The Life in My Hands Part 5: Making the Hardest Decisions - Little Orange Buddha
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The Life in My Hands Part 5: Making the Hardest Decisions

Generally speaking, in Chicago’s sheltering landscape of days gone by, there were not always good deaths to be had, and there were far too many deaths to contemplate with any sense of sanity. For an accurate picture whence we’ve come, I went to speak with someone who lived it. A native of the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, Diane Spyrka’s service to the animals of Chicago spans decades. If you lift away Diane’s shoulder-length brown hair, and look closely, you can see the nubs just above her shoulder blades where her wings have been shorn away, no doubt so she could more easily drop to earth. I’m certain they will completely grow back when her time on the planet has come. She is a fixture of the Animal Welfare League, an organization founded in 1935, also known as the AWL. She is also veritable library of Chicago animal welfare history. In 1975, after finishing up at Oakton Community College and earning her certified medical laboratory technician certificate, Diane followed the money, and left her $1.35 per hour kennel attendant job at the Bone Animal Hospital, to join the AWL as a clinic assistant, earning $1.50 per hour.

For roughly four decades she has made the trip to 6224 S. Wabash to a building that, like Lady Gaga, has had more than a few costume changes. The storefront currently sports bulletproof glass, security cameras, and a steel composite outer skeleton — it is one of the only south side humane societies providing the economically depressed area with essential animal services and a pet food pantry. The facility serves hundreds of people and roughly 4,000 animals per year, mainly cats and dogs, and even the occasional squirrel and cantankerous hibernating chipmunk named Chippy. (Diane also has her wildlife rehabilitation license.) It is currently a receiving facility for strays and unwanted pets, complementing the AWL’s open-admission facility in Chicago Ridge, which intakes roughly four times as many animals annually. During the 1970s, the neighborhood surrounding the Wabash facility was taking a violent turn; many people no longer wanted to visit because of safety concerns. Diane did not abandon her post.

Diane is also what is commonly known as a “very rare bird.” I believe she might even be red listed. Her life’s work, and what she has withstood as witness, is not for mere mortals, or any mere animal lover. When Diane first started at the AWL, the volume of animals was exponentially greater than the volume she sees today. Back then, the organization was annually inundated with more than 50,000 animals, and the other big two shelters and control facilities, Chicago Animal Care and Control and the Anti-Cruelty Society, were pulling in similarly huge numbers. At the AWL, there were three shifts of people and two shifts of drivers that contained and retrieved packs of stray dogs running rampant around Chicago. To put it in more practical and blunt terms: At the AWL, it used to be that dead animal pickup was every day; now it is only once a week. She recalls a time in the late 1970’s when Chicago Animal Care and Control’s gas chamber was out of service, and CACC had to sign over to AWL more than a hundred animals a day for euthanasia. Diane’s facility had two workers whose only job was to euthanize animals all day long.

Euthanasia was also not the same back then. AWL used electrocution in those days. It was the method of choice in Great Britain, and AWL had imported their two electrical boxes from the great isle. These boxes were engineered to thread 220 volts of electricity to a chain that had been affixed to an animal’s neck. With a flip of a switch, the animal dropped immediately. Although horrific to ponder, it apparently was a death assured quickly. The other methods used at that time by the other two facilities were no less repugnant to modern-day sensibilities. The City shelter used a gas chamber. The Anti-Cruelty Society used decompression. All were approved methods back in the day. None is now in use.

Longevity of commitment is not something that characterizes those who do what Diane does every day. Few could identify with what Diane has seen, or understand how much she has accomplished, or how much Chicago, as a city, has accomplished. A deeply practical individual, she knows she can’t save them all. There’s not enough financial support; there are not enough homes; they are not all salvageable. Few people are equipped with whatever kind of under armor Diane wears to stave off the effects of witnessing the hardest stuff day in day out, the suffering of which most of us spare ourselves the sight, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer. Yet somehow she has still managed to keep her heart open, her smile wide, and her laugh resounding. As she conveyed to me, a tear welling in her eye, “This is not a job. It’s a way of life.”

So if Diane says Chicago has made huge strides in animal welfare, I’m ready to believe her. Like those incredibly long and thin ladies sucking back cigarettes “tailored for the feminine hand,” would utter, Chicago has indeed “come a long way, baby.”

A shout out must be given to Illinois generally for its tougher stance on animal welfare. Illinois’ animal protection laws are some of the strongest in the nation. For the ninth year in a row, the Animal Defense League Fund ranked Illinois number one for the comprehensiveness of these laws. I won’t bore you with a long list of the laws that are in place, but Illinois does deserve a pat on the back for its efforts. The laws are also designed of course to protect people and other animals from dangerous animals. Chicago’s Municipal Code 7-12, for example, provides inter alia, guidance for controlling and determining “dangerous animals.”

Huge strides, however, don’t always straddle the chasm between what you know to be true, and what your duty to public safety and reality might entail. As I mentioned, from a mild addiction to mutability for most of my volunteer days in animal shelters, I became heavily addicted to the concept in 2016; in May of that year, I accepted the appointment of Executive Director of Chicago Animal Care and Control, the City’s largest municipally run open-admission animal shelter. I left my career as a litigator to oversee an operation that provides both animal shelter and control services to the City of Chicago. Day after day, animals stream in. And day after day, concerned groups of people, employees, volunteers, rescue organizations, members of the public, work like dogs — because we all know cats don’t work — to get them out alive. I am ultimately responsible for these animals: When they live, and when they die. I’ve seen them enter the shelter, sometimes on the end of a long excuse, abandoned to their fate after many years of family service. I’ve also seen some come in with a police officer, or an animal control officer, their physical and mental condition mere shadows of what they could have been in loving hands. I’ve lain down on the floor with a couple, and held them as they’ve been peacefully put to rest. I characterize this job as the most difficult I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have. It’s been a very interesting nine months for sure. I could write essays upon essays about the animals that have passed through CACC since I arrived, but I conclude this essay with the stories of only two. I do this because it seems fit to end an essay titled, The Life in My Hands, with two lives that are deserving of their own written remembrance. Concluding with this particular story also will put in sharp relief the root cause of my addiction.

I must preface their stories with an explanation of the definition of a “dangerous animal.” A dangerous animal and a dangerous dog in particular may be many things under Chicago’s Municipal Code. For example, an animal may be labeled dangerous if it visits an unprovoked attack on a person or another animal. It could be a dog that is used as a guard dog or for fighting. A dog that has approached someone in an apparent attitude of attack on more than one occasion can also be labeled dangerous. After an investigation has been performed, CACC’s Executive Director has the responsibility of deeming a dog dangerous — or not. If a dog is deemed dangerous, and not ordered euthanized, the dog may still return to its owner with conditions of upkeep: these include spaying or neutering the animal, purchasing a certain amount of liability insurance, safely containing the animal, muzzling the animal when walking in public, training, and obtaining an annual dangerous dog license at $100 a pop. An animal might also be banished from the City. The owners sometimes comply and come and pick up their pets; and sometimes they don’t. If abandoned by their owners, the animals become City property, and they are usually euthanized. Placing animals that have no issues, and that do not pose any threat to the public is difficult enough. Placing animals with a bite record is incredibly difficult. Not long after I had arrived at the City shelter in my new role, I began investigating some uncharted territory, venturing back to the dangerous dog pavilion where the violators of the Code resided and where they sometimes would sit for months, and sometimes years. Since dangerous doesn’t always literally mean dangerous, I went to see if there were some of these animals that I could take out for a walk in the large fenced yard out back of the City shelter. There were always a couple of them.

T1, the younger, and T2, the older (not their real names) were a couple of Belgian Malinois that had been deemed dangerous by my predecessor. And for good reason: Their owner used them as guard dogs to patrol empty properties, and on two separate occasions they had freed themselves from whatever perimeter they had been charged with guarding, given chase to a passerby, and attacked. When I became director, these guys had already spent months in kennels in a back pavilion, but were not yet property. They bounced off their smallish concrete confines, spreading feces everywhere, and barked to anyone who walked past. They eagerly gobbled down the Milkbone biscuits tossed through the bars. I reviewed their file carefully. The photos of the injuries they’d inflicted while absent without leave were not critical, but they were also not pretty, and no doubt mentally and physically painful to the victim. The description of the attacks, however, contrasted sharply with the restless young T1, who yipped enthusiastically in his kennel, displaying a head tilt and joie de vivre that could tease a smile from even the hardest face. T2, a dog of four or five years was more intense. He sported a snowy, wizened muzzle and a sartorial style reminiscent of the bass player for John Prine. Their owner could have taken the dogs home so long as he complied with the conditions in the Ordinance, but rather than comply, he abandoned them to their fate at the shelter.

I’ll never forget the first time I removed each separately from their kennels and brought them into the fresh air for a leg stretch. It was the first time in months that the animals had been outside. T1 was first. When I released him off leash into the fenced-in yard, the freedom was palpable, both in the way his fetid wheat-colored coat feathered about him as he raced around the yard, and in the way he would eagerly chase a tennis ball, and show absolutely no desire to retrieve it, as though all objects animate and inanimate deserved a break that day. Old man T2 was a different creature all together when he exited his kennel for the first time. He meant business, and his aptitude for chasing and retrieving any object thrown was unparalleled. He chased a ball with the concentration and precision of a brain surgeon. When you are employed in a place of throwaways, you can’t but help wonder what their lives might have been like, had their talents been positively directed from the beginning. Had T2 gotten on the right track at the start of his life, he no doubt would have made a great police K-9, finding people, finding drugs, finding anything: There was no ball that T2 could not fetch or find, and retrieve on his old pins.

