They call it the blue room.
It's not really blue. It's beige -- beige walls, beige floors and a big window.
It's called the blue room because of what's used in the room. Sodium pentobarbital comes in a big bottle, and the drug is blue.
And it's lethal.
The blue room is the end of the line for thousands of dogs in Merced County every year. Outside the room is a sign, a plain beige sign with just one word on it -- Euthanasia. The word means "good death," and that's what the employees at the Merced County Animal Shelter try to do for the dogs that make the last walk to the blue room. They try to make it a good death.
For three weeks, the Merced Sun-Star was given access to the shelter -- to the good and the bad and the ugly sides of it. The plan was to follow two dogs through the shelter -- one that got out, either through adoption or through a rescue organization -- and one that didn't get out.
Two dogs were chosen. As it turned out, both were pit bulls, the hardest breed to get out of the shelter. Patches and Coffey. Patches was definitely going to rescue, and Coffey, named for the doomed man in Stephen King's novel
"The Green Mile," wouldn't get out. Not only was he a pit bull, but he had mange. The kiss of doom.But the future is never certain. The fate of Patches and Coffey didn't unfold quite as expected. This is the story of what started out to be two dogs in the shelter, and ended up to be three.
Patches: A lucky one
Unfortunately, for more than 3,000 dogs a year, the blue room is the last place they will see in their lives. The animal shelter, which moved to a big, new $8 million facility in the spring of 2009, has room for about 150 dogs. When that capacity is reached, something has to give.
When the shelter is clearly crowded, a decision has to be made. Kristi Caseri, animal control supervisor for the shelter, said she does a walk-through on the mornings the shelter is full. She looks at each dog. "I look at breed and behavior," she said. "I pick the ones that are throwing themselves at the fence, trying to bite me."
The dogs that are usually euthanized are the big ones, the pit bulls, the black dogs and any dog that shows signs of aggression, which means he more than likely won't be adopted. "It's mainly pit bulls and pit mixes," Caseri said. "The rescues don't like them, and they are hard to get out of the shelter."
Once Caseri makes her decision, staffers are allowed to see her list. "Any staff member is allowed to take dogs off the list," she said. "They know things about the dogs I don't, and they will work hard to get their favorites adopted."
One of the dogs that typically wouldn't have been adopted was a white and brindle pit bull named Patches. She came in as a stray on Jan. 13, and her time would have been up long before the beginning of March.
But Patches was lucky. Because she came into the shelter pregnant, she wasn't euthanized at the end of her time. By law, stray dogs must be held at the shelter for at least six business days, but Patches was there well past the six days. She had her puppies and then she went to a foster home, through a rescue organization.
Patches, unfortunately, is the exception to the rule. She was a pit bull and if she had come into the shelter without being pregnant, she probably wouldn't have been rescued.
More than likely, she would have been euthanized, even though she's a wonderful, sweet, non-aggressive dog that is doing so well in her foster home that the people fostering her have said they will probably adopt her.
Another lucky dog
Then there's Coffey. Another dog that more than likely wouldn't have made it out, Coffey is a pit bull, a big, strong dog that looks so much like many of the pit bulls that are euthanized at the shelter each week.
Not only was Coffey a pit bull, he also had mange. "He will more than likely not get out," Caseri said. "It's too bad, but mange turns a lot of people off."
While Coffey was at the shelter, he was being treated. As he got better, his true personality emerged.Taken to a playroom, where adopters can get acquainted with their future pets, staff member Sandino Vazquez, an animal care specialist II, got a ball and started playing with Coffey.
"He's really a nice dog," said Vazquez, as Coffey bounded around the room, his eyes fixed on the ball. Asked to sit, Coffey picked up the new command quickly, and brought the ball back to Vazquez every time. "Right next door to us is a cat room," Vazquez said. "Some dogs come in here and just fixate on that door. He's totally ignoring it."Although mange is never fun, for Coffey it was a ticket out of the shelter. "A rescue heard about him," Caseri said. "He got neutered and he's leaving the first week of March."
So much for the name Coffey. The big dog didn't take the name with him. The rescue will give him a new name. A name that he deserves.
Working for animals
Staff at the animal shelter learn to do everything: From walking dogs out to the play area to cleaning cages to euthanasia. But what causes all of them to stop, to look down at the floor, and think before answering, is euthanasia.
"It usually takes two people," said Caseri. "One to inject and one to hold the dog."There are rules for euthanasia at the shelter. No dog is ever euthanized in front of another dog, or where it can be seen, and the live dogs never see the dead dogs.
And the staff tries to make it as peaceful, comfortable and painless as possible. "They shouldn't be aware when it's happening," Caseri said. "If we have to tranquilize them, we do."
Staff at the shelter who euthanize dogs have to be trained. They are certified after four hours of hands-on training: how to find the vein, how much of the injection to use and how to deal with dogs with health issues.
