People: Animal shelter director Dan Turcea

October 04, 2004|HERB BROCK

To this day, I call Dan Turcea the "man who saved Gwendolyn's life." To this day, Turcea blushes at the notion and offers a modest "thank you."

The first time I met this reluctant savior was in the summer of 1995 and I was on the prowl for a cat. Not just any cat. It had to be a calico.

The hunt for the calico reflected my latest cat obsession. An earlier one had to do with a Manx. My son had seen one of the tail-less, hop-happy felines at a county fair pet show and thought it was cool. I went all the way to another county to buy one after seeing a newspaper ad. Cost: $50. My son was excited when I presented him a black ball of fur that had no tail but looked like it had a rabbit for a dad. I was excited because my son was excited. My wife was not excited: "I never heard of anybody buying an alley cat."


In my search for a calico, I decided to go for adoption over extortion. I went to the Danville-Boyle County Animal Shelter and found a litter of three calico kittens. I had a hard time dealing with a fact of animal shelter life that the two kitties I wouldn't pick likely would be put to death. I went ahead and picked one, rationalizing that at least one of them would live.

She was cute, cuddly - and, as it turns out, sick. Gwendolyn's 1.8-pound body had an upper respiratory infection, ear infection, eye infection and three other maladies. The veterinarian said the minuscule kitten would survive the sextet of sicknesses - but only with a lot of medicines and even more care.

Both the meds and care were provided by a veterinary assistant who seemed as obsessed about the details of the therapy for Gwendolyn as I was about getting her. Within a couple days, the little cat was on the road to recovery and ready to be taken home.

That vet assistant was Turcea and, a couple of years later, in 1997, Gwendolyn's vet assistant/savior moved on to a job where he could demonstrate the same care, concern and attention to detail he showed with Gwendolyn to many, many more small animals. He was named director of one of my favorite places to visit in Danville - the local animal shelter.

I stopped by the shelter the other day to check out the kittens and to visit with Turcea. He noticed I didn't have that "how much is that kitty in the cage, the one with the wiggly ears" look in my eyes. I told him my obsession that day was not about animals but people; more specifically, him.

I found the savior and miracle worker - sorry, Dan, but that's what you are to me - at the shelter on the Danville bypass about 7:30 a.m. Turcea had been there since before the sun rose. He comes to work early every day, long before the shelter's three other employees arrive and well before the facility is opened to the public at 8:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday. He starts the cleaning, feeding, watering and paperwork his staff will help him with when they arrive.

Inside the small lobby of the shelter's office area, he pats R.C., a gray, wiry, middle-aged cat that serves as the shelter's official pet. "We pick out a kitten that's not been adopted and declare it our 'shelter cat,'" he said.

He checks out the cat cages, including one where a Siamese mother was nursing her own kitten and three from another litter. "Cat moms are not like dog moms. More often than not, a wet, or nursing, cat mother will accept kittens from another litter, and that's great for us because we often take care of unweaned kittens with no mother. Most nursing canine moms won't do that," he said.

He caresses Frankie, an "exceedingly old" black and white cat who is the shelter's unofficial hospice patient. "She's been with us about six months. She's living out her life with us," he said.

The toughest part of his job

Unfortunately, the majority of the more than 2,600 cats and dogs, kittens and puppies - and the "occasional potbelly pig and goat" - housed at the shelter each year do not live out their lives, Turcea said. He then talks about the toughest part of his job. "We euthanize about 70 percent of the animals that come here," said Turcea, who, as a licensed euthanasia specialist, administers most of the lethal injections while veterinarians handle the rest.

"What an honor," he said with clear sarcasm, referring to his license. "But someone has to make the decision about which animals must be put down, and that responsibility belongs to me." "I'm an animal lover," said the Baltimore native who "only knew people and blacktop" growing up in a city but developed his love of animals and a career working with them in a summer job at Garrard County saddlebred horse farm while the 1974 Centre College graduate was a student.

"But while I love animals, I am practical. I am thick-skinned. I have to euthanize animals every day, but I am able to compartmentalize it, balance the euthanasia I have to do against the joy of the adoptions I'm also involved in. I don't go home and sit and brood. I think of the happy new owners and their happy new pets."

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