred cat from a cage. "It's okay."

As Lamson, wearing heavy gloves, holds the cat to the table, Lee injects Fatal-Plus straight into its heart.

The cat shudders momentarily, then dies without a sound.

A cat nursing 6-week-old kittens follows. Then the kittens. Then an older stray so sick it can barely move.

The dogs come next, each led by a leash to the room where they are euthanized _ or, in the parlance of Animal Control, "put down." They are injected intravenously in a leg. They die painlessly and almost instantly.

The dog's bodies are carried through an open loading dock door, one carcass lined next to another. Dead cats are put in garbage bags.

The bodies will be taken in a wheel barrel to a building toward the back of Animal Control's property. One by one, the carcasses will be thrown in a large propane incinerator. Inside, temperatures can reach 1,700 degrees.

"Putting animals to sleep every day _ you just can't explain it in words," Lamson says. "You'd like to save them all. But you know you can't. In your dreams, maybe."

"Sometimes you just go home and get loaded," says Lee. "I bring my job home. I can't shut it off."

Meanwhile, workers clean up the mess the animals have made through the night, attacking an overpowering stench with soap, water and elbow grease. The work takes most of the morning.

"We do it for the animals," says Barco, who has worked at Animal Control for seven years. "This may be their last home. We want to make things as good as we can for them. Give them a good meal. Keep things clean."

Many of the workers adopt pets from the office that otherwise would be euthanized. Often, they are the unadoptable ones, the dogs and cats workers know no one else will keep. Sue Bogie owns nine dogs and nine cats, most of those from Animal Control.

"Sometimes one just touches you," she explains.

Lee owns two dogs and two cats from the office. "The day that I walk into this place and it doesn't bother me to put down an animal, I'll quit," she says.

At noon, the doors open to the public _ and the angry calls begin.

Ulrey says it's a job that can make a person feel as though everybody in the county hates you. Many of the 200 people who call each day are angry about something _ a barking dog, a lost pet, whatever. People walk in the front door and scream if Animal Control workers tell them their beloved, lost pets haven't been found.

"Some of us don't deal with it very well," Ulrey says. "We get angry. All day long, people are demanding, making accusations. I don't like it when my people are attacked for simply doing their job. I know they do an impossible job. I know they get fried."

It is especially difficult to cope with the anger, he says, because employees aren't allowed to redirect their frustration back to the public.

"I've become a recluse," Ulrey says. "I don't want to deal with people when I'm off the job, other than family or close friends. I don't want to socialize."

Turnover within the office is higher than in any other county department. Workers leave after just weeks on the job. An employee who sticks with it two years is a veteran. Darrell Schumaker has manned the front desk for five months. His title: senior clerk.

Ulrey can't remember a time when all the positions within his department were filled. Right now, he's two short.

"It's an emotional, irrational situation," he says. "I don't want a pity party. But it can get crazy here."

And there is the ceaseless background cacophony of hundreds of barking dogs.

Almost all animals brought into the office are kept a minimum of three days before being euthanized. If the dog or cat has identification, six days is standard. Often, animals are kept far longer by sympathetic workers.

And the job isn't all about killing animals. Kitty litter by the barrel is wheeled back and forth as kittens play with ripped newspaper in their cages. Dog food in 40-pound bags _ Country Cousin _ stands waist high in a storage area.

In one room, healthy pets that are deemed adoptable are cleaned and prepared for new families.

But every morning, it's back to the task nobody enjoys and the constant reminder that humans don't save all the cruelty for their own.

Lamson leads an old, battered dog to the stainless steel table. It had been brought in by its owner, who appears to have hardly cared for the dog.

The dog's name: Tough Guy. "He had to be tough to go through what he did," Lamson says.

The animal has lost most of its fur from neglect. It's emaciated and weak. Animal Control officials will investigate abuse charges against the owner.

Lamson caresses the dog's head and scratches it behind an ear in the moments before it is euthanized. The dog responds by turning its head up slowly and looking at him.

"Good dog," Lamson says as he runs his hand along its large body. "Don't worry. Good dog."

Later, Lamson says, "That may be the only affection that dog has ever experienced."

WARNING

This story on the grim task of Animal Control, killing thousands of animal each year, continues on Page 3. We thought it important to write about and photograph the consequences of irresponsible pet pownership. But the photos inside are unsettling. Some people may prefer not to see them, and they may not be suitable for viewing by children.

At the cages Animal Control workers call death row, Nancy Barco checks the status of an animal while another waits in its cage.

A shelter employee prepares a tranquilizer shot for an animal about to be euthanized. The animals are given the tranquilizers before the lethal injections.

Sue Bogie cradles a sick puppy in her arms moments before it receives a lethal injection. Sometimes, shelter workers say, that last care from Animal Control workers is the only affection the animal has experienced.

This puppy, 3 months old, is wobbly after receiving a tranquilizer. It was about to receive a lethal injection when shelter employees decided to let it live _ for now.

Troy Lamson, right, holds a cat as Sue Bogie administers a lethal injection. Animal Control shelter officials say 97 of 100 cats they handle are euthanized.

Debbie Lee, left, and Troy Lamson check dogs that have gotten lethal injections; the workers want to ensure that the animals are dead before they are put in the incinerator.

A dog that is healthy and eligible for adoption tries to give Dale Anderson a friendly lick during an exam. The dog has at least four weeks to find a home. The stress of the shelter's jobs give it the highest turnover of all county departments.

How to properly care for animals

What does a responsible pet owner do?

Animal Control director Gordon Ulrey said proper care is all about common sense. Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered. The offspring of animals that breed indiscriminately are the ones most likely to end up at Animal Control. The county is already populated by more cats and dogs than owners to care for them. And strays have an unpleasant existence, facing disease, starvation and injury from cars and other animals.

Be sure that your pet's shots are up to date _ especially its rabies vaccination.

Be sure your pet is licensed and wears identification.

If your pet is ill, take it to a veterinarian.

Don't take on a new pet unless you are sure you can handle the responsibility, both financially and emotionally. Remember: Pets need veterinary care, ample food and a loving, attentive owner.

Those interesting in adopting a pet should call the Pasco County Animal Control office. From west Pasco, dial 834-3217 or 834-3216. From east Pasco, dial 567-0234.

The Animal Control office is at 19640 Lake Patience Drive in Land O'Lakes and is open weekdays from noon until 6:30 p.m. and on Saturday from noon to 4:30 p.m.

The cost to adopt a pet is $20 for a cat and $55 for a dog. The fee includes the cost of spaying or neutering and a rabies shot.

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