"This is not the kind of job you talk about in social situations, because most people find it distasteful," says Don Smith, frowning. "What we do isn't for everybody. But it's a job that has to be done. We can't have deceased animals lying all over our streets."
A city worker for 29 years, Smith, who's 56, has the often unsavory task of supervising the city's so-called pathological incinerator. The facility's three furnaces roast to ashes the more than a million pounds of animals-- mostly dogs--that die each year within the city limits.
Until 1978, a private rendering company picked up the city's dead animals. Then the city put in the pathological incinerator, which is inconspicuously located behind the Department of Streets and Sanitation's 42nd Ward office on North Branch Street just off West Division. Its brown-painted aluminum walls rise along the Chicago River across from a storage area filled with luxury sailboats. With its three chimneys, the incinerator looks like a small power plant.
The incinerator receives an average of a dozen 500-pound deliveries each day. The carcasses are refrigerated in large plastic bins until they can be mechanically hoisted into one of the furnaces. The two older furnaces can each burn 800 pounds an hour; a newer model can burn twice that amount. The animal morgue empties out quickly when any one of the three incinerators gets cooking. Usually only one burns at a time. No stench or smoke emanates from the plant. It's a clean burn.
The tons of flesh, fur, and bone are reduced to buckets of ashes, which are hauled away by scavengers, probably to be landfilled. "Basically this place prevents disease and saves room in our landