The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Lost, abandoned animals await fate

Sunday, December 1, 1996, 0:00
Section: Journalism

The Potomac NewsA staple of feature news, the “slice of life from the pound” story is almost always affecting and interesting, without being overtly manipulative.

This story originally appeared in The Potomac News.

The calico is clearly starved for attention. The cat meows loudly, as she prowls back and forth, rubbing her face on objects and reaching out with her paw toward the people nearby, trying to get a little physical affection.

But affection is scarce and more precious than the “guest” of the Manassas-Manassas Park Animal Shelter knows. There’s a 50-50 chance that the rest of this cat’s life can be measured in weeks, instead of years.

Fully half the animals in the shelter will find homes, old or new.

That’s a great deal better than the national average of a mere one animal in five surviving its shelter stay. Still, about 500 pets are put to sleep each year at the Liberia Avenue facility, run by the Morganna Animal Clinic, under contract to the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park.

Shelter manager Kim Waugh has seen and heard it all.

One Manassas man didn’t want to spay his dog, because he felt “she liked to breed,” so twice a year for a number of years, he’d come by with a litter of puppies.

Other people drop their pets off, instead of looking for new homes for them.

“We get a lot of bizarre reasons. You look them in the eyes and know they’re lying,” Waugh said. “You’d like them to have to hold the animal when they’re put to sleep. It’s just so convenient to drop the animal off.”

There are other routes pet owners can take to find new homes for their animals, routes that don’t have a 50 percent (or higher) mortality rate. There are newspaper classified ads, ads on cable television teletext channels and three-by-five cards on bulletin boards.

“Most of the people you ask say ‘look, I’m moving tomorrow,'” Waugh said.

Most of the animals that shelter workers see are let out of the house by owners who expect the pets to return home around dinner time. But the animals are, as the shelter staff says “intact,” and go a-roamin’, looking for love.

“It’d be nice to be out of a job,” Waugh said. Then she reconsidered. “We’d still have a few.”

Those few other strays are “indoor” pets who somehow get out or pets who have grown up and are abandoned once they leave the adorable stage. Abandoning a pet, incidentally, is against state law.

“We get a lot of people who adopt a little puppy and they forget they’ll grow up to be a big dog,” Waugh said.

Because of that, the shelter won’t let people take animals home as gifts.

The shelter is filled with puppies and kittens in the warmer months, when amorous animals are most able to roam. In August and September, Waugh says, the place is “inundated with kittens.”

“We end up with gazoodles of cats. Gazoodles. We have a lot [that] end up trapped,” she said.

In the winter, most of the animals the shelter receives are “problem” animals, including feral cats — the grown-up, undomesticated kittens of unfixed cats wandering free — and biting dogs.

Animals that do have collars and accurate identification get sent home quickly. Unfortunately, Waugh said, “the ones that we usually see … [have] a collar with no identification on it.”

Most pets with collars are wearing flea collars (without phone numbers written on them) or choke chains. Only about one pet in 50 is wearing an I.D. tag, and many of those are out of date.

Waugh doesn’t understand owners who don’t tag their pets: “It’s a real simple thing to do.”

Tattoos are only effective as a means of identification if the owner keeps the animal’s tattooed area shaved, Waugh said.

By law, the shelter holds all animals seven days, 12 days if the animal is wearing a collar. And the clock isn’t necessarily ticking after that point: Animals with a realistic chance for adoption are kept as long as space and resources allow.

“There’s no set time,” Waugh said. “It depends on how desirable they are. Certainly, if they cower at the back of the cage, hissing or growling or laying back their ears, that [animal] wouldn’t be held for the public.”

Dogs of all sorts, from mutts to show-quality animals, make their way to the shelter. On Nov. 21, the dogs in custody included a full-bred basset hound, a chow, a spitz, a German shepherd mix and more. All of them had clearly been pets at some time: They barked and wagged their tails frantically when humans approached their pens.

One inmate, a tiny dachshund, was in a rabies-watch quarantine after a biting incident.

“You wouldn’t think it,” Waugh said of the apparently sweet-natured dog. “We think some kids were playing with it rough, and they held him up and he bit them.” That’s the story most of the time, she said. “Usually it’s little kids stepping on tails or whatever. It usually involves children.”

It rarely involves any of the eight shelter workers.

“I probably haven’t been bit in nine years. But you’re always getting scratched,” Waugh said.

The animal smarts picked up on the job make the difference.

“It’s really easy to read [animals]. Most of the time when somebody gets bit, it’s because the handler did something stupid,” she said.

Dogs and cats usually bite out of fear, although feral cats may be actively aggressive, Waugh said.

The second the humans turned to leave, the chorus of barking stopped dead, as though a switch was flipped.

There are eight dog pens and seven cat pens. The shelter usually keeps only one animal per pen, unless all the animals are from the same litter. Isolation cages are used for sick animals or those that don’t mix well with the others as well as for the overflow from the pens. On Nov. 21, the sole occupant of the isolation room was a grayish brown lop-eared rabbit. Other unusual inmates have included white rats, guinea pigs and ferrets.

“Every person that works here, they take a pet home,” Waugh said. “Then it comes to the point where everyone you could sucker into getting an animal has one.”

Waugh currently owns six cats, four dogs and a cockatiel. All her pets, except the bird, came from the shelter.

Waugh has worked at the shelter for 19 years, enjoying the work and believing she makes at least a small difference. That longevity makes her an aberration.

“It’s a very short-lived profession,” she said. Employees last, on average, about two years.

“Everybody comes in thinking it’s going to be all puppies and kittens,” Waugh said.

In addition, there are the cage cleanings, trips to court to testify in animal cruelty cases and, of course, the euthanasia. That’s the great irony of the profession: Animal lovers are the ones who must put unwanted animals, the ones they can’t take in, to death.

“You would think it’d be a real rewarding profession, but it makes you lose faith in a lot of things,” Waugh said.

Animals are put to sleep with an intravenous injection of anesthetic.

“It’s very peaceful,” Waugh said. “There used to be shelters that would back up a truck with a hose and let the dogs die of carbon monoxide.”

The idea of putting to sleep any of the animals is difficult for new employees, she said.

“Then you get to the point where you realized this is what’s best. [But] some pets, you just hold ’em and hold ’em and hold ’em.”

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