Animal house (2:51 p.m.)

Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sara Shirley spends each day on the job keeping 500 names straight, making life and death decisions and introducing newcomers to their cellmates.

Shirley, the shelter manager at the Humane Society of Shelby County, has been memorizing dog and cat names, deciding on how to treat emergency cases brought into the shelter and making sure dogs will work together before placing them in the same kennel for the four years she has been working at the shelter.

Each day at 2 p.m., you can find Shirley working to take care of all the animals the shelter keeps.

“There is no normal day,” Shirley said. “We have tentative schedules, but you could look at it as an emergency room — it depends on what comes through the back door. All the exceptions in the day take precedence.”

Shirley said if no emergency comes in, her day is still divided among a number of things she could be doing.

“If we don’t have an emergency we will be providing vaccinations or medications, processing (which is making animals available for the adoption floor), making sure we maintain a clean environment or socializing with the animals,” Shirley explained. “During all of that, we may also be assisting with an adoption, receiving animals (treating dogs who have been left for adoption) or euthanizing. And at the same time as all of that we are making life and death decisions.”

Though the long workday is never the same — Shirley’s usual day is from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. — the job offers a chance to help animals in need.

“I think for the four of us (her colleagues), the best part is to care for the animals when they need it,” Shirley said.

Most of the workers lead by example by adopting pets from the shelter. Such is the case of Teresa Fischer, a supervisor at the shelter, who adopted her Chihuahua from the humane society.

“She was sick … and I just got attached,” Fischer said.

Though caring for the dogs and cats provides Shirley with rewarding days, there are also things about the job that she doesn’t like. Shirley said many times people attack her and her colleagues about putting dogs to sleep. She said she hates that part of the job, but that it is something that the humane society can’t avoid due to space and finances.

Jennifer Freeman, the medical care manager for the shelter, said there are always the sad stories, but there also are many good stories. She said one of these instances was when a man who drove a very nice car brought in a dog, which was not his, that had been hit and was bleeding.

“That struck me so profoundly that it wasn’t a consideration for that man,” Freeman said.

Shirley decided to work in the shelter after falling in love with volunteering.

“I worked in the corporate world for 20 years. I started volunteering because I was miserable at my job,” Shirley said as she bent down to pet a Chihuahua stray. “It totally consumed me and I have loved it every second, well, except for the heartache. But there is always that one that you were able to save that keeps you going.”

Like Shirley, most of her colleagues decided to start working at the shelter after a career change.

“Life’s events led me to a career change after I had been taking care of people,” Freeman said. “I was missing something about my former career and ended up in this job. To me it is a privilege to be able to care for the animals, even when they die … you still are provided with an opportunity to give an animal comfort in its last breath.”