Reporting: Three days to live

(Ed. note: This story was adapted from a series that was reported in 2006 and 2007. The seven-part series appeared in The Enquirer-Journal newspaper in Monroe, N.C., and won first place in the North Carolina Press Association awards for news feature writing.)

I.

Just past dawn at the Union County Animal Shelter, the smell of new paint and animals gave way to nose-stinging disinfectant.

Bullish and close-clipped, Deputy Rick Mullis watched from one end of a cinderblock corridor as an inmate on work-release from the county jail traded generic sneakers for black rubber boots and went to work on a row of dog runs.

Mullis slouched over his gun and his radio. He was one of those Southern men who spent years mumbling through the national anthem on a high school football field, the kind of guy for whom the transition from helmet and pads for a law enforcement uniform seemed natural, if not inevitable. In the early morning light, he seemed as relaxed as a man could be in a stiff leather belt, facing a work day full of scared animals and frustrations.

The inmate slopped a mop around the gray-painted concrete floor, dragged a squeegee toward the drain channel outside each cage, changed the food and water, and opened a pass-through door to the wire cage outside. From the pass-through, which raised and lowered like a guillotine, he coaxed a young, brown-and-black mutt into the cell.

The routine took about five minutes in each four-by-six cell; if all eleven of the adoption kennels were filled, one person could hustle through them in an hour, but the inmate took his time.

Eventually, Mullis left the man to his task and headed through the double doors between the adoption area and the animal control kennels. He checked the cards pinned to each chain-link cage, comparing them to the clipboard charts that listed each animal in the building—strays, animals quarantined for biting, and two dogs that were evidence in abuse cases, a misdemeanor in North Carolina. These cages wouldn’t be cleaned until later, after the gas chamber did its work.

Mullis made slow progress toward another set of double doors in the far wall. Behind them waited his boss, Lt. Michelle Starnes, some storage rooms, a garage, and the gas chamber.

Every stray in Union County, North Carolina, is granted three days to live on the taxpayer’s dollar. If its owner doesn’t claim it, a dog or cat will go to the adoption kennels at the front of the building or to the gas chamber and incinerator in the back.

The deputy consulted with his boss. One dog had been in the stray kennels for three days: a young, mixed-breed puppy, brown and lanky, maybe a cousin to the pups already in the front.

The dog caught Starnes’ notice when she did her early rounds. Out of the cage, it wiggled under her hands, wagging and licking at the leg of her jeans.

“Today’s his third day,” she said. “Why wouldn’t someone come for him?”

Mullis brought the dog and his card up to the front.

II.

Here is what could have happened: The dogs and cats that are going to die are brought out first thing in the morning, before the shelter’s adoption center opens, before the food bowls are emptied and refilled.

The dogs are coaxed or pushed, a pair at a time, into a hip-high rolling cage.

Sometimes a big or vicious dog is caged alone. Often, smaller dogs go in larger groups.

The cat carriers rest on top of the rolling cage, one cat in each box as they glide down the wide hall and turn through a door on the left. The room is a big, concrete box with swinging doors on the far wall. It looks like a storage room, maybe a school kitchen or a bus garage.

This is not the room that is described on humane groups’ websites, the one where all the animals are packed together to yelp and screech until the carbon monoxide knocks them out.

That room, the gas chamber, isn’t a room at all; it’s a small cubby through the left-hand door in the far wall. Two adults could press into it together.

The rolling cage and cat carriers can slide in with a few inches to spare on either side. The door seals shut. There is a window so the operator can see what’s going on in the chamber.

The gas only has to run for about 25 seconds to deliver a lethal dose. When the carbon monoxide floods in, it’s designed to knock the animals unconscious within 30 seconds. It takes them a while longer to die.

According to the manufacturer, there should be no sound from the machine, no smell or taste of gas, no pain, although no one at the shelter knows how they would determine if that’s the case.

This is what onlookers can’t see: When carbon monoxide hits the animals’ lungs, it passes into the bloodstream. There, it locks onto the red blood cells, blocking them from picking up oxygen to feed the brain, heart and organs.

Without oxygen, the body starts to shut down.

The brain quits. It quits everything, starting with voluntary muscle movement and consciousness. The animals don’t have time to lie down; they pass out so quickly that they drop to the floor of the cages.

Their brains, starving for oxygen, try to command their lungs to pump harder, but it doesn’t help. There’s no room for oxygen in their bloodstreams; carbon monoxide has gripped them and won’t let go.

Sometimes there’s a noise. The voice box works when air moves over the vocal chords and, even though the animals are unconscious, air still moves through their throats. It is disquieting, a howling whimper.

Veterinarians who approve of euthanasia by gas will tell you that the vocal chords are shortened, which creates a rising cry. They say it’s just a death rattle, a final breath that doesn’t indicate consciousness or pain. It is the literal last gasp.

Many humane groups believe that the dogs are suffering as they die, and cite their dying moans as evidence that the gas chamber is an evil way to kill an animal.

III.

The year before the shelter opened, which was the first year that the Union County Sheriff’s Office managed animal control for the county, deputies took in about 700 animals each month, returned some to their owners, found homes for others, and gassed sixty-nine out of every 100 dogs.

The three-day rule only applies to strays. When an owner brings in an animal—and “owner” is defined as anyone who’s had the animal for more than a day or so—the animals are killed right away.

Capt. Bill Tucker, who oversees the whole mess, calls it “the numbers game.” He says the county is losing.

IV.

Before the first stray was moved into the new shelter, activists began protesting the decision to spend Union County tax dollars on a shelter that used a gas chamber.

The Animal Liberation Front showcased the shelter on its website in early 2006. The American Humane Association sent a letter of protest to the county commissioners. PETA came calling.

After reading a letter posted on The Charlotte Observer’s website, a woman in Vermont began an online petition that grew to 5,000 signatures. Fewer than two dozen Union County residents signed.

V.

A rainy Wednesday night in September 2006, three weeks before the shelter opened: Twenty-one people stood around under the half-acre metal roof of the farmer’s market in Monroe, the county seat. On the weekend, vendors show up there to shill boxes of produce, not even bothering to take the grocery-store stickers off the tomatoes and oranges. The Wednesday night crowd was the biggest the market had seen in a while.

Wednesday is prayer meeting night at Baptist churches in the South, and Baptists are the dominant denomination of county natives by an order of magnitude. It probably wasn’t a deliberate slight, but no Union County native would schedule a Wednesday night meeting and expect much of a turnout. Most of the people who showed up were from the western towns, Charlotte’s suburban subdivisions—saving the two animal control officers, who were paid to be there.

Michelle Starnes, the sheriff’s lieutenant, and Capt. Bill Tucker, her boss, hung quietly at the edge of the crowd, out of uniform in green polo shirts and navy blue fleece jackets. Their right elbows hung awkwardly over their hips, protecting the guns they weren’t carrying.

The meeting’s coordinator, Pat Shannon, raised her hands for silence. The small crowd shut up for Shannon, a graying whippet of a woman with a no-place-in-particular, television kind of an accent.

Shannon had moved from upstate New York to a subdivision of Charlotte, just inside the Union County border. One relic of her subdivision’s history as a farm was its persistent population of feral cats. Shannon fed them, became overwhelmed, and asked the county to trap, spay and release them. That’s when she found out that there was no low-cost spay-neuter option within 40 miles. Then she started, as the county’s staffers put it, “sniffing around.”

In recent weeks, she said, animal lovers and the county employees charged with caring for strays and unwanted pets had been at odds about whether the county’s method of euthanasia—the gas chamber—was humane.

“I realized the attention is on the wrong end of the problem,” Shannon told the crowd. “It shouldn’t be ‘how do we kill them,’ it should be ‘how do we get them adopted.’”

