Pet Hell

Somebody please put the county's animal shelter out of its misery

The procedure for killing cats is different. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Evans, head veterinarian since 1972, the shelter employs a method of lethal injection that is highly controversial and little-used outside Orange County. By this method, which is called intrahepatic, the killing solution is injected into the cat's liver. Evans contends that there is little pain involved and that death occurs in an average of 10 seconds. But according to the Humane Society of the United States, the intrahepatic method is not an "acceptable route" because it has not yet been sufficiently studied and "questions remain regarding the accuracy of injection, organ sensitivity to pain . . . and smooth induction into unconscious." Evans' claims that the intrahepatic method is fast and nearly painless are also disputed by some who have witnessed the procedure. Jeff Isbell was a volunteer at the county shelter for several years and was recognized by supervisors for his efforts. (He is also married to Marie Hulitt, a lieutenant with the animal-control department; she's currently suing the county, alleging she was the victim of sex discrimination at the shelter.) Isbell often worked on Sundays. Though the shelter was closed to the public, euthanasia went on apace (as it does every other day of the week), and Isbell says he witnessed the killing of cats at least half a dozen times. He says shelter workers would enter one of the large cages, which contain as many as 30 cats, and grab hold of them one at a time with a catchpole-a long metal rod with a lockable wire noose at one end used to restrain fractious or violent animals. In the midst of all the other cats, the selected one would be stretched out to expose its belly, and the lethal injection would be administered.

"The cats were clearly experiencing pain and anxiety," Isbell said. "They were hissing, spitting, clawing at the air, clawing at one another, trying to climb the cage. Because the cats would be struggling, the shot would sometimes go into the abdomen instead of the liver, and it would take five to 15 minutes for them to die. Some of them would be climbing the fence when it hit them, and then they'd fall off onto the concrete."

In the midst of such killing sessions, Isbell said, the floor of the cage would be a "writhing mass" of dying cats.

Evans says cats are no longer killed en masse. Instead, he said, a worker captures and restrains each cat with a catchpole, removes it from the cage so that it cannot be seen by other cats, and then kills it. Evans also claims that seizures in injected animals are rare and that only once could he recall an injected cat climbing the fence and then falling to the concrete.

In addition to the dispute over the time and pain involved in the use of liver injections to kill cats, the use of the catchpole itself is also controversial outside of Orange County. But Evans said he's found that other methods of restraining cats-such as holding them with gloved hands, putting them in a bag or catching them with a net-don't work very well and can be dangerous for workers. For that reason, he said, the catchpole is necessary. But Isbell said he saw the catchpole used indiscriminately, even on cats tagged as docile. Edwards, the director of the Irvine animal shelter, said the use of a catchpole is "not appropriate because it can easily break a cat's neck."

Edwards' shelter has a killing rate of just 6 percent to 7 percent, but he has worked at what he calls "high kill" shelters and has had to euthanize many cats. Restraint isn't really a problem, he said. Many other shelters use a cat shield, which holds the animal and through which the animal can be injected. "I've never been bitten or scratched," he said. "That's just not the norm."

A request by the Weekly to witness the killing procedure was discussed by Evans and McDorman, animal control's interim director, but ultimately denied.

The relentless execution of animals, so many of them former pets who are bewildered and terrified, makes for a dramatically compelling controversy. But these killings are just the final moments in a chain of events, a procession of other problems at the county shelter that may be even more significant. They go to the heart of the way the shelter is managed and they may serve to increase the number of animals that must be killed. For example, the shelter's public hours discourage adoptions because they do not accommodate the schedules of most working people. Most days, the shelter is open only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. But it closes early on Saturdays, and it is closed entirely on Sunday, a prime family day.

Beyond that, a visit to the shelter is not a pleasant experience. The Weekly accompanied Dales to the county shelter at about 6:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. The place is grim, with lots of chainlink fencing against a background of institutional gray concrete. There were no customer-friendly colors or posters. The dogs were in individual cages, often huddled in the back. Until recently, lighting was so bad that it was impossible to see many of them; new lighting is being installed after the complaints of activists and volunteers contributed most of the funds. Many cages lacked cards indicating the breed of the dog or any other information for prospective adopters-such as "This dog is good with children" or "This dog is trained." And there were at least 35 empty dog cages, which raises questions given the high kill rates.

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