(Occasionally I’ll post here excerpts from the book I’m writing about losing and coming back to faith in God. In the first chapter, I remember some of the experiences that fed my growing cynicism about not just religion, but life in general. In this excerpt, I write about a couple of incidents during my time volunteering at the Humane Society. Comments and suggestions for improvement are appreciated – I figure the book will be better if I put parts of it out there for “mass editing.”)
In my memory, he looks something like Benji, the movie star dog of the 1970’s. A scraggly ball of gray, brown, and white fur with big brown eyes. This Benji had a little more gray on him, and his brown eyes were wiser. Hopefully not wise enough to know what was happening to him. What I was doing to him.
Although I am fuzzy on his appearance, I do remember his expression the last time I saw him.
The last time he saw anybody.
He’d been brought into the Humane Society that day by a guy who looked like a grandpa out of Central Casting. I remember him as sort of an older Jimmy Stewart – thin, tall but slightly bowed, with neatly combed silver hair. Honestly, 35 years or so have both dulled the reality and enhanced the imagination of my memory, so I’m not positive of any of that. But, there is one feature of Benji’s owner that I’m sure about – his eyes were rimmed with red. The old dude had been weeping.
As he ambled up to the counter in the Receiving Building, the reason for the tears was soon apparent. “I just can’t take care of Benji anymore like he deserves. He’s been a great pal for these past 14 years, but I don’t have the energy anymore.” He looked down at the dog and gave his head a pat. “You will find a good home for him, won’t you?”
Fifteen years old and I was alone at the Receiving counter that summer day. I’d been volunteering there at the Humane Society long enough to know that old dogs just didn’t get adopted. And there wasn’t room to keep them indefinitely. But this dog . . . this old gentleman, they were different. These weren’t the usual folks who dropped off their regular litters of kittens or puppies they couldn’t get rid of. I’d been numbed by the uncaring (stupid) folks who didn’t seem to know where baby animals came from or how to stop them from coming, but this guy and his pooch pierced through the armor I’d grown over the months I’d been there.
“We’ll certainly see what we can do. You have to fill out this form.”
I handed him a half-sheet of yellow cardstock, with spaces for his name, address, all the usual stuff. There was also room for information about his dog for any future owners – usually a waste of time considering the huge disparity between the animals coming into my receiving door versus those leaving over the adoption threshold next door.
The important part of the form for me was the back. It was blank. I’d “grown” past really worrying about its blankness that I had to fill in with either “Adopt” or “EU.”
If I wrote “Adopt” on the form, it was a ticket to the spacious display cages where families would fall in love with a dog or a cat and take it home to a lifetime of companionship and cream.
If I scrawled (and it was always scrawled, as if EU was one letter) EU on the back of the form, it was a ticket to a lifetime of . . . less than an hour. Every few hours on busy weekend days the euthanasia machine would be fired up and another cage full of unwanted dogs and cats would leave this world. Animals who were consigned to EU were put in holding cages just big enough for them, then when their time came were deposited through an opening at the top into a big cylindrical pen that fit snugly into the depressurizing death machine that was something like a whitewashed MRI tube.
You see, EU stood for “euthanasia.” And that didn’t mean the dog or cat was going to go live with a Japanese teenager (youth-in-Asia. Ba-dum-bump.)
So grandpa handed me the card with his information and stuff about how Benji was housetrained and good with kids and just the greatest all-around canine you could ever know.
“We’ll do what we can. I’m sure someone would love to give Benji a good home.”
I think he knew. The old guy, I mean. Only looking back from the wisdom of experience do I realize that now – I had no clue then. We were just dancing a dance, avoiding the truth. They’d both gone and gotten too old – grandpa too old to care for a dog, Benji too old to start over. And, thinking about it now, grandpa must not have had anyone to help him out. He’d gotten not just old, but alone. And now his one friend . . .
“Goodbye, boy.” He stroked the dog’s tousled fur one last time then handed him to me. Then he was gone.
There I was with Benji. Just him and me. When I had started volunteering at the Humane Society, I had really equivocated about the life or death decisions I was called upon to make at the Receiving desk. Lately, not so much.
But as I held Benji and watched his worn-out owner drive away, I really didn’t know what I was going to do.
I knew if I wrote “Adopt” on the back of that card, I’d hear about it from the rest of the staff. They would have asked me how the hell I expected an old dog to get adopted when there are more puppies and younger housebroken dogs than we can adopt out as it is. And I wouldn’t be doing my job – my job of helping animals by getting rid of the unadoptable chaff so the chosen ones could get good care and attention and a home. Not the job I signed on for when I biked out to the Humane Society so I could “help animals,” but one whose logic had won me over.
