"Smell" is insufficient to describe the palpable wave of ammonia and rotting fecal matter
During my first year after veterinary school I worked for a large clinic that had lots of things going on outside of the normal scope of small animal practice. This clinic was involved in all manner of public service activities - not your typical vaccine-and-spay type of place.
As the low man on the totem pole I was expected to perform these sometimes less-than-fun functions. Among the ‘odd jobs’ that I occasionally was called to perform were at-home euthanasias, post-mortem exams and, worst of all, animal control busts. When animal control gets involved in a case and comes knocking at a veterinarian’s door, the news is rarely good. It usually means that something has broken down with the human-animal bond and society’s official arm of animal protection must get involved and try to set things to rights. Anytime there was a need to evaluate the health of an animal in an abuse, neglect or hoarding situation, they had to bring along a licensed veterinarian to make the health determinations.
On this one day, I was that veterinarian. I only went on a few of these runs, but it stands out clearly in my mind. A breeding operation had gotten way out of hand, descending into animal hoarding.
What started as just another day at the office swerved towards the macabre when the local animal control officer phoned the hospital looking for a veterinarian to accompany him on a call regarding a suspected animal hoarder. I never knew the details of how the call came in or from whom. The subject at hand was a toy poodle breeder. We didn’t know how many dogs were involved, or what sort of shape they were in.
I don’t remember pulling up to the house – I am sure it was the kind of place you reflexively avert your eyes from when you drive past. One of those nondescript, rundown places with tarps covering holes in the roof and car parts littering the yard. Similarly, I don’t remember walking up to the door – I am sure the animal control officer (ACO) did the knocking and talking.
I do remember the inside. I will never forget the inside. The first thing to hit me, eyes and nose, was the smell. "Smell" is insufficient to describe the palpable wave of ammonia and rotting fecal matter that rolled out as we entered. This was an immersive, whole-body experience. It was a rich scent -- dank, off-sweet and fetid. This was before Silence of the Lambs or I would have asked for some Vick’s to swipe under my nose, a la Clarice Starling. As shocking and pervasive as the smell was initially, after a few minutes my brain ceased to register it, which I took to be a minor miracle.
The walls of the little ramshackle house were a murky, underwater tan, uneven and mottled. I harbored a secret suspicion that they were once white and had aged to the sickly pallor of a diseased liver through years of unfiltered Camels and vaporized poodle urine. I didn’t look too closely at anything, intending to get things done and get back to reality as soon as I could.
All I can bring up of the woman who lived there was her diminutive stature, nicotine voice and shabby housedress. I am sure there was some dialog between the ACO and the alleged hoarder, but I can’t recall it. I don’t remember harsh words or protests of innocence, shouts of I love my babies or any drama whatsoever. Perhaps she saw it coming. Perhaps this visit from the uniformed ACO and the stone-faced veterinarian with a face as white as his lab coat was actually a welcome sight to her. She may have known she was in too deep but couldn’t stop, driven by habit, the slow march of time and unbalanced neurotransmitters.
What may have started with a single breeding pair of poodles grew to the mess we saw before us, like all of Bartholomew Cubbins’ hats or all those brooms carrying buckets in Fantasia. She may have loved those first two, and the litters they begat, mewling on the then-clean carpet of her then-white-walled home. But somehow, things slipped away. The center did not hold, and the begetters began begetting more, and still more. She may have known on some basic level that this official action had to happen, was inevitable and, on the whole, for the best. Perhaps she made the call to animal control herself. I will never know.
Wire crates were scattered everywhere. Pens, too. The wire was old and flaky, some enclosures held together with baling wire, some seemingly held together with nothing more than rust. Running your finger over the pens and crates dislodged a foul-smelling, black, crumbly powder that seemed to solidify and condensate on the wire like the morning dew in hell – neglect distilled from the air and made tactile.
Small bodies with curly hair, black noses and bright, dark little eyes peered out at me from everywhere, like old cartoons where Elmer Fudd wanders into a dark cave and thousands of eyes open up and stare. The bodies ranged in color from black to apricot, some of the once-white ones turning the same shade as the walls. A few jumped up on back legs and gave me the ‘pick-me-up-mister’ dance, happy to see someone new to play with; some sat sullenly in their enclosures, either too sick or too cautious to move. The soundtrack to all this was a mix of excited yips and low growls.
I don’t remember the actual number of dogs – it could have been in the teens, or (more likely) well into the thirties. Most dogs stood on bare wire floors, wide spaces in the wire intended to let the fecal matter through to the layer underneath. That plan might have worked if the waste was occasionally collected, but it had built up to such a degree that it made a platform of its own – a shitoleum floor.
They ranged in age from a few months to their teens. These were toy poodles, the tiny and usually cute kind often associated with starlets and other celebrities. Their current state of affairs – dirty, matted, sickly, and encrusted with a thin layer of antique feces – gave lie to the usual pampered image of toy poodles in the mind and heart of the normal world. This was most definitely not the normal world, and for me, part of that normal world would never be the same. I don’t mean to diminish the suffering of those dogs in any way (they are the victims here, after all), but I know that a little of my remaining innocence was lost in that murky, stinking house. I had had no idea that people actually did that.
Backup ACOs arrived with more trucks to hold all the dogs and more officers to help with the processing. Each new officer walked in and almost immediately got the Whoa look on their face as the ripe smell greeted them and the number of dogs registered. We started a bucket brigade of dogs from the house to the ACO vehicles. I was at one end, evaluating dogs, while several ACOs shuttled them out to the vans. One stood next to me and made notes, affixing ID tags to them. Try as I might to remain neutral and focused, I knew that my assessment of these creatures meant life or death. I felt like the foreman at a gulag evaluating prisoners, deciding who was fit to break stones and who would be doomed to face the firing squad.
Just as their age ranged widely, so did their health status, although there were precious few that you could describe as ‘healthy.’ Dental disease was rampant (a toy poodle on a good day and with all the love and care in the world is still prone to having teeth worse than Austin Powers). Some had serious untreated eye diseases, some with eyes so matted shut from infection that I could not tell if there was a globe under the lids. The list of infirmities went on and on – wounds, parasites, cataracts, fistulae, bedsores. Notes were made, records written and the dogs were all taken away in the vans to several different hospitals to have their medical issues addressed, or, for those that we deemed too far gone, to meet a quick and painless death at the end of a syringe full of pentobarbital. The Greek roots for euthanasia (eu – good, thanatos – death) mean a good death, and for these unfortunates I can only hope that word describes their delivery from neglect and discomfort.
It went on a while, this sorting and assessing. Eventually, we came to end of the bunch and quickly packed up the operation, ready to leave that place. ACOs headed to their vans to deliver the dogs for care, and I packed up my doctor bag and stethoscope. I had to get back to the hospital to treat a few of the poodles that had been assigned to my workplace. I remember an odd feeling being back at work that afternoon, like going from a funeral to a gay garden party. When I left the hospital that morning, the world had been a bit brighter – a fairly nice place. Problems, yes, but not many of them that directly intersected with my life. Coming back after the bust, I felt I had lifted up the corner a bit and peered into the void. I don’t mean to imply that I was a total airheaded innocent before this event, but I distinctly remember thinking that things were a little less shiny and clean when I got back, like that powdery black substance had rubbed off and gotten under my skin, circulating in my blood.
That evening, as I tried to clean the stink that would not easily scrub off, word of the animal control bust was on the news, sorted in with all the usual news stories of unrest and sordid unkindnesses. I wish I had a hook or a storybook ending here, that I could claim that I adopted one of the dogs or rehabilitated one of the shy ones and he now sleeps between my ankles at night, but I don’t. Some of them were surely fixed up and found loving homes, some of them never did. The fate of the smallish woman in the shabby dress is likewise unknown to me. I don’t know if these dogs would even be able to matriculate themselves into a loving and caring home if all they had known beforehand was bare wire and floors of waste; they may have been too broken to be loved, to accept kindness. Somewhere in there, I am sure there were some happy endings and someone’s heart was warmed by a wet black nose and shining eyes, and in that I take some measure of solace.
November 30, 2012
Jill M. Patt, DVM
September 18, 2012