24 Hours a Stray

The Humane Society's animal rescue drivers work hard to save the wounded, to rescue the sick and abandoned. But usually the endings are not so happy.

"Hardest part of the job is putting animals to sleep," Yera confesses. Several staff members -- including all the drivers -- are certified to euthanize animals at the Humane Society. "Sometimes it gets to you, if you're an animal lover," he goes on. "A lot of people say, 'How do you do this job?' I say, 'Someone's gotta do it, if you love animals.'"

He loads another syringe. In one smooth motion, he reaches into the cage where he has placed the mangy cat, pulls the animal out by the scruff of its neck, plunges the syringe into its belly, and swings the dangling animal back into the cage. The cat begins to cry, a dirge of long vowels: "Owwwww, owwwww, owww, owww." As the toxin moves through its system, the cries lower in pitch. The cat executes a woozy half-turn, stumbles backward, leans against the cage door and slides its head along the slender bars, first one way, then the other. Finally it collapses on its side as softly as a cotton ball, dead.

Yera slips the cat into a bright yellow plastic disposal bag and carts it into a walk-in freezer, where it will remain until a driver takes a load of the dead to Mount Trashmore, the Dade County dump in South Dade. He grabs another bag for the dog, but the animal's lungs are still pulsing slowly, as if it is in a deep sleep. "His brain is still sending messages to the heart," Yera explains, "but he's more dead than alive now."

As he is waiting for the dog to take its last breath, a kennel assistant passes through with grim news. At about ten o'clock that morning, the male Dalmatian began hemorrhaging blood from its penis and died.

The cries echo off the isolation room's white walls and linoleum floor. Their source: a brown-and-white retriever puppy, no bigger than a child's lunchbox. A gaping divot in its head oozes pus and blood. Minutes earlier, a man dropped off the puppy, saying he'd taken it from a child who was mistreating it.

Staff veterinarian Marat Dubrovsky wanders in wearing his customary blue doctor's togs, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "Okay, okay, okay, give me a second," he admonishes the puppy with mock impatience. A man most physically distinguished by a mop of unkempt white hair, Dubrovsky speaks in broken English and the thick, throaty accent of his native Ukraine. "Oh my," he whispers, firmly probing the wound. "Abscess. Probably somebody beat it. It be all right. I put in tube and drain for few days." By the doctor's estimate, the dog is no more than nine weeks old.

Two staffers carry the yelping puppy into an adjacent room to clean the wound. "Pretty sight, eh?" one asks. "Least there're no maggots!" Spraying the puppy's scalp with water, she looks into the raw gouge. "Guess I'll go have my lunch now," she jokes darkly, then apologizes. "We're sick here," she says. "You have to be, considering the stuff we see."

There was a time when the Humane Society performed all sorts of veterinary surgery, but these days Dubrovsky concerns himself with spaying and neutering only. Budget constraints, he explains. Occasionally he'll do basic surgery on an animal deemed adoptable, like the wounded puppy. "It will heal better than old dog. And it is puppy," he says. "When it have stitches on its head, it is adopted three times faster. You be surprised how people fight to adopt crippled dog with amputated leg. Animal who is damaged adopt really fast. They feel sorry."

A week later the puppy will be put up for adoption. Within half a day, someone offers it a home.

You don't have to be an animal freak -- or, for that matter, an animal lover -- to drive for the Humane Society, as Lawrence Cure will attest. A beefy 34-year-old with a short goatee, Cure has been driving for about eight years, but he pretty much backed into the job. He used to do odd jobs around the Humane Society, he explains: mowing the lawn, minor repairs. He stepped in as a driver when one quit, and then just stayed on. By his own admission he had no interest in animals when he joined the crew. "I never had a dog or cat growing up," Cure says in a rumbling low voice that at normal volumes verges on a shout. "But I had a ferret. His name was Screech. I used to take Screech everywhere. I put it in the car with me because it pulled the women."

Among the drivers, Cure is the utility man, working full-time but floating from shift to shift as needed. This week he's covering the 2:00 to 10:00 p.m. slot, the one usually filled by veteran driver Michael Stukes, who is on vacation. At a few minutes past 2:00, Cure is preparing for his shift in an office at the Humane Society A punching the time clock, stocking up on blank report forms A when the first request for service crackles out of his walkie-talkie: an ailing stray kitten in a trailer park off NW 36th Street. He wedges himself behind the wheel of the truck, scratches the address onto a call log, and pulls out of the parking lot. As he heads south along 27th Avenue through Liberty City, he tunes the radio to a pirate station playing hard-core rap.

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