Last-Minute Reprieve

Why were 60 healthy cats headed for death at the Pima Animal Care Center?

It's long been argued that the Pima Animal Care Center is far too quick with the needle—that animals are euthanized when the county facility runs short on space, or when the animals suffer the slightest sneeze or cough.

Whatever the reason, PACC killed approximately 17,000 animals last year—or more 60 percent of those arriving at its complex on North Silverbell Road.

County officials get a bit touchy when their euthanization practices are questioned. For instance, Dr. Bonnie Lilley, chief veterinarian and head decision-maker over life and death at PACC, has never responded to numerous interview requests from the Tucson Weekly. And when the Weekly published a lengthy story critical of PACC policies ("A Letter From Dogpatch," Nov. 26, 2009), County Health Department Director Sherry Daniels found extra man-hours in her lean budget for staffers to compile a defensive, lengthy and highly detailed memo rebutting the criticisms.

The memo was later submitted to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Pima County Board of Supervisors. It included a veiled but snarky smack-down of District 4 County Supervisor Ray Carroll, who has also criticized funding issues and euthanization practices at the Animal Care Center.

Yet even PACC's armor-clad culture sometimes slips, allowing the rest of us a brief peek through the chink. Such a glimpse occurred on Sept. 15, when an urgent call went out to local animal-rescue groups: The cat-adoption room had been closed, and every cat inside would either be rescued or slated for death.

Among those receiving a call was Susan Scherl, founder of the HOPE Animal Shelter, and a former shelter manager at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. Scherl routinely visits PACC, scouting for animals that can be adopted at her no-kill sanctuary. Such a mission brought her there on Sept. 12, when she was slated to retrieve a couple of dogs. Before leaving, she spotted some old cats in the feline-adoption room, and made a note to return for them as well.

Three days later, Scherl received a call from Justin Gallick, PACC's animal-care advocate. "He told me, 'I've just euthanized 25 cats, and now (PACC veterinarian) Dr. Lilley has walked into the adoption room, quarantined it, and said they all have to go,'" Scherl recalls. "Dr. Lilley told him that, since some of them are sick, all of them are sick."

When Scherl went back to PACC, aiming to retrieve the senior cats she'd already picked out, Gallick asked whether she could take more. In the end, she couldn't leave any behind, knowing they'd be killed.

"Their fate was predetermined before I got there," she says.

Dozens of animals were on the precipice between life and death. When a HOPE representative went to PACC that evening, staffers "were pulling cats out of the euthanization room to give to us," Scherl says. "Volunteers from other rescue groups were there, and when they left, there were still 60 cats, and the adoption room was closed to the public." Those 60 cats ended up with HOPE and its supporters.

"As far as I know, (PACC) says they were killing because the animals were sick," she says. "But they were not sick, and they are not sick now. A couple of cats have the sniffles, but that's about it. And even if they have the sniffles, just treat them."

Of all the cats taken by Scherl, only one was euthanized, because it was found to have a tumor.

"From the knowledge that I have, Dr. Lilley walked into that room, did not examine the cats, saw a couple that were sick, and decided that the whole room needed to be euthanized," says Scherl. "Having walked the walk when I worked at the Humane Society, I've been there. And to me, those are the symptoms of burnout. It's easier just to say, 'Euthanize them all,' rather than have to deal with each cat individually."

Dr. Lilley did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But Gallick says the cat-adoption room seemed to be erupting with contagious, upper-respiratory infections on that fateful week. Gallick adds that he took part in the decision to kill so many cats. "There was mouth-breathing (among them) and sneezing. It came on very strong. Those cats were pulled out; some were taken by rescue (groups), and the majority were euthanized."

The next day, he says, even more felines appeared to be sick. "It started us thinking that this was a big problem, because normally, if cats are there for awhile, and they get upper-respiratory (illnesses), it's on a much-smaller scale. ... I went in there that morning myself and (counted) 26 that were showing signs of upper-respiratory and several others that had diarrhea."

Gallick had those cats hustled off to an isolation area. When he came back to supervise the cleaning and disinfection of the now-empty kennels, "there were sneezes all over the room from other cats. So I talked to Dr. Lilley. She went in there, and we discussed things. Basically, we made the decision to close that room for adoptions, and try to contact the rescue groups to see if they would be able to take the cats.

"Having two cats that have been here a couple of weeks break out with (a) upper respiratory infection in a single day is average," Gallick says. What's abnormal "is when we have 45 cats infected in a matter of two days, and then pull out 20 in (a single) morning for severe (infection)."

But what about the unlucky cats in that room showing no signs of illness? "They were scheduled to be euthanized," says Gallick.

Thus, 60 cats arrived at HOPE—a few with the sniffles, but otherwise hearty and healthy.

Gallick says the stress reduction after removing them from PACC is responsible for their current well-being.

Scherl doesn't buy it. She argues that any shelter—including her own—can be very stressful for animals that have been newly relocated. Instead, she says, it's simply a case of PACC making one big mistake. She wonders how many other cats and dogs have died unnecessarily at a shelter which so adamantly denies that such things occur.

Today, Scherl stands inside HOPE cuddling Daisy Mae, one of the cats that barely escaped a date with death. Daisy is robust and playful. And she's most certainly not sick.

"I looked these cats in the eye when I was PACC," Scherl says. "After that, there was no way I could just leave them behind."

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