Capt. Tucker and Lt. Starnes looked over the crowd, benevolent.

The Union County Sheriff ’s Office had taken over the shelter only 11 months before and the Animal Control division’s 13 employees were always short-handed, juggling their work catching strays, investigating neglect and abuse, responding to complaints. Volunteers were just what the adoption effort needed. Everyone agreed that too many dogs were coming into the shelter, and too few were leaving for good homes.

Shannon handed out applications for volunteers at the shelter, shook hands.

Said they were going to start a group: “Friends of the Union County Animal Shelter.”

VI.

The new shelter opened on Oct. 1, 2006.

There was a big, blue ribbon when the doors opened, puppies on display, ice cream melting on folding tables, and local politicians making speeches. There was a picture of the ribbon-cutting in the hometown paper. The room intended to be used as a spay/neuter suite was filled with old file boxes.

VII.

Six months later, Michael Kopsick struggled up to the shelter door with a badly balanced Dell Computer box. Inside were six kittens — a couple of yellows, a few tuft-eared gray tigers. His son, David, a runner, found a stray cat in the woods by the cross-country trail one day. Three and a half months ago, she came up pregnant for the second time.

“We’re going to keep her, but we figure you probably can get them adopted out,” Michael said.

Everyone in the room took a kitten and remarked on how nice and good-looking they were. The gray puff in Deputy Mullis’ hands swiped at the badge embroidered on his shirt and got its claws caught in the stitches. Everyone laughed.

Capt. Tucker asked after David’s running season at the new high school out in the western suburbs. Was he going to play sports? Yeah, the new teams on the west end were building quite a stash of soccer and tennis championships. Back before the subdivisions went up, this used to be a football-crazy county; these days it’s all lacrosse and did you hear they’re building a rink for ice hockey? Funny how things change, yessir.

The cocktail-party air ended as the kittens were tucked back in the box, and the box went back to the shelter’s cat-adoption room. Michael Kopsick looked at his son and then at the captain.

“If they’re not (adopted) and they’re going to be euthanized, we don’t need to know that,” he said. “It’ll just break our heart.”

They asked how to make a donation, affirmed that they were getting the cat spayed and that all of the kittens from the first litter were placed in good homes, and left.

Tucker and Mullis consulted. If the kittens passed their health exam, they were great candidates for adoption. There was room in the cat cages. Tucker was pleased.

“It does offend me when I hear people talk about ‘they’re just a bunch of killers,’” Tucker said. “What are you going to do? The majority of the public is like that guy, ‘I don’t want to deal with this. Don’t tell me what will happen.’

“Everything isn’t going to be adopted. Everything is not adoptable.”

VIII.

Lt. Michelle Starnes was born, raised, educated, married and employed in 40 square miles. She grew up like many of the people in Union County, which was just farm land until Charlotte started spilling over into the southeast, dumping a lot of Yankees and McMansions into tiny railroad and mill towns on the western end of the county.

In the county’s old communities, farm dogs and hunting dogs might be loved, but they’re expected to work. Leash laws don’t make a lot of sense to people who live on fifty, or even five, acres of wide-open land. A barn cat is valuable because it keeps the mice and rats down, and as long as they keep at that business and avoid catching rabies from a raccoon or a bat, whole generations of cats are left to their feral pursuits.

A countywide leash law and subsidized spay/neuter program aren’t high on the list of priorities for tax dollars. In a confiding moment, Starnes indicates that both of those things might come to pass if the carpetbaggers on the Western end of the county would stop shoving them down everyone’s throats.

When coaxed, Starnes will tell a story about the first time Shelter Friends’ president Pat Shannon came into the new shelter.

Shannon criticized the vet tech’s handling of a kitten with ear mites, then loudly declared that the staff would rather kill animals than see them go to good homes. She never came back.

That’s Starnes’ version.

IX.

On Jan. 22, 2007, four months after founding Shelter Friends, Pat Shannon posted this on a blog devoted to Union County politics:

“On Tuesday, January 16th a meeting/tour was held at the Union County Animal Shelter with two County Commissioners. … After we had our meeting we toured the shelter.

“It was then that something occurred that will haunt me as long as I live. As we started our tour there were sounds coming from the back that I’ve never heard before and pray I never hear again. It was coming from a group of dogs that were barking, SCREAMING & HOWLING. It was unbelievably loud and positively ungodly. And yes, it was actual screaming like you’d hear if a pack of dogs were viciously fighting. I asked what on earth that noise was. None of the shelter staff answered the question. I asked again. Again, no answer. We continued our tour and about 10 minutes later were inside another room. There in front of my eyes were the civilian workers washing out debris from the gas chamber. Then it dawned on me. The sounds I’d heard had been coming from that gas chamber. The dogs had been fighting all right; fighting for their lives. They lost.

“… Currently there are 8 sheriff department deputies assigned to the animal shelter in addition to 5 civilian employees. The shelter has 102 dog kennels but only 11 kennels are allotted for adoptable dogs. Make sense to you? Me either.”

Shannon’s essay was reposted around the web. Some of the responses:

Bocifus from Monroe, North Carolina: “To all you animal lovers, I know what you can do: Go back to New York City! Move out of Union County if you don’t like how it’s done here.”

Rose Gauthier from Manitowoc, Wisconsin: “You backwark [sic] people there you think it’s okay to gas dogs in your inhumane dog pound. People like me from Wisconsin have to stick our nose in since you idiots think it’s okay to gas innocent animals. … I’m glad I don’t live there, I’d be in prison.”

GeorgeWashingtonJSW, “These rednecks buy a puppy, six months later they don’t want it, because they are too stupid to train it, or it’s not a cute puppy anymore, they get rid of it somehow, then you see them six months later with another dog … on and on it goes. They are just stupid uneducated hillbilly redneck losers here in the South.”

Dolores McGovern, from Waxhaw, North Carolina: “Thank you for posting this. … I was told to contact you by Audrey at Charlotte Kennels. A cat that we feed in woods behind our home had four beautiful kittens and we were looking for a shelter to take them and find them homes. We have four already, and cannot adopt more. BUT WE ARE ONLY LOOKING FOR A NO-KILL SHELTER.”

X.

In the 1970s, Weddington, North Carolina, where Shelter Friends founder Pat Shannon lives, was just one of those odd crossroads that act as breakwaters in Southern geography, collecting businesses and homes, finding a name and personality, but managing to avoid incorporating as a town until there’s a pressing reason. Generally, when such places do incorporate, they become what the North Carolina School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill calls “paper towns,” run out of a Post Office box.

Weddington, on the western end of Union County close to Charotte, didn’t get around to incorporating until 1983, when fast-growing towns to the north and south threatened annexation.

Both of those towns were swelling with families whose finance-industry jobs had brought them from New York and Connecticut to Charlotte, where the median price of a single-family home was $48,000 that year. The $70,000 minimum price tag of a new condo in early-’80s New Jersey would buy something close to palatial for anyone willing to drive 15 minutes outside of the Charlotte city limits.

Still, there were hidden costs. Moving to the country meant being surrounded by folk who have spent generations working farms that would count as modest fiefs in medieval Europe. Union County’s natives had never heard of a homeowner’s association (some still haven’t) and, although many were happy to sell their farms and watch developers carve cul-du-sacs into the hills, others watched the prices rise, held onto their property and waited. They kept their barn cats and free-running dogs and hunted on their own land, cheerfully terrifying neighbors whose first thought after a gunshot was murder, not meat.

In the county, private gun ranges are allowed. So are trash burning and septic tanks, unleashed and unlicensed dogs, concealed firearms and talking on cell phones while driving.

XI.

Another Saturday, late summer in 2007. By the time the shelter closes at 3 p.m., county residents have dropped off five dogs and eleven cats. Although fourteen people — nine adults and five children — came in to look at the animals, only one puppy left the shelter.

XII.

There’s a joke they tell at the Oasis Sandwich Shop, just down the street from the county offices on Main Street in Monroe. The place has been open since the Depression; they probably told it back then, too.

What’s the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee?

Punchline: Yankees go home.

XIII.

“Animal Control, I don’t know if they’re willing spirits or not.”

Cindy Poppino said it wearily. A year had had come and gone since ground had broken on the shelter. Nothing had changed. Cage after cage was rolling into and out of the gas box before most of the county finished breakfast every morning.

Back when the county’s animal shelter was out on Airport Road, in a ramshackle building that could double for an Appalachian meth lab, Poppino was the president of the Union County Humane Society. She used that post to lobby the county for a state-of-the-art shelter with a spay/neuter clinic and offices that the Humane Society could use as a center of operations.

The dog lovers on the Union County Board of Commissioners decided to build a $1.5 million showplace. They passed a bond issue by promising to put the shelter next to the sheriff’s office, and put the popular sheriff, Eddie Cathey, in charge of the previously independent animal control operation.

The place was designed with the Humane Society in mind. The entrance to the adoption side is all glass-fronted play rooms, windows, and bright, visitor-friendly paint. A door without a lock divides the Animal Control side of things from the volunteer and shelter space.

Poppino never crossed the threshold.

“I used to think it was us, but now I know of other groups that have had problems communicating with them,” she said.

The Shelter Friends, which started with such optimism that rainy night at the famers’ market, says that its efforts have broken down because of conflicts with the shelter staff.

“Why the struggle?” Pat Shannon said about five months after she wrote the blog post about the gas chamber. “I don’t know. All I do know is that we’ve been flat-out refused when we’ve offered ideas, etc.”

Shannon has a practiced list of grievances: “The volunteers have offered to go into the shelter on Sundays, clean it and run the adoptions. This offer was refused.

“An expert on temperament testing was offered to the shelter. This offer was refused.

“The volunteers have offered to foster puppies and kittens and those needing rehab. In four months time we’ve received only one phone call requesting such. In fact, the volunteers were asked to remove from the Shelter Friends website any mention of fostering.”

In fact, the Shelter Friends had never asked anyone with the county whether that would be okay, or how it would work.

Those are all good ideas, Capt. Tucker said, but he points out that they all expose the county to lawsuits.

“A lot of groups that come forward have their own passionate agenda, and on its own, it’s great. It’s wonderful,” Tucker said. “But we have to look at the big picture.”

XIV.

These are some of the questions that the Union County Animal Control staff had to ask after they were handed responsibility for the shelter: What if a dog is adopted from the shelter and, after a few days in its new home, bites someone and causes a serious injury? What if a stray cat is fostered out and transmits feline diseases to its foster family’s cats; who pays for their veterinarian’s bills? What if an animal at an adoption fair causes an injury?

The Union County Sheriff ’s Office will not adopt out dogs with any history of biting.

In late December, a Wingate-based animal behaviorist offered to do some behavior assessment and staff training to help rehabilitate shelter dogs. Lt. Michelle Starnes, who has charge of the shelter’s day-to-day operations, said she would seriously consider the offer, but her tone was dubious.

“What she says might be adoptable and what I say, well, the liability falls right back on the Sheriff’s Office,” Starnes said. KennelPak, the largest insurance company that specializes in animal control insurance, pays a minimum of $30,000 for substantiated dog bite claims, and lots more if the victim is a child.

In 2005, kids were the victims of 500,000 of the 700,000 dog bites reported by health care providers. Most of the time, children are bitten on the face.

XV.

All of the Animal Control staff have pets at home. On a bookshelf in the adoption kennel’s office, someone has put a lightly thumbed copy of “Behavior Problems in Dogs” and a hard backed edition of “How to Live with a Neurotic Dog.”

Anybody ever read these? “I don’t know,” Deputy Mullis said.

