I can show you 101 pictures of PACC’s (Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, AZ) Dog Recovery Room, AKA Sick Bay, but you’ll never know what it’s really like unless you’re in there.
You’ll never know the smell.
It hits you the second you push open the heavy metal door but before you even step into the room.
That natural putrid smell of dog crap, urine, and vomit mixed with PACC’s sweet smelling laundry detergent fills the air. And, sadness. Yes, sadness is a smell in the Recovery Room.
You’ll never know the noise of the dogs barking as they sit there staring at a wall.
If they’re not barking, they’re gagging or gasping or coughing horrible noises that sound deep and guttural like a lion’s roar but much quieter and not nearly as majestic. It’s a desperate, longing and lonely sound.
Once they realize no one is coming after they bark for hours on end, they may settle down and rest on their donated but tattered blankets. They try to sleep but other dogs start barking or it’s too cold from the AC blowing directly on them and they can only rest minutes at a time.
There are 16 kennels in sickbay and they’re almost always full.
There are cartoon paintings of dogs on the walls but you can’t really see them unless you’re looking through the window from outside.
The rest of the room is a large tomb. It’s gray block, fitted with filthy windows that are at best translucent. The years of hard water and chemicals have left the windows with a milky cast.
Volunteers spend hours with these dogs. It’s so isolated from the rest of the shelter that sometimes if not enough DOC guys come, volunteers are the only ones left to clean, feed and water these animals.
There is a small team of volunteers that come in every morning. It’s hard to keep people because it really not glamorous work in the Recovery room.
We gown up in medical gowns, wear booties to cover our shoes, gloves to cover our hands and hold puppies in our laps or dogs as close to us as we can get them.
Even though some dogs shiver from the cold (or maybe fear), we sweat under the layers of gloves and gowns. I always have an itch on my face but I can’t do anything about it until I’m done petting a sick dog.
We sit in chairs and work in sync with the DOC guy. He’ll take a dog out to clean his or her kennel and we’ll sit with the dog, pet them, feed them wet food, wipe their eyes and their noses clean from the thick, yellow URI gunk that clogs them. We pull ticks with our gloved hand and then smash them into the cement floor with our shoes.
We tell the dogs to be brave and that they’ll soon have a forever home and a family that loves them.
The dogs are always scared from the powerful water hose the DOC use to clean their kennels. The large garbage cans make scary noises, the DOC wear big, powerful boots and stomp around. The dogs are confused, sick and lonely.
The dogs stink like old poop and another smell I can never quite describe. They usually have a grimy, crusty film on them from walking in their own feces and urine. Their backs are greasy from the tick medicine. We can’t bathe them because we can’t take them out to the healthy floor where the tub is.
We have to avoid their kisses because we don’t want to go home and infect our own dogs.
A pit bull puppy with giardia sat in my gowned lap today and when I wouldn’t let her lick my face, she instead licked my gowned arm in appreciation and then hid her head under my arm from the loud noises in the room. She sat there still for a few moments while I petted the back of her head and told her she was a good girl.
Before that, I had a small pit bull try to jump up in my lap because he was so happy to see someone. I had to gently push him back on to the floor but not before he had ripped my gown in a few places. I eventually had to move because a dog in another kennel thought he was getting too close and started growling at him.
The other volunteer, the DOC guy and I take turns moving carefully around the room.
He has two giant garbage cans on wheels and a hose he tries to maneuver around. There is not enough room for all of us so one of us stands and holds a short leash on the dog while DOC tries to move gracefully around us.
It’s even more crowded when the techs come in to give the dogs their meds.
We step around hoses.
We move around garbage cans.
We move around each other.
We step around piles of dirty bedding.
We tip toe over smears of dog crap. There is no sense cleaning the floor until the end. The solid stuff is picked up right away but there is almost always a smear or puddle of urine to step around. Some of the dogs are so housebroken that when they’re removed from their kennel, they immediately relieve themselves. Some dogs just lose control because they’re so scared.
The other volunteer and I mark off dogs on the dry erase board as we go. We just make little dots to keep track of who got some human interaction.
After all the dogs are petted and their kennels have been cleaned, we say good-bye.
Sometimes we see the dogs again on our return visit and sometimes they die while we are gone.
Today I sat there sweating and itching and wondering why the hell I’m doing this. That’s when I look over to the other volunteer and see him petting a sick dog that’s leaning against his legs for support and a feeling of safety. Even though I know the dog is scared and sick, I can tell by looking at her face that she feels a small glimmer of hope. She feels hope of a forever home and a warm, soft bed and someone to love.
I can’t see myself but I know I look just like that other volunteer and he inspires me to keep going.
I look down at the puppy in my arms and she moves her head up from under my arm looks me in the eye, and darn it, I’m too slow and she licks my chin.
OK, I’ll be back next week.
P.S. Please vote YES on Proposition 415