I walked to the back room. I didn’t put Benji in the EU cages in the rear, or the adoption cages in the front. I placed him in a holding cage for the few animals that would be staying in Receiving for a while – usually dogs or cats who were being observed for rabies (most animals suspected of rabies were just euthanized and then their heads were chopped off. The heads awaited transport to the lab in the same refrigerator where we kept our lunches. Eating my bologna sandwich after it had been in close quarters with a possibly rabid cat head took some getting used to, but I was learning that you could get used to plenty).
The day went on and I made lots of trips from the Receiving counter into that back room. I checked on Benji each time I went back there. There were only two dogs I ever thought about taking home during my year and a half or so at the Humane Society – one was a Keeshound puppy who was adopted in a day. The other was Benji. Who wasn’t.
Eventually – I don’t know how long it was but it was before the end of the day – I decided what to do about Benji.
It’s funny that out of all the animals I sentenced to death, I remember just one. The last time I saw him was when I put him into that big cage that got rolled back to the EU room. The older-Benji-looking doggie was rolling the Green Mile when he gave me that too-wise look I referred to at the beginning of this account. I think he knew, too.
And now, all these years later, my guts still twist up when I think about Benji and grandpa. I’m still sure I did the right thing in the context of the situation, but I still grieve that it had to be done. I grieve even more that I was the one that had to do it. By itself, it was certainly not the most terribly traumatic thing a kid ever had to endure. But it was another brick in the wall between me and faith in a “good” God, another step away from the religion in which I had been raised. Good didn’t always win in the end in the real world. At the Humane Society I started learning just how rotten people could be. And it wasn’t just hearing about, or even going on a few cruelty investigations. It wasn’t just having to dig a grave for a horse who had to be shot because the owner had starved it and after we rescued it there was no hope of recovery. I cursed that owner with every shovelful of dirt I pulled out of that hole under the blazing Florida sun, but it wasn’t those dramatic examples of cruelty that most contributed to my growing cynicism.
It was the people I met doing the job in the Receiving Room. People who give “people” a bad name.
Like the folks who drove up one day in the middle of a steaming southern summer afternoon. This young couple had a cardboard box full of kittens – tiny white and black balls of fur that blended into the newspaper lining the box. The kittens were “cute” (when have kittens ever not been cute), even though every one of them had their tongues lolling out of their mouths and were panting like they’d run all the way to the Humane Society. They were seriously overheated, and probably not too far away from dying of heat prostration. The husband set the box on the counter of the Receiving Office, where I was on duty. Read this next line as if it was spoken by Cletus Spuckler. (Cletus – full name Cletus Del Roy Spuckler – is the hillbilly, aka “Slack Jawed Yokel,” character on “The Simpsons”). “Our mama cat had her some kittens.”
What a surprise! You didn’t have your cat spayed and you let her traipse all over the neighborhood and now . . . kittens that you can’t or won’t take care of and you won’t try to find homes for. Now, here he was hoping that we would take care of his problem, and he could get back to his life of irresponsibility. It was our problem now, and he said what just about everybody said right before they ran out of there as quick as they could: “I hope ya’ll can find a home for them.”
Here’s what I didn’t say: “Sure we can. We take in 200 animals on a busy Saturday afternoon, and we adopt out maybe 15. I volunteer here because I love animals, but what I ‘get’ to do after hosing dog poop out of kennels is to stand here all day and take in dogs and cats from people like you too stupid or too lazy or too apathetic to keep your pet from reproducing, and then bringing kittens and puppies in here for me kill. I’m 15, and I’ve been given life or death power. I’m going to fill out a receiving card for your kittens, and then I’m going to write on it ‘EU’ or ‘adopt.’ Guess which one your already-almost-dead kittens are going to get?”
What I did say as I filled out the card was this. “They’re really panting.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why in the world that’s goin’ on.”
“Maybe because it’s almost 100 degrees outside and you brought them here IN YOUR TRUNK! Your CLOSED UP TRUNK that I saw you take them out of in the parking lot. And you CAN’T UNDERSTAND why they’re panting?”
I didn’t say that, either. Remember, I was 15. But I hope you could see why volunteering in a position like that would help make me cynical. My cynicism was only enhanced by tagging along with the Cruelty Investigator a few times. I’ll save the details for another book, but after growing up in the cocoon of an intact suburban family, the capacity of human beings for sadism was shocking.