XVI.

“This is me, and not the Sheriff ’s Office talking,” Capt. Tucker said. “I just think that a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, and a staff veterinarian to run it, would help.

“We’ve got people coming in and saying, ‘I can’t afford $250 to spay/neuter,’” Tucker said. “I understand that. They (the operations) don’t all cost that, but you have to shop around.”

Even the animals adopted out of the shelter aren’t sterilized when they leave. They depart with a certificate for a spay operation at one of the participating local veterinarians. There is no guarantee, though, that every animal that leaves the shelter will make it to the vet to be fixed, and there is no service for the pets that people already own.

There’s a room that’s designated as a spay/neuter suite at the shelter, but the $1.5 million new shelter didn’t include funding for surgical equipment, which could cost about $15,000, bought new. For a while, it was agreed that the Humane Society would raise the funds for the spay/neuter clinic. When that relationship faltered, the county didn’t have a back-up plan.

Capt. Tucker said the shelter has veterinarians and supporters on the lookout for used or repossessed surgical equipment — a table, an autoclave to wash the instruments, monitors, anesthesia machine, surgical instruments — that might help lower the cost.

The funds to cover it will have to be appropriated by the Union County Board of Commissioners or come from donations.

“We’re working on that 501(c)3 non-profit status,” Tucker said. “We don’t have that in place.”

Until the 501(c)3 application is approved, all donations to the shelter go into the Sheriff’s Office’s general fund and can be spent on anything from bullets to copy paper. For now, the shelter staff encourages people to donate gift cards from pet stores.

XVII.

“Our staff is tied up in answering and dealing with every group’s special agenda. We’ve had people from Save the Rodents, all different type of animal advocates have written in, anything you can think of,” Sheriff Eddie Cathey said. “We’ve had them come here and visit.”

Cathey, the man holding the bag on the whole thing, is the first Republican to serve as Union County’s sheriff. He moved into politics in 2002—right about the time when the surge of newcomers to the county began to put pressure on the school system and the county’s roadways, forcing tax increases.

“Most of them are very good people and they have their heart in the right place but they have to look at the overall picture: this is a county-operated animal shelter,” he said. “We don’t have endless funds. We can’t just take and automatically do the things they want done.”

The Union County Board of Commissioners could step in, but, unlike the sheriff, the county board is swept out of office every two years without fail. They tread lightly when it comes to Cathey’s operations, even though his budget is in their hands.

“I think it’s a question that deserves to be looked at,” Commissioner Lanny Openshaw said. “I’m always willing to sit down and listen and hear both sides of the story.”

Even though he’s from the “Yankee” western end of the county and a retiree from Connecticut, Openshaw, an Episcopalian, nearly lost his bid for election when someone—courthouse wags claim it was friends of Cathey’s—circulated rumors that he’s an atheist. The good Baptist voters of eastern Union County couldn’t cast votes in Openshaw’s district, but their money poured into his opponent’s campaign.

Commissioner Allan Baucom was raised in Union County. His definition of “a local,” he once joked, is someone who attended primary school in the county or at least married someone who had. His definition of “voter” is less nuanced.

Baucom said email has flooded his inbox from animal advocates from as far as Arizona, but he has heard very little about the problem from local voters.

“I’m of the opinion that we need to take and load all of the animals on trucks and send them to Arizona if we can find out these people’s addresses,” he said. “Clearly, they have all the answers.”

XVIII.

“Three days passed,” Lt. Starnes said. “Because of the nature of the call, we can’t adopt that dog out. If we adopt it to somebody in our county, we’re just moving the problem.”

Earlier in the day, Starnes had been doing paperwork behind the desk on the adoption side with a kitten cuddled against her collarbone. Outside the gas chamber, in the concrete room, she gripped her belt and described how the gas chamber is used.

“There was a case we had last weekend. Two dogs were in (a woman’s) backyard, trying to tear into her rabbit cage and kill her pet rabbit,” Starnes said.