And it's never, ever easy on the staff.
"The worst part isn't being the person who's giving the injection," Caseri said. "It's the person holding the dog."Sitting at her desk in the shelter, Caseri stopped talking, and tears came to her eyes. "You feel the dog go," she said. She stopped again, then, quietly, said "I get upset. I've been doing it for 13 years and I still get upset just talking about it."
Katharine Abbott, known as Kat to her coworkers, is an animal care specialist II. She does it all — clean cages, play with the animals, and euthanize. "I'm here for the animals," Abbott said. "I'm here to help them. Unfortunately, part of that is euthanizing them."
Abbott said she tries to give as much attention to the animals as possible, playing with them and petting them. Even the ones that are on the way to the blue room.
"I've been here nine years and I still don't like doing it (euthanasia)," Abbott said. "People need to spay and neuter their pets."
New shelter, but same
The new shelter opened in April of 2009 at Castle Commerce Center in Atwater with more kennels and a more pleasant environment than the old place. But the new shelter has one drawback: It's seeing more animals come in than ever.David Robinson, the agricultural commissioner for Merced County, oversees the shelter. He said since it opened, there have been a couple of thousand additional animals coming in each year.
"We had gotten the number down for a while," Robinson said. "In fiscal year 2008/2009, 8,300 animals came in. In 2005/2006, that number was 10,000. Now it's back up."
More cats than dogs are euthanized at the shelter each year. Cats are harder to adopt, and harder to get rescue groups to take.
Between July of last year and Jan. 31, a staggering 785 dogs were euthanized. "I'm not sure why the numbers are up again," Robinson said. "I think part of it is the economy, and part is we have a new shelter that is nicer, cleaner, better equipped and has a larger capacity. That encourages people to utilize the facility, both for disposing of unwanted dogs and for adopting."
The cost to the county to run the animal shelter is $2 million a year, Robinson said. That includes the shelter operation, field operations and animal control officers.
A new family member
The animal shelter inspires some feel-good stories. On a recent cloudy, cool February morning, Don Hoornaert and his daughter, Jamie, 15, came in.
"Jamie does track and she needed a dog to go running with," Don Hoornaert said. They wanted a medium size dog, and after thinking about it, they decided to visit the shelter.
"We decided instead of buying a dog, we would adopt one," Hoornaert said.
The dog they chose was a black and white male border collie they named Thomas. The dog had come in as a stray on Feb. 5, from Atwater. The family hadn't had a pet for awhile, and Thomas seemed as if he would fit well into the family.
As the father and daughter took Thomas out the front door of the shelter, the dog turned, looked up at the dad and reached up and put his paw on the man's hand.
For just a second, the dog and the man looked at each other. Then the two people walked to their car and loaded up their new family member.
As they drove away, Thomas looked out the window. But he didn't look at the shelter. He was looking forward, to his future, not his past.
Kristen Lucas is the animal control officer for Livingston. She also works in rescue, and is constantly talking with people in the community.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard that the Merced shelter is a no-kill shelter," Lucas said. "It's not true. People are shocked when they hear it."
Lucas said she gets a lot of calls from people who want to surrender their animals who think if they take the animal to the shelter, it won't be euthanized. "It's a municipal shelter, it has to take every animal that comes in," she said. "At some point, there simply is no more space."
Merced's shelter has never been a no-kill shelter, and probably won't be until people change their attitudes about animals, Lucas said. "The answer is spaying and neutering, and responsible pet ownership," Lucas said. "I have people calling me and saying they are being foreclosed on and need to place their pet. Well, that didn't happen overnight, they had a lot time to figure something out. I know people who have been in that situation and figured it out. But for too many people, it's easy to kind of just discard the animal at the shelter because they think it will get adopted by another family. That's just not true."
Fate of too many dogs
For one dog, Lady Luck turned her back. Not named because he was cage-aggressive, trying to bite people through the fence, and dog-aggressive, the dog was known only as a number -- A080580.
He was a Welsh corgi mix, with the characteristic crooked front legs that define the breed. That probably kept some people from adopting him, because the legs look deformed. The tan and white dog came in from Atwater on Feb. 25, where he was found as a stray by a local citizen.
On March 7, his time was up.
"He's just not what people are looking for, unfortunately," Caseri said.
Taken from his cage by Abbott, the dog walked politely on a leash, to the blue room. He wagged his tail the whole way, glad to be out of his cage.
When he got to the room, he happily followed Abbott in, and behind him, the door shut with an audible click.Within minutes, Number A080580 became another statistic. A dog that didn't make it out of the Merced County Animal Shelter. A dog that a staff member had to hold and feel the life leave his body.
A dog whose cage will, too quickly, be filled with another dog.
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.