Last year, San Antonio euthanized approximately 49,000 cats and dogs—more per capita than any other big city in the United States. Complaints about its Animal Care Facility have persisted for years, including concerns about overcrowding and the excessive use of restraint devices. The pound also uses gas chambers to put animals to sleep, an outdated method that can be slower and more painful than lethal injection and is used by no other major metropolitan area in the nation. But perhaps most abysmal has been its failure to promote the adoption of its wards. Nearly nine out of ten animals brought there last year were put down, many within an hour of arriving.

The San Antonio Express-News ran an exposé about conditions at the Animal Care Facility in November, and the ensuing uproar forced the city to rethink its treatment of cats and dogs. The pound’s new director, Sam Sanchez, has called for a massive overhaul, which will include not only a reevaluation of the use of gas chambers but also a push to increase the adoption rate (in part by allying with volunteers from animal rights groups) and more community outreach to encourage pet owners to have their animals spayed and neutered.

Photographer Roberto Guerra first visited the Animal Care Facility last summer and returned many times to chronicle the cycle of life and death among San Antonio’s thousands of abandoned, abused, and stray animals. (His father, Dr. Fernando A. Guerra, had suggested that it might be a good subject for his next project; Dr. Guerra is the director of the Metropolitan Health District, which until December oversaw the management of the facility.) Along the way, Roberto also ended up documenting the work of the pound’s employees, who shoulder the burden of tending to their city’s forgotten citizens.

Photo Captions

Note: We are unable to include Roberto Guerra’s Photographic Portfolio online. The following unedited captions provide a description of Guerra’s photographs in this article.

Photo 1. “Twice a day, after the animal control officers have made their rounds, they unload all the dogs and cats they’ve picked up,” explains photographer Roberto Guerra. “Many of the animals are frightened; there’s a lot of noise, a lot of barking. I photographed this dog just after he had been pulled off the truck.”

Photo 2.“This woman works as a kennel attendant. The catch pole she’s holding is what she uses to move dogs and cats off the trucks. She may use it to lasso some of the more aggressive animals.”

Photo 3. “San Antonio’s animal control officers are required by law to pick up any cats and dogs they see that are not restrained, even if they have tags,” says Guerra. “They also have to pick up feral animals, pets that owners no longer want, and vicious dogs that pose a threat to neighbors. Many, like this cat, are euthanized.”

Photo 4. “Some of the cats that have been put down, like these, are used as specimens in veterinary classes and for pharmaceutical research.” (We are not showing this employee’s face out of respect for his privacy.)

Photo 5. “This list, at the intake kennel, tracks ‘pick-up orders’—the cats and dogs that city residents have asked the pound to take away because they are unwanted or a menace,” says Guerra.

Photo 6. “The pound uses gas chambers to euthanize animals that aren’t adopted. The public outcry over this has really deflected attention from the more important questions: Why are people not taking care of their pets? Why are there so many stray cats and dogs in San Antonio? How are we failing these animals?”

Photo 7. “Walking through the kennels can be overwhelming because of the noise and the sheer number of animals,” says Guerra. “ I photographed this woman as she looked for her lost dog.”

Photo 8. “Each day, the chief kennel attendant decides which of the new dogs and cats have the greatest chance of being adopted. The Labradors and the golden retrievers are usually selected. The pit bulls are not. The animals that do make the cut, like this puppy, are kept in a kennel for up to two weeks; after that, if they haven’t been adopted, they are put down. With more funding and more public awareness, there will be a greater chance of their survival.”