I WAS NINETEEN YEARS OLD in 1987 when I applied for a job as a kennel attendant at a public animal shelter in New England. It was the summer before my junior year at Antioch College, a private school in Ohio, and I was funding my tuition through scholarships and a series of short-term jobs like this one.
The woman who interviewed me asked a handful of questions, of which I remember only one: “Part of your job will be euthanizing animals,” she said. “Are you OK with that?”
I was not OK with that. As someone who had been working since she was twelve, however, I had a simple but effective strategy for getting jobs: say yes.
Yes, I can type eighty-five words a minute.
Yes, I know Excel.
Yes, I can lift thirty pounds over my head.
Yes, yes, yes.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
She checked a box on the form and asked when I could start.
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING I reported for work in the adoption room along with the other attendants. There were six of us: Me. A quiet blond girl who was still in high school. A brother and sister who attended a local community college. A woman who appeared to suffer from some mental-health problems. And Ricky, who’d worked there the longest and was quietly drinking his coffee. Everyone was under thirty, and no one seemed happy to be there.
Our supervisor, Chuck, looked like a cop who’d give you a speeding ticket for going just two miles over the limit. He assigned me to a woman named Christie for training. A few years older than I was, she was a hardworking type, the sort of person who will die of a heart attack at eighty-five while shoveling her driveway after a snowstorm.
The cages were piled three high in long rows. Many of the dogs and cats, especially the puppies and kittens, ran forward, pressing themselves against the cage doors in a bid for attention as we entered Row One. I wanted to pet them but quickly learned there was no time for such niceties. Christie demonstrated how to pull a soiled cardboard lining from under a cage and replace it with a fresh one, how to fill an animal’s food bowl with one hand and prevent its escape with the other. It was clean up and move on, clean up and move on, an endless landscape of urine and shit.
Christie nodded with approval as I followed her instructions. “You work in kennels before?” she said.
“No. Is Chuck a good boss?” I asked hopefully.
Christie shook her head, not slowing her pace. “We call him the Narc,” she replied.
The origin of this nickname was never explained to me, but it was clearly not a compliment.
“Have you worked here a long time?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Ninety days.”
The paper in the break room was usually folded open to the want ads.
THE JOB WASN’T THAT BAD. The physical labor didn’t bother me, and I quickly got used to the smell. When you work in a facility with hundreds of animals being kept against their will, though, bites and scratches are inevitable.
A few days in, I found an opossum in my section. They’re not typically aggressive, but this one was cornered, and its teeth were intimidatingly large. Unsure how to deal with it, I asked the Narc for advice.
“They’re stupid,” he said. “Wave a pencil in front of its face while you’re filling its food bowl.”
This struck me as both overly optimistic and not compliant with safety regulations, but I was an obedient worker and did as I was told. Though I didn’t quite trust the Narc, I did trust Christie, who had told me not to worry about any of the residents of Row One: “It’s Row Five you’ve got to worry about.”
Row Five was the shelter’s maximum-security wing, where we put animals who had been admitted for biting someone. By law they had to be kept under observation for ten days to determine if they had rabies, though none of the animals ever tested positive. Some animals in Row Five appeared to be harmless — victims of people using animal control to exact revenge on a neighbor. Others were legitimately dangerous.
During my tenure a Rottweiler named Bindo ruled Row Five. Rumor was he’d mauled a toddler, and his owner was fighting a legal battle to keep him from extermination. Living in a small cage for two years had done nothing to improve Bindo’s disposition. He barked occasionally, but mostly he watched us through the bars in ominous silence. In my time at the shelter we received a half dozen pit bulls from a drug bust, a boa constrictor, and several raccoons angling for a fight, but none of them was as scary as Bindo.
The staff always gave the benefit of the doubt to the animals, even those who seemed to want to kill us. People who work with animals generally do so out of a deep affection for them, and a job in a shelter does not change that. Mostly it just makes you like people less.
“There are no bad dogs,” the Narc would often remark, “only irresponsible owners.” Though pit bulls had a reputation for being aggressive, especially during that era, the Narc told us there was nothing wrong with the breed itself; it was the owners’ fault when the dogs turned violent.
Sometimes I snuck Bindo treats out of sympathy, but also as a hedge against an attack in case he got out. “Remember this face, OK?” I’d tell him as I held up the doggie biscuit. Then I’d slide it into his cage from a safe distance, making sure my fingers didn’t slip through the bars. At those moments, eating his treat and wagging his tail, he seemed like any other dog.
Initially I worried about being assigned to Row Five. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to restrain an animal like Bindo. My arms were already covered with scratches from pissed-off cats. After a few weeks, though, I stopped worrying, because Row Five was assigned almost exclusively to Ricky. I’d seen him move Bindo, slowly and carefully, with the animal-control pole, which the dog seemed to tolerate. Ricky was a calming presence for the difficult animals, so it made sense to give him Row Five. At least, I figured that was why he got the duty. He was also the only African American among the attendants, but this didn’t seem relevant. That area needed to be overseen by an experienced staff member. One time someone else was assigned to Row Five and accidentally left the door to a kitten’s cage open. The kitten crawled in with Bindo. Within a minute there was nothing left but blood and fur.
AFTER I STOPPED having concerns over a Row Five assignment, there was only one thing I actively feared: the tap. Once every week or so the Narc would tap an attendant on the shoulder and send him or her to the backroom to thin out the population.
In short order I realized that, as with the Row Five assignment, I was low on the list to have backroom duty. It fell to the more experienced attendants — most often Ricky. Someone else got the tap only when he had the day off. One could argue that, because he’d been there the longest, with a tenure of eight months, he could be trusted to do it, but it would have been just as reasonable to stick new employees with the worst jobs, the way we got the worst shifts. Backroom duty required stomach and stamina more than it did actual skill. We killed fifty or sixty animals in a session, one at a time.
Once, the Narc asked me to go to the backroom to deliver a message to Ricky. I was holding a kitten in my arms, and as I made my way toward the back, she tried to climb over my shoulder in the opposite direction, sinking her claws into me, desperate to make a run for it.
I opened the door to see Ricky pinning a white rabbit to a metal table with the weight of his body, one hand holding a syringe poised over its haunches. The rabbit thumped valiantly, but Ricky kept the pressure on it as he sank the needle in. The other animals scheduled for execution watched. A half-open garbage bag filled with bodies lay to one side.
I relayed the message, and he half listened, the way you do when someone interrupts you in the middle of something. Then the Narc came along, saw the kitten on my shoulder fighting to get away, and shut the door between Ricky and me.
“Don’t ever bring the animals back there,” he said sharply. “They don’t like the smell.”
Everyone who abandoned an animal, everyone who treated one so poorly no one else would want it, everyone who refused to spay or neuter their pets — all those people were responsible for what went on in that backroom.
They kicked the ball to us, and we kicked it to Ricky.
MAYBE YOU THINK Ricky didn’t mind putting down the animals, that he got used to it, like a nurse who cleans bedpans at a hospital. That was not the case. I know this because sometime after I started working there, Ricky added a new step to his backroom duty.
Normally, after he was tapped, Ricky went back and didn’t emerge until he was done. One day, though, the door opened, and he came out holding a white kitten whose eyes were two different colors. The shelter’s vet had told me such cats were often born deaf, which may be how this one had ended up in the back so quickly.
“Does anyone want this kitten?” Ricky asked, circling the room as the rest of us cleaned out the cages. “Anyone?” The animal struggled to right itself as he held it aloft.
I shook my head as he passed me. The others did the same. We were the wrong audience for such a display, and Ricky knew this. It was more a show of anguish than a realistic effort to save the animal from death. “Going once,” he said, his voice cracking. “Going twice.”
The next time, he came out with a pit-bull puppy. “Last chance for this puppy,” he said, touring the rows. “Anyone want him?” We all shook our heads, sheepish and uncomfortable. I couldn’t meet Ricky’s eyes, or the dog’s.
I think everyone was sympathetic to his motivation — everyone but the Narc, who watched with growing anger and finally waylaid Ricky in Row Three.
“Stop parading the animals around,” the Narc said, his tone icy. “Just do your job.”
After that, Ricky and the Narc’s relationship deteriorated. Whereas before, any animosity between them had been private, now they openly clashed. “What’s wrong with you?” I heard the Narc ask Ricky one day. In response Ricky slammed a cage door and muttered something I didn’t catch.
A few days later Ricky was fired. Someone else got assigned to Row Five, and backroom duty rotated among the more experienced attendants. Now that Ricky wasn’t unfairly saddled with the worst tasks in the shelter, I worried my own responsibilities would change. Would I have to contend with Bindo? Would I have to kill innocent kittens and dogs and rabbits? If I got the tap, I thought, I could always quit. There were only a few weeks left until school started.
A day or two after Ricky had been let go, I was dumping cat food into a bowl in Row Three when the veterinarian darted in from the hallway, shutting the door behind her.
“Ricky’s back,” she said. “And he’s got a knife.”
We stood in silence. A door slammed somewhere in the building. We heard one of the massive, wheeled trash cans crash into the wall. I wasn’t too scared, though. I knew who Ricky had come for.
The Narc and Ricky struggled in the hall, but their confrontation didn’t last long. Ricky was on the small side and outmatched by the Narc. A few objects were thrown against the wall. Then we heard Ricky run through the adoption area and out the front door.
“Goddamn n——!” the Narc yelled after him.
Hearing that, I could no longer pretend not to know why Ricky had gotten all the worst assignments.
The Narc came around to let the rest of us know it was safe. There was little discussion of the incident, and no mention of the Narc’s use of the N-word. No one on staff had been hurt. Someone at the adoption desk had called the police as soon as Ricky had walked through the door. I felt sure the cops would catch up with him; it’s not as though no one knew who he was.
A week or two later I was scheduled to go back to school. On my final shift, before my lunch break, the Narc stopped me in the hall and asked about my major and what Antioch was like — more questions than he’d asked during my entire stint at the shelter. The conversation felt awkward and forced. Then the veterinarian emerged from the break room and signaled for us to come in. When I saw my co-workers gathered around a cake that read, GOOD LUCK, NANCY, I realized the Narc’s idle chatter had been a delaying tactic. I was pretty sure he’d paid for the cake himself.
I ate two pieces, extra frosting on both.
That fall I returned to my fancy private college. Ricky probably had to face charges. Bindo almost definitely got put to death. It must have taken two or three people to restrain him when they stuck the needle in. I would hope he did some damage on his way out if I didn’t pity the unlucky humans who had to put him down.