This Dog’s Life

The story of No. 214 shows the plight of thousands of animals in Washoe County

Photo by David Robert

On Thanksgiving evening, a 6-month-old, black-and-white pit bull roves near the busy intersection of Pyramid Highway and McCarran Boulevard. Somebody sees the animal and decides to rescue the pup from the possibility of coming face to face with a car. The man coaxes him into his vehicle and drives away. Then he does what most people do upon finding a stray—he heads to Reno Police Animal Services.

The last person on site at the Animal Services building left at 4:30 p.m. The stray pup arrives sometime after that.

The driver leaves him in one of 15 night-drop cages. There is a heat lamp inside each of these six-sided white metal boxes, but it is really nothing more than a high-powered light bulb. The puppy curls up under it to absorb the trivial amount of warmth. It’s a few degrees warmer inside the cage than it is outside. He passes the night there.

On the morning of Nov. 29, an Animal Services caretaker finds the dog and submits him to a medical check, places him in a clean kennel in the building where other strays are held, fills out an identification card and gives him an intake number—No. 021144214, or No. 214 for short. The caretaker notes that No. 214 is feisty and has a tendency to nip. He is also neutered, which means somebody probably owns him.

No. 214 will have five days for his owners to pick him up. On the sixth day, a new family will have the opportunity to take him home. He has a 70 percent chance of being liberated by his original family, being adopted by a new family or being rescued by the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, launched in Reno in 1998) or Northern Nevada Humane Society. With five days to go, the odds look good.

WITH BALLOT QUESTION WC-3, Washoe Couinty voters decided in November to fund a new $10.8 million animal shelter. Critics said the new facility is still less than a Band-Aid to the animal problem in the Truckee Meadows. It will not staunch the flow of animals into the killing room, nor will it decrease the number of unsterilized animals out there.

Still, the new facility will improve conditions for humans and animals, allow separation of sick animals from healthy ones and increase kennel capacity (which will decrease kills because the building will reach capacity less often). Better conditions should decrease disease and euthanasias.

In Washoe County, Animal Services takes on the role of “lost and found.” Animals that are found, no owner in sight, are picked up by the Reno Police Department’s Animal Services Division or brought in by the public. All healthy and friendly strays that are not reclaimed by their owners go up for adoption.

“This shelter is the only facility that can claim strays because we hold them for the five days to allow the owners to redeem their animals,” Susan Harris, acting Animal Services director, says. “Nevada Humane Society and SPCA can only take owner-surrendered animals. But because animals are, by law, property, they are considered lost property, and they come to us and we hold them and make every effort to reunite them with their owners.”

Since animals are property, stray dogs have priority over dogs on adoption row. If a large number of strays come in on any given day and there isn’t room for them all, some will have to be placed in adoption kennels, meaning that the adoptable dogs must leave—either through adoptions, rescues or euthanasia.

Susan Harris, Director of Animal Services, examines a cat that had to be shaved because its fur was so matted.

Photo by David Robert

“The dog that’s the least adoptable and that has been there the longest would be euthanized,” says Karen Stark, an R.P.D. Animal Services Division dispatch officer. The less adoptable dogs are usually older dogs, larger dogs, dogs that bark a lot and dogs that appear to have been abused.

“Things go through your head, and you wonder how [euthanasia] is going to be,” Stark says, “but it’s really humane. It’s an overdose of anesthetic, really. They don’t struggle, it’s very fast and it doesn’t hurt them. It’s not like they did 25 years ago—25 to 35 years ago, they were using an asphyxiation chamber, or in some counties they would shoot the animal.”

Euthanasia happens every day, but the statistics in Washoe County are markedly better than those of the nation.

“We get 12,000 to 14,000 animals a year,” Animal Services Supervisor Terri Shultz says. “Every day about 40 animals come through that door. The sad thing is that for every day that 40 animals come through, 40 animals have to go out, and they don’t all get adopted. But we do have a really high adoption rate of about 30 percent. The euthanasia rate is about the same. The national euthanasia rate is about 50 percent, so we do very well.”

Still, killing nearly 4,000 animals per year equates to more than 10 potential pets per day receiving fatal injections.

THERE ARE FIVE caretakers working at Reno Animal Services, seven counting the supervisors. There are also seven field officers and four office employees. They are understaffed. Shultz often spends more than 40 hours a week caring for the animals and carrying out general maintenance.

Between cleaning kennels (which is time consuming, considering there are more than 120 kennels for dogs and 100 kennels for cats), feeding the animals, assisting the public and performing medical and behavior evaluations, Shultz passes No. 214’s kennel and interacts with him many times during the day.

No. 214 is served Pedigree dog food once a day, in the morning, like every other dog. The only dogs that get fed more often are females carrying puppies and dogs that are extremely emaciated.

No. 214 exhausts his five days in the stray building with no sign of his owner. A caretaker moves him to an adoption kennel. Because he is young and small, he has a relatively good chance of being adopted, which means that even if he isn’t adopted right away, Animal Services will probably keep him around a while.

