Each year, more than 1,100 dogs and 3,700 cats are put to sleep by lethal injection at the Jackson County Animal Shelter.
They die because of a variety of reasons: They're too old, they're ill, they're too aggressive or there are just too many of them to house them all.
It's Donna Patnesky's job to see that they're euthanized humanely and with dignity.
"Some days, it bothers me more than others," says Patnesky. "You learn to put a wall up and just do it. But you can't be cold and mechanical. The majority of these animals have never been treated fairly; it's our job to be humane."
Patnesky says shelter workers are "not here to kill animals," but they're forced to euthanize so many because of people's irresponsible treatment of animals and because not enough owners spay and neuter their pets.
The animals are evaluated for adoptability or euthanization based on health, age, behavior and appearance.
A gentle 12-year-old cat may be adoptable during a slow season, but not when the shelter is flooded with litters — sometimes up to 50 kittens a day in late spring. Black kittens are common, so when there's 100 of them awaiting adoption, clearly not all will find homes.
Some dogs are unable to adapt to the shelter and start showing aggression and protecting their cage, making them unadoptable. An older dog that has been mistreated and snaps, growls or shows its teeth virtually has no chance of being adopted.
For a feral tomcat that runs up the wall till it hits the ceiling, then charges at shelter workers, the same verdict must be rendered, says Patnesky: No chance of adoption.
Euthanization is done on a stainless steel table in a small exam room. Aggressive animals are held on the table while Patnesky injects an overdose of anesthesia.
For dogs, the drug is injected into a leg artery, shutting down the brain in three to five seconds, with the organs quickly following. For cats, whose veins are harder to find, the injection is given in the abdomen and death comes within a minute.
Patnesky says the animals feel no pain. Before euthanizing them, she makes sure she's in the emotional space to do it. If she's feeling stressed, the animals will sense that and become scared or try to dominate her. If she likes (or dislikes) an animal, she asks another shelter technician to take over.
Patnesky has a ritual she does before conducting the necessary but unhappy chore. If the pet had clearly been abused, she will tell it how thoughtless its owners were, that they didn't deserve that. Then she'll scratch it, tell it what a good animal it's been and sing the old lullaby, "Go to sleep, little baby."
With one or two cats and three to five dogs to be put down per day in the slow season and many times that in the spring.
"You have to be a special kind of person to deal with it," says Patnesky. "You have to be a little nuts. If you're not, you'll go nuts, because you'll be so angry with what people do to them (animals) — or you'll go nuts because you're the one who has to put them to sleep."
The bodies are put in a freezer, then picked up to be disposed of at the Dry Creek Landfill near White City.
Patnesky has a little terrier named Dusty sleeping on a pillow by her desk, one she rescued years ago. Another adopted dog is at home, along with two cats — the maximum her husband will let her adopt, she says.
Putting a pet down costs $24 to $36, depending on the size. Patnesky stresses that the shelter does not euthanize a pet on demand just because the owner says it smells bad or scratches furniture.
Looking over 15 years of her unusual and difficult job, Patnesky says, "Maybe I'm getting older, but no matter what you do in life, you're going to have some regrets. It's only natural. But overall, I love the animals and my job and what I'm doing is necessary.
"If I wasn't doing it, I would like someone like me to do it, someone who has respect for the animals and their bodies."