Officers went out and caught one of the dogs. It wasn’t wearing a collar, so it was marked as a stray. On her rounds of the shelter, Starnes whistled to the dog, petted it.

“It was a great dog. Nothing was wrong with the dog … but you can’t move the problem.”

Michelle Starnes, who brought four pets home from the shelter in her first year there, has come to believe that the gas chamber is the most humane way to kill stray animals.

Starnes’ opinion runs contrary to the North Carolina’s legislature, which outlawed execution by gas in 1998, leaving lethal injection as the only method of execution for prisoners on death row.

Everyone on staff at the animal shelter knows how to correctly administer all three approved methods of euthanasia for animals—gas, lethal injections, and a shot to the base of the skull—and knows when to use each.

Kittens and puppies always get lethal injections of sodium Phenobarbital, known in the humane community as “blue juice.” Their lungs are too undeveloped for gas and it would take them a cruelly long time to get a deadly dose. Instead, they could get woozy, nauseated, dizzy. In their case, the shot is best, but it is slow.

XIX.

The slim, dark-haired woman’s smile was apologetic.

“He’s been a stray,” she said, her Long Island accent clipping the words. “He’s very friendly, he rubs up against your legs. It’s just that he’s a tom and he impregnates the other cats.”

The tomcat in question was nowhere in sight at the front entrance to the Union County Animal Shelter. He was being handed over in the back as an owner-surrendered animal.

The family—she declines to give their name—already has eight cats, including some kittens from their female pet cat by way of the tom in question.

Capt. Tucker smiled at the woman and asked if they have considered spaying their female cats.

No, she said, they haven’t. They hope getting rid of the tom will solve the problem.

“We can’t let our other cats outside because of him,” she explained.

Tucker thanked her politely for bringing in the tom and watched her herd her children out the door. Cats have it worse than dogs at the shelter. Nine out of ten go to the gas chamber.

XX.

One Saturday in April, all of the Union County Animal Shelter’s volunteers were all from Parkwood High School and they came late in the day, in clumps of three. They cleaned windows and played with the animals. Most of the heavy work — feeding, cleaning kennels — was done before the shelter opened at 10 a.m.

“If we had somebody full time that had the time to coordinate that and say, ‘Y’all come in at 9, y’all come in at 2,’” Capt. Tucker said. “Well, unfortunately, our staff doesn’t have a tremendous amount of time. I just think you’d get a lot more benefit out of anybody volunteering.”

Tucker said he hopes that the county commissioners will approve the additional salary for a volunteer coordinator in next year’s county budget, but he’s not optimistic. The county commissioners keep hearing from this group called Shelter Friends, they tell the sheriff, who would probably be happy to handle it for free.

XXI.

Around noon on a Saturday a couple of months later, two different women walked into the animal shelter, looked around and asked for volunteer applications.

One said she filled one out at the September Shelter Friends meeting, but no one ever called or emailed. She wonders if she was passed over as a volunteer. The form she filled out was very detailed.

XXII.

Julie Gibson’s voice squeaked as she called for her husband. “Yes! This is the one!”

She and her toddler, Matthew, didn’t have enough hands to contain the wiggling jumble of puppy on the ground in front of them.

He was dog number AS014, a jet-black, fuzzy Labrador mix; the card on his kennel said he was about three months old, an owner-surrendered dog.

Ten minutes and $75 later, he was headed home to a fenced yard to play with the Gibsons’ other dog, a three-year-old Lab.

Dog AS014 was the only adoption of the day.

As he let the family out the door, Capt. Tucker seemed genuinely delighted that the day wasn’t a total bust.

“We appreciate it, folks,” he said, holding the door. “You’re making a difference.”

As they started for the parking lot, he hollered after them, “This is one y’all have saved!”

He turned around and, blushing, shrugged. “We’re not bad people, for God’s sake.”

 (Betsy O’Donovan | 2007)

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