“I’ve seen dogs here for up to two months,” Shultz says. “I think the longest I’ve ever seen one was almost three months. We hold them as long as they can handle being in this kennel environment. It’s not an easy thing. Some of the breeds, like pit bulls and border collies, can’t take being put into a kennel like that for long periods of time. They just go stir crazy.”

Animal Services lacks the number of volunteers that organizations such as the SPCA and the Northern Nevada Humane Society get. There are only three or four volunteers who come in on a regular basis, which means the dogs get only the minimal amount of care. Meanwhile, at the SPCA, the dogs are socialized every day and walked two to three times a day.

Even though night drop instructions indicate that injured animals are not to be left in these metal boxes, people often leave sick and dying animals in them.

Photo by David Robert

The SPCA, being a no-kill rescue group, is fundamental in keeping the euthanasia rates at Animal Services down.

“We average about 12 to 15 dogs a week that we bring in from Reno Animal Services,” Tracy Bulkley, SPCA director, says. “We bring in as many as we can. On adoptions, we average about 130 animals a month. We have one main woman who picks the animals. She looks at two things: They have to be adoptable, which means they can’t be aggressive, and we have to have a variety of dogs—different sizes, colors, breeds, males and females. She also looks at the ones who are overlooked. She looks at the ones who are hiding back in their kennels in a shell. She looks down deep and finds out what [the dogs] are really like.”

The SPCA offers dogs a last chance. They do everything they can to lower euthanasia rates. All dogs that are adopted by the SPCA stay at the shelter until they are adopted out into the public.

“Euthanasia,” Bulkley says, “is putting an animal out of its misery; it doesn’t mean simply dying for lack of space. But the only answer to end euthanasia is spaying and neutering.”

Reno Animal Services and other shelters require that all adopted dogs be either spayed or neutered and vaccinated for rabies before leaving the facilities. The recently passed WC-3 drew criticism from opponents because it supplies money for the building of a new shelter that will still euthanize animals rather than supplying money to fund education programs focused on spaying and neutering.

“If this facility was ever going to move toward a no-kill, it would take the cooperation of the whole community to provide the support for those animals that were not adopted,” Harris says. “Right now, it’s not there. There is money going into outreach, but we’re still having the same number of animals come through our door.”

Harris says that one walk through the shelter will illustrate how much a new shelter is needed. She says shelter employees try to educate the public, but they are not dealing only with adoptable animals and responsible owners.

“We don’t always get the perfect pet walking through our door,” she says. “We are a municipal shelter, which means that we accept all animals, one-legged, one-eyed, one-armed, one-winged, ill, half-dead. Well, what’s an adoptable animal? Right now we have a shaved cat that’s been abused. We’re gonna put it out there. But when we put that cat out there for adoption, it’s gonna sit there. Then we’ll get to a point where we say, ‘OK, what are the chances for this animal being adopted?’

“When I first came here I didn’t fully understand it. I didn’t think we’d have to [euthanize] every day until I worked the kennel. And it’s tough to make that decision, but where are you going to put them? You can’t put them outside. We have to provide the same level of care to the animals as we require of any owner. We can’t just set up camp outside under a tent and tie them to a tree.”

ON DEC. 11, NO. 214 IS ABOUT to be removed from his kennel, so it can be cleaned and disinfected. As the caretaker moves in to leash him, No. 214 bites him. It is not clear whether he was going for the leash or intentionally went for the hand. Regardless, he pierced the skin.

The caretakers bring No. 214 to quarantine. He prances and wags his tail. Most of the dogs love to be released from their kennels.

Kathy and Hayden Lowery check out the information on a Dalmation, No. 296.

Photo by David Robert

All bite dogs are isolated from other dogs and from human contact for 10 days. A dog that has rabies will either get sick or die within those 10 days. But there have been no cases of rabies in a dog for years. Most recently, the predominant carriers of rabies have been bats.

“As far as bites go, any bite is reported because it is a public-health issue,” Harris says. “If the dog has an owner, the owner is identified. If we have some proof of current rabies, we can give them the option to home quarantine. It is very important that the dog is restricted to the home. If they don’t think they can do that, then they should not do it. If they keep it here, then they’re going to have to pay the room and board for it. For stray bites, we hold them for the 10 days, and if we can’t find the owner then we can’t adopt them out.”

Several of the 14 kennels in the quarantine wing are already occupied. No. 214 is guided inside his kennel. The gate closes and he barks. He has outdoor access in this kennel. It is better than the cramped kennel he occupied as a stray. A new identification card has been filled out and is slipped into a slot that is attached to the fence. It reads, “BITE,” at the top. The card still has the intake number on it and the dog’s in-date, but now there is also a bite date. At the bottom of the card, it says, “Out Date,” followed by a black line waiting to hold those fateful numbers.

Some of the dogs in quarantine have never bitten but are clearly aggressive. All dogs coming into the shelter are given behavior evaluations. Shultz says, “With some dogs, you can just tell that something is not quite right.”