After that first night, I took them out to the backyard a number of times. Separately, they appeared to be good dogs. I considered trying to transfer them out of the shelter to responsible hands. I contacted a couple of law enforcement folks to regale them with T2’s amazing abilities with a ball, but pretty much learned that old dogs were not what they were looking for. I also contacted a couple of rescues that I thought with full disclosure might consider taking them. All the while, though, liability considerations, like sadistic and sour sugarplums, danced and danced around in my head. I kept asking myself, what if they got out again? What if they harmed yet another person or an animal? What if, what if, and what if? After many weeks of tossing balls and tossing in my sleep, and pushing the old arguing married couple of angel and devil off of my shoulder, I decided early in the summer that neither dog should leave the shelter. Against every moral fiber I had, I authorized the euthanasia of these vibrant beings. I know many of you are sitting here thinking: Well of course. Others are sitting here aghast: How could I?

I wanted their last day to be the greatest day, especially of all the days they might remember confined in the noisy, stressful shelter. I’m sure their earlier days of patrolling building parameters had long been forgotten. That morning on my way to work, I drove through a Burger King drive-through, and ordered eight plain Whoppers to go. I decided that their final hours would be filled with burgers and balls. That night, after the workday curtain had drawn, I picked up the slip lead, shoved poop bags in my pocket, microwaved the burgers, and made my way to their kennels. Distant rumblings outside and a gathering convention of ominous clouds signaled a brewing summer storm. I released T1 out in the yard first. He wasn’t in a ball-playing mood, and initially just walked around sniffing, and then nuzzled his long nose into my side for attention. As the sky continued to darken, he finally ran around the yard, as I watched the distant flashes of electricity dance atop the black marching mass of clouds. I softly begged for some more time from whatever powers were gathering till I could get T2 out. After a half hour had passed, I returned T1, and immediately lassoed up T2–there was no time to waste–and I released him into the yard. Lightening lit up the sky in the distance, and the drumbeat of thunder pounded closer and closer. The ominous steady prelude of the rain had begun, like Australia’s All Blacks’ Haka, and I could hear the warriors chant, “Let me go back to my first gasp of breath. Let my life force return to the earth.” I furiously threw tennis ball after tennis ball, and T2 raced up and down the yard. But it was the bolt from the sky immediately overhead our metal enclosure that shook me out of the trance of bend, pick up, and throw ball. “Well old boy,” I whisper to the heaving, impatient old shepherd pawing the dirt in front of me, “If we stay out here much longer, neither one of us will have to be euthanized.” I threw the slip lead over his head as the drops began to echo off the shelter roof top, and we raced back into the building just as the heavens opened, and pelted us with arrows of heavy rain. Back in the Pavilion, after T2 was safely stowed, breathless and panting on the cool concrete floor, I unwrapped the burgers that had once again grown cold. It was of no moment for T1, who gobbled them down in two bites a piece, and pawed his kennel bars for more. I left T2’s portion in his bowl as he was far less interested in eating burgers than he was in gulping air and water.

Burgers, balls, and butt scratches were the only thing I wanted them to remember before they took flight into the world of the invisible at 7:00 p.m. that evening. I deeply regret not having held either one of them as they were euthanized. Rather, I drove home that evening barely able to see the road through the twin torrents of tears and rain.

There is no 12-step program to assuage the compulsive need I have for another moment, or the realization that one has passed, or that one will pass — and the requisite steadiness to allow them to pass without collapsing on the floor. I have discovered that what profoundly matters is the recognition that living is an intensely momentary thing. Not recognizing its ephemeral nature is a great cause of failing the moment, and failing the being who happens to be sharing it with you, if but briefly. And conversely, perhaps paradoxically, the addiction to mutability is also the root of considerable relief and healing. Had there been nothing to allay the decisional despair associated with these two, and many others that have followed, I think a sinkhole lined with grief and guilt would have swallowed me whole. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wisely observed,

“That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment.”

The river that need not be stepped in twice is the only river that washes away enough of the emotional grit and grime to allow you to get up and try again the next day. The lives in my hands have transformed me into an impermanence junkie. And every day, I tighten that rubber band with my clenched teeth, flick the air bubbles from the needle, and shoot it up uncut into my biggest vein.

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Susan Russell
  • Bev Pines
    Posted at 03:03h, 06 August Reply

    I’m sitting here with welled up tears while reading your essay, I’ve often wondered what kind of incredibly strong armor/compulsion/dedication, it takes to do what you did while at CACC, and the longevity of commitment of Diane Spyrka who you so beautifully described.. Yes, we must get comfortable with impermanence. It is indeed all we can be certain of. Still, it’s so hard to make those decisions.

  • Barbara Chadwick
    Posted at 18:58h, 07 August Reply

    Susan, you are missed and thought about every single day. Thank you for sharing your self in your posts, blogs, essays. So much love, so many prayers are sent your way! XOXO

  • Geri Romano
    Posted at 14:50h, 10 August Reply

    Susan…it is so rare in one’s lifetime to meet a person like you. I have been blessed and I am so grateful. You brought so much energy to us and the care and love you showed to the dogs will forever remain in my heart. There will never be another like you. Blessings abound.

  • Teresa greco
    Posted at 06:52h, 19 August Reply

    Oh Susan! The tears are flowing shading my vision. I know only too well the agony of such a decision: it lives everyday on your heart. You are missed, thought of daily and sooooo loved.
    We all are so blessed to know you. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to set them free….

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