I do it early in the day, when the dogs and I are still alone together. Before they are fed, before my co-workers arrive, before station wagons fill the lot and line the long driveway, and families troop through Kitty City, wander the barnyard, stick fingers in the gaps of the chain-link dog run doors and let puppies pile on each other, desperate to lick and gnaw. But after plenty of excited morning barking. Big dogs letting other big dogs know what’s what. Puppies yapping and squirming around their mothers. When all the voices but one are dog.
I get to the SPCA around 6:45, walking in through the front room, past the cats, and pushing open the heavy wooden door that separates the linoleum front from the concrete back, the dogs from the cats. I walk into the long room where the puppies live in their skinny puppy runs, 20 of which line the right wall. The floor is the kind of super-smooth concrete skate parks are made out of; the walls are cinderblock, thickly painted shiny white. Like most any summer morning, there are over 100 dogs pushing their noses against the doors, yipping and whining and watching me walk through, towards the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen is a larger room, with over 50 big runs, 25 each side, for the older and larger dogs, sometimes two or three to a run. The summers bring in new dogs every day — there’s never enough room. The ceilings are low throughout, which makes it louder I think, but cozier in a way. It also makes me feel really tall, which is nice, because at 5’6”, and 15 years old, I’m not.
I stop in the kitchen and start getting the food ready: a large bucket of dry brown nuggets which I fill halfway up with warm water, adding a can of beef broth. The dogs have already been talking to me, but the sound of that bucket clanging in the big sink really sets them off. They bark, whine, grumble, squeal. I talk back. Many of them respond to my voice and we discuss the state of things. While the food is softening in the buckets, I walk around and visit. I say “Cheer up old man” to the sad and scared ones who sit tight in the corners of their runs (my grandfather called almost everyone “old man”) and “You’re just a little puppy like any other puppy” to the puppies rejected by their siblings, or too sick or tired to compete, pushed off the rubber mats onto the colder floor. I scratch under chins and behind ears and let anyone who wants to lick my hand lick my hand. And I take note of the X’s on the small clipboards on each run’s door. The X’s won’t be getting breakfast.
As the food soaks and softens, I head through a door on the wall opposite the puppy runs, into a room small and empty, save one unpleasant machine. It looks like a half-length iron lung. Next to this another door leads to a patio, of sorts, where the tanks of gas are stored, and in the middle of which stands a large incinerator, its great steel door angled up like the open, hungry mouth of a baby bird, hideously large. Against the building sits a cart with a cage attached, shaped round like the machine inside, with diamond-shaped gaps in the steel cage frame. I wheel it out into the puppy room. The cart always quiets the dogs — perhaps it’s the heavy rumbling. I begin to get the X’s and I gather up as many of the small ones as will fit, though not so many that the puppies get stacked on each other.
When Sally Meade, who has run this shelter for a couple of decades at this point, puts an X up for puppies, she writes some shorthand beneath it: “1M 4F;” “3F;” “2F 1M.” A litter of puppies can look pretty similar and Sally couldn’t possibly pick each one specifically, so I do that part. I wade into the narrow runs. The puppies group around me, climbing my legs and licking my hands as I scoop them up — round bellies of perfect skin on my palm — flip them to see who’s what. I start with the ones pushed off the mat– seems a little less indecent.
Today, typically, there are too many to fit in one load. If I have any big dogs it’ll be three loads at least, so I’ll be dealing with this for an hour, while the food turns to mush. The cage slides off the cart and into the tank. I seal the tank door tight, go outside and turn the knob a quarter turn for about 30 seconds. I hear the hiss of the gas, the cries of the dogs, and the sounds of them collapsing on the cage’s metal floor. I go check the food, but don’t have time to dish more than a handful of plates before I go back and pull the cage out. I’m supposed to run the vacuum fan to clear the gas out of the chamber, but it adds time so I just hold my breath, wheeling the cart quickly outside. I pull the dead dogs out and lay them on the concrete, close to the building where they’ll mostly be in shade. I hose down the cart and roll it back inside to begin again.
I’m already sweating. It’s muggy in the summer in Virginia; the morning haze falling to earth before it can be burned away. The afternoon will be worse, when we burn, standing on exposed concrete, loading dead dogs into a fire burning at 450 degrees.
I go back for another load of puppies and then have to get a big dog from the back. The big dogs don’t like getting into the cart, especially a truly large dog, like this lab mix I have today. She fits, but she can’t move around. The big dogs are more likely to look at me, and to hold the look, unlike the puppies, who are just happy to be held and scared to be left alone.
On some mornings I skip an X or two. Sometimes Sally notices and asks why; sometimes she doesn’t. We keep strays for seven days and if they aren’t especially attractive, or if we just have too many puppies, they don’t stay around much longer. Seven days, of course, is enough time to feel familiar, to get a sense for each other. For the way she sidles up against the run door, or the cadence of his bark, the offering of an ear to scratch. Killing the puppies feels like a waste, but putting down an adult dog feels mean, personal.
I don’t get to dishing up the food onto the stiff cardboard plates until almost 8. I carry stacks of plates around the shelter, sliding one or two under the bottom bar of each run door. The dogs scarf it up quickly; the puppies jostle each other and angle for a mouthful. Dog food mush on my hands, dog food smell in my nose. A pile of dead dogs in the heat behind two doors.