Interview with Carolyn Atchison, Lawrence County Animal Control Officer, Alabama, by Denise LeBeau
Carolyn Atchison had been an undercover exotic animal agent working with the federal government for quite a few years when companion animal rescue snuck up on her. In 1999, a lady alleged that a St. Bernard had bit her child’s face and she wanted the dog put down. Carolyn had gone to the hearings as an observer and noticed the mark on the child’s face was a half moon, she was determined that the shape of the injury could have not been a bite.
She went on to prove that it was impossible for a dog to have caused the mark by biting using a Styrofoam head and a dog’s skull! She showed up at a following meeting to protest the killing of the dog. The authorities said if she could take the dog, his life would be spared.
That was the beginning of her work as shelter director for Lawrence County, Alabama. The realization that there is not hope for every dog that comes through the shelter could not justify a gas chamber. She has maintained that she must be there for the companion animals when they have to leave this world; even though she has said it’s a never ending battle with the good ole boys and their antiquated attitudes towards animals.
A few years earlier she had gone to a local shelter to adopt a dog. She was not prepared for what she witnessed! She still cannot believe what she saw and heard it was euthanasia by gas chamber. Most shelters are overcrowded, and thus the gas chambers are filled beyond the recommended capacity. This poses a serious problem, as the bigger dogs with the stronger lungs can go out with less pain and complications, than the smaller animals that gasp, writhe and struggle to breath through the choking. She currently finances the euthanasia by injection at her shelter, to ensure it’s the only way that the animals are put to sleep. She spends over $7,000 out of her pocket to make this happen.
She said that if her veterinarian wasn’t such an angel, she wouldn’t be able to do it. He makes weekly visits and charges a fraction of what he could. Carolyn has told the county if it weren’t for her young vet, Dr. Brad, being so compassionate in discounting his services by 50% – she would not be able to pay it, and she would stop doing rescue altogether.
She said the time is coming for the gas chamber to be outlawed entirely. The other surrounding counties are taking her lead, Morgan County, Decatur County, are phasing out the gas chambers, which she attributes to public awareness! The public has been supporting EBI for the last few years and has been bringing the topic more into focus. The shelter workers are speaking out and becoming more enlightened. While she thinks it’s great that these larger shelters with budgets over $300,000 are spending the money to use EBI, they are also paying for larger buildings with an emphasis on big offices and break rooms, rather than the rigorous spay and neuter program that the area desperately need. She said 80% of the dogs entering the shelter system don’t make it out; that’s over 10,000 euthanized animals in a fifty mile radius of her county alone.
She said public awareness is the only way to make a difference to get rid of the gas chamber, but it’s the bottom priority. If a county’s budget can’t afford EBI, what will they cut to make it happen? The library? The park? The Native American Festival? Plus the pervading attitude towards animals is still a good ole boys network of fellows that grew up with hunting dogs, or even dogs considered house pets but they are/were never allowed in the house. The dogs are generally either tied to the back of a trailer or housed 15 dogs to a 5 x 5 crate, often subsisting on occasional table scraps. If a hunting dog isn’t performing, they abandon the dog in the field. She said after rabbit season she rescues tons of Beagles, and after deer season, she’s got tons of Black and Tans that the numbers stop coming. Carolyn believes that EBI is imperative because it makes the crossover easier than their lives have been here on earth. There is no equality for the animals in her area, there are some happy endings, but too few in correlation with the amount of animals that don’t have safe homes to go to, so most of the animals wind up dead.
Plain and simple. And in her eyes and in plain English when an animal is put in a gas chamber it is being choked to death! She said you can’t candy coat the facts, shelter dogs are put down at an alarming rate and to make them suffer by choking in the last few moments of their lives is just a travesty.
When a person comes to her shelter to relinquish her dog and thirteen puppies, she tells them the truth that these dogs will all be dead by the end of the week. She believes that shelters should tell more of the hard core truth. Most citizens think that the humane society is no kill.
She had the idea for a billboard that was denied: to have an image of the thousands of dogs in the landfill on the main road in her county. So people can see the harsh reality for themselves. Would Mrs. Smith breed her dog if she knew in advance that all those dogs would wind up at the dump? Carolyn thinks not! Carolyn sympathizes with the people in her area, as she knows money is tight, but she also knows if a family has five kids, the budget for care of the animals is almost non-existent. If they don’t have enough money feed and cloth their kids, how can dogs enter the equation.
The excuse that gas chambers are safe and a kind way to euthanize these animals does not hold water in her eyes. Why would gas chambers be located in sound proof rooms if they were not a painful way to die? Why would they gas the animals only at night? The chambers could be out in the lobby if the scenario weren’t so disturbing! Carolyn also said shelter workers are being traumatized too. They love the animals and it’s very upsetting that the end has to come so cruelly. Anyone in animal control knows you can’t save them all, but to end their lives in such a miserable way is totally unacceptable. The hardest part is playing God, knowing that the puppies have to die, it gives her some solace to know they will go peaceably. She asked if I’d ever seen a pregnant cat being gassed? I had not, she explained that while the mother cat is gasping for air, being choked, her babies are still squirming. Even after she has passed the kittens still move about trying to live.
EBI quickly and quietly puts mothers and babies into a deep sleep where there is no further grappling with life. And even with Carolyn’s compassion for animals, she still learns more humane practices as she goes. She knows that using lethal injection properly there is no sound, no blinking or twitching or any sign of duress. She said she used to do the injection in the kennel run for the minimum of stress on the dog. Then a study came out that said the repeated experience could imprint on the surrounding dogs after a few of these visits; and she promptly set up a comfortable room to take the dogs to, so that there is as little negative effect on the other dogs as possible.
You don’t learn love by reading about it in a book or having someone tell you about it; you either have it or you don’t, and the treatment of the animals in her care is driven by love, to give them dignity and let them end their lives in peace and in the presence of love.
Unfortunately, the good ole boys way of thinking still prevails, although there has been a shift in attitude among the pubic. However, when she goes to a town meeting and hears things coming out of a County Commissioner like for an unwanted dog I’d take a .22 and shoot it, she is still not surprised. She is surprised by reporters latching on to the statement and announcing that if they found this to be the case, if the County Commissioner is shooting dogs, they’ll be all over the story, letting the public know about the violence! She has said that the younger generations are becoming more educated and being exposed to the way other people treat their companion animals through television and other popular media is also helping to bring about change.
Change she doesn’t think she’ll see come to full fruition in her lifetime, but a change that keeps her going.
Please check out Carolyn Atchison’s Animal House Zoological Society, Inc.’s website to see more about her rescue and work: http://www.animalhouse.org/