Some dogs are unsociable and mean as a result of past abuse. Some have been living as strays for so long that they are naturally defensive. And some, like the recent mother Labrador mix, No. 980—brought it by an owner who didn’t want her anymore—are frightened and hostile. They are not prepared to be separated from their masters and their puppies or to be placed in an unfamiliar cement kennel, behind a metal fence, exposed to the constant yaps, woofs and howls of other dogs they can’t see.

No. 980, like other dogs that raise their hackles and show signs of intimidation and aggression, is given more than 24 hours to settle down and warm up to the caretakers. But two days after her owner relinquished her to Reno Police Animal Services, No. 980, still plump from puppy rearing, is growling and looking like she might bite the people who are trying to care for her.

She has to be put down.

NO. 214 HAS SPENT 10 DAYS in quarantine. It is Dec. 21. The wind blows light but steady. The asphalt is wet from rain that fell sometime during the night. The air hangs gray.

At 8 a.m., Schultz makes her rounds. After checking out the stray kennels, the adoption kennels and the cat infirmary, she strolls through quarantine. A Dalmatian to her right swings its tail in circles. The Dalmatian is 10 years old, has heartworms and is prone to seizures. Officer Stark brought him in the night before. He bit a 2-year-old child. His owner placed him under Animal Service’s watch instead of quarantining him at home.

No. 214 barks two kennels down from the Dalmatian. He shoves his snout through the chain-link fence, wagging his tail. Schultz puts her hand up to his nose. She says, “You know, I had questions about this one’s behavior. Even though it’s a puppy, I still had questions about its behavior. He is very over-exuberant, which is very difficult to handle in training. It takes a very special person to be able to train this kind of dog. It takes an experienced person, and not many people are that experienced.”

No. 214 barks again, louder than before, as another pit bull, kitty-corner to him, competes for attention. The older pit, orange and champagne in color, was left in the night drop like No. 214. He lets loose an ear-piercing yowl that masks an intense snarl.

Animal Services and other groups worry that making the new shelter look more pleasing will result in people feeling less guilty about leaving pets there.

Photo by David Robert

Shultz lifts her hand, almost a foot away from the kennel, and the dog lunges. His front paws rattle the fence. Standing up on his back legs he is almost as tall as Schultz herself. “I’m pretty certain that an owner put him in [the night drop],” she says. “I don’t think there’s a person alive that could get close to him. He’s been that way the whole time. We can’t even feed him unless we take some food and throw it to the back of the kennel to distract him.”

As she exits the back door, the dogs do not cease their racket.

Finishing her morning routine, Shultz is asked to assist a woman and her two daughters in picking up their stray Lab. The young girls caress their pet as Shultz chats with their mother, informing her that an electric fence might be good idea. The mother says thank you and goodbye and leads the dog on its leash as the girls skip to their car.

“You see a lot of good and a lot of bad,” Shultz says. Then her skin tightens and her features become stern and yet vague. She returns to the main office, where she encounters caretaker Mary Phillips. Phillips has been with the facility for just over three years. Shultz asks Philips to meet her in the back building with No. 214.

Behind an array of cubicles in the front office, Schultz unlocks a case that contains the controlled substance sodium pentobarbital. She lifts out a dirty-white container that holds many doses of the barbiturate. Pentobarbital has sedative, hypnotic and antispasmodic effects. She carries the container to the building just past the quarantine wing—the euthanasia room.

MOMENTS LATER, PHILLIPS enters with No. 214 on a short blue leash. She offers the dog her attention and her physical contact. She pets and pats and tickles. No. 214 pulls on his leash. He squirms and shakes as though he were wet. In his excitement, his tail swings feverishly. It whacks Phillips’ leg as she murmurs praises to him.

“OK, we’re ready,” Shultz says. Phillips heaves No. 214 onto a chrome operating table. She urges his haunches down with the pressure of her own weight, but No. 214 immediately pops back up. His back left leg slides off the table. Phillips prevents him from slipping and gets him to sit back down. She gently wraps the leash around his short snout. It comes undone and she does it again. “Shh shh shh shh shh,” she says. She hugs him tightly and presses her face against his head.

Shultz shaves the dog’s front right leg. She grabs the pentobarbital and quickly finds the vein.

She gives the injection.

No. 214 closes his eyes. His body goes limp within three seconds. Phillips slowly and carefully releases her embrace and lays the dog on the table. Shultz says thank you and Phillips leaves. Drops of blood drip from No. 214’s leg. They pool on the silver table.

Shultz raises a stethoscope to her ears and listens for No. 214’s heartbeat. “All of us have cried in this room at one point,” she says. She grabs No. 214 by the feet—it’s the easiest way to carry the dogs into the freezer. The freezer has a stronger odor than the rest of the room. A potent mold and chemical cloud lingers in the cold air. Shultz lifts the lid on one of eight large, yellow, plastic containers that Reno Rendering Company comes and empties once a week.

Shultz places No. 214 with care in a yellow tub. His body rests tranquil on top of others—others who went for the same walk earlier in the week.