continued "But there are also animals who come in with more than one problem, as I described. Injuries, several illnesses, secondary infections. We get animals that have been in dogfights and been discarded -- they've survived but are doing poorly. Some are feral or not tame, that you can't handle -- cats especially. They're difficult to place because they're not really socialized. Our staff is trained to handle those situations, to handle animals humanely and make it safe for themselves and the animals. If appropriate, we make animals available for adoption. We try to hold on to animals as long as we have space and they're still healthy and don't risk illness for the rest of the population."
Mangiamele speaks more guardedly when discussing the destruction of animals. "Humane euthanasia, to us, is our ability to have trained personnel who are certified in euthanasia who can perform it so that the animal does not suffer. It means a quiet, calm death, and if that has to be done, we're proud that we can do it professionally and that each animal is handled as an individual, and they don't suffer.
"It's a responsibility of all veterinarians in private practice and, especially, in the shelter environment. I have to participate with my staff in everything we do. I help in humane investigations. I assist in the euthanasia room.
"We assess each animal individually. We look not only at what the population is but the animal itself to see whether or not it has any contagious illnesses, and it may. It may need isolation, it may need medication. Is it responding to medication? What background information do we have on the animal? Maybe that can help us do a permanent placement. Is it responding to the public or staff in a positive way? Is it not being aggressive, not showing signs that may be a public-safety issue? There are a lot of factors in analyzing each individual animal. Every single day we walk through our kennels and do a team approach with our kennel-management staff and our medical staff to assess animals. We make sure we've done everything we can to try to get those animals into a situation where they have a chance at permanent placement."
Are there situations when a healthy animal isn't placed and must be euthanized? "Again, it's an individual, case-by-case basis. Some animals we may keep for two months, some for two weeks -- it depends on our population. Some animals, after long periods in a kennel, start to get 'kennel crazy.' It's not fair to them because we feel that we just want to give them a 'quantity' of life when we really are strong advocates of 'quality' of life for animals.
"We perform euthanasia by intravenous injection with special euthanasia solutions. All species are kept separate and euthanized separately. The animals do not suffer. It is a very quick procedure, and they are usually unconscious in close to 30 seconds. They are monitored and disposed of. There's a service here in San Diego County that disposes of animal bodies -- they are not disposed of in this county -- I believe they go to Los Angeles. Animals that are dead on the street are picked up and taken to a rendering plant."
Many of the euthanasia procedures are performed by private veterinarians contracted to work for the county. Dr. Alexander Doss, 41, euthanizes animals for the county when his private practice permits. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Doss obtained his DVM at UC Davis and has practiced since 1986.
"I'm not an employee of the animal shelter or the county. I'm a contract veterinarian. I help out and work on days that they might need me when I have the time. The county does not employ veterinarians on a full-time basis. I've worked for the shelter for the last year and a half or two."
Doss's description of the euthanizing procedure is more specific. "We use a solution called Euthanol. That's really a brand name, but there are three or four manufacturers that make it under different names. All of them are very similar, and the main ingredient, sodium phenobarbital, is the same. It's a long-acting, very deep anesthetic. An overdose of that in concentration will achieve an instant stopping of the heartbeat. It's a very instant, very painless thing. But it's a very concentrated overdose of anesthetic that can and does kill people. Every size of animal has a different dosage.
"It's the same thing whether it's in a shelter or veterinary hospital. You have an RVT [registered veterinary technician] who holds the animal. Basically, we just find a vein and give it an intravenous injection. That's all there is to it. It's a very, very quick thing. Once you find the vein, it's instant. When you're done, the breathing has stopped, the eyes are not blinking, the heart has stopped. Of course, a good veterinarian will check the heart right after doing it. The bodies are put in a freezer -- there's a freezer at every animal shelter and veterinary hospital -- and a service comes in, picks them up, and mass cremates them."
Doss concurs that many factors go into deciding when to euthanize an animal. "It's not really the veterinarian's decision. Yes, I have the ultimate say on it. I can say, 'This animal is treatable or savable.' But in the everyday operations, the veterinarian does not get involved in the hours it takes to make those decisions.
"It's not the thing that veterinarians want to make as the focus of their practice, for obvious reasons. It's a necessary evil. We do it in private practice just as much or even more as they do in the shelter. It's a fact of life, and we just happen to be the custodians of making that decision for animals, since they can't make it for themselves."
While Mangiamele insists that the number of animals she has euthanized herself are too numerous to remember, she can provide statistics for the four county shelters (Gaines Street, Escondido, Carlsbad, and Bonita). For the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the combined shelters euthanized 6768 cats, 9097 dogs, 133 livestock animals, and 1232 other animals (birds, reptiles, rodents, etc.), totaling 17,230 animals. She admits that it can be emotionally draining to face so much death. "I try really hard to keep it in perspective that every animal we have to euthanize here... We've done everything we can for that particular animal.