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What a Difference a Little Color Makes

With a few cans of paint and a lot of self-expression, a Michigan shelter transforms its euthanasia room.

“He needs a good home.”

“We just had a baby and we don’t have the time anymore.”

“My wife has terrible allergies to this kitten we just got.”

“She’s too much to handle ... but she’s great with kids!”

“I have new furniture, and there’s too much hair. He doesn’t really match the couch.”

On one wall of the euthanasia room, a heavenly wish tempers the emotion behind a swirl of yellow, orange, and red.

For four years of my life, I heard phrases like this every day. At the Humane Society of Kent County in Grand Rapids, Michigan, these words flew over the front desk from nine in the morning until five in the evening.

Cat carriers were plunked upon the admitting desk counter. The scrabble of nails from excited, sometimes terrified dogs marred the front hallway. On occasion, the unmistakable odor of cedar wafted through the door as a frowning parent carried in a glass box containing a guinea pig, hamster, or other rodent who had lost his novelty and charm.

This animal shelter was full of smells, in fact. Besides the obvious odors that accompany the four-legged, there were other distinct aromas. Struggling to eradicate the pungency of bodily excretions, staff members doled out gallons of bleach, disinfectant, and laundry detergent.

The meaty kibble and the gritty clay litter stacked ceiling-high gave off a dust that stuck in one’s hair all day. Sometimes, the shelter smelled like a barnyard, the scent emanating from piles of straw distributed in the winter to dogs around the community whose only other source of warmth was the coop out back.

And there was always one lingering smell, not always detectable because it came from a small room tucked away, just off the bustling path of the kennel. It was a warm but rotten odor that only came out of my clothes after the spin cycle. It never left my mind, though.

This was a smell of fear, confusion, and a desperate desire to live. Amid all the noises of lively barking, thwacking tails, plaintive mews, and beckoning purrs was a smell that floated over every animal like a harbinger.

Part physical and very psychological, this odor seemed to permeate the cinder block walls of the whole shelter, even though it came from a room measuring only about eight by 12 feet.

The PTS room was what we employees called it, PTS standing for “put to sleep.” When I was given a tour of the facility on my first day of work, I apprehensively entered this room where animals were euthanized.

As my eyes traveled over the ceiling, I saw a paper mobile of tropical birds dangling over the only two pieces of furniture in the room, an old desk and chair. On the wall was a shelf with some feathers, fluffy blankets, an incense burner, and various tourniquets and syringes. It didn’t look menacing or sinister, though there was the acrid smell of decomposing bodies coming from a wagon covered by a floral sheet.

Working in the front office and later as the assistant to the director, I wasn’t in this room very often. On occasion, I would pop my head in to locate the kennel manager, who might be having a cigarette in between pet adoption consultations.

On other occasions, I would thumb through the stack of pink papers on the desk after someone called to see if her dog, whom she had given up three weeks earlier because she just didn’t have time for him anymore, had been adopted.

I would inevitably find the pink slip of paper with the code PTS, NR (NR standing for “no room”) written upon it. With a hollow feeling in my stomach, I would have to tell that person that “Jack” or “Stormy” had been put to sleep because the next week 35 more young dogs had been surrendered to a shelter that could only house 30.

Everyone who worked or volunteered at the humane society was affected by what went on in this room. Sorrow, anger, and frustration were some of the many emotions trapped in those four walls.

The kennel manager, a stout, hardy woman with a perpetually clenched jaw, would often be found sitting over a silky but lifeless cat, stroking its small head and allowing her teeth to unclench for a moment of sadness. 

This angelic Great Dane watched over the euthanasia room of the Humane Society of Kent County’s old facility, reminding staff that the animals they euthanized were going to a better place.

One kennel attendant who helped euthanize animals would never leave the room without a blotchy complexion and sniffling nose. Though she never said anything, I knew that it was not allergies that caused this.

Others simply slammed the PTS room door shut and refused to speak the rest of the day.

Because of all this stress and tension, the kennel manager decided to paint a mural on the walls of the PTS room, and everyone was invited to pitch in with the project. While we couldn’t all cram in at once in the small room, it was a group event.

Three or four people at a time spread the cheap paint on the walls, while others mingled in the hallway mixing up strange pigments or poking heads in the doorway to assess the transformation.

One employee painted a palm tree with a kaleidoscopic toucan in its branches, to give cats one last tantalizing view. The animal cruelty officer created a hurricane of emotion in her abstract, swirling painting. A volunteer painted a simple rainbow to remind us of the hope for a better day. On the back wall, someone painted silver stars and a quotation promoting peace for all.

One particularly artistic staff member painted a huge Great Dane and a demure feline, both with halos and wings. She wanted her co-workers to be comforted knowing the animals they put to sleep were going to a far better place.

What once were plain off-white walls of cinder block had turned into a colorful catharsis for many of the shelter workers. Now when employees entered this room, their eyes didn’t immediately drift over to the tuft of tail or lifeless paw that had strayed from beneath the sheet. They were met instead by a mural of colorful images created by gentle and caring hands.

And while it was only speculation, we all hoped that the animals, too, might be soothed or at least distracted by the vibrant shapes and scenes.

Not every day could be colored with positive shades, of course. Years after leaving my job at the humane society, I still have dark memories of wasted lives, callous attitudes and just plain ignorance. But I recall the bright satisfaction we felt in knowing that, even though the smell of fresh paint would soon dissipate and the old, familiar odor would return, we at least had created something beautiful in a place where before only sadness had existed.

Long after the smell returned, the words that I had painted on the wall would still remain: “I wish you heaven.”

Anna Felkers, a veterinary assistant at the Plymouth Road Animal Clinic in Grand Rapids, left the Humane Society of Kent County in 1998 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English. The organization has since moved to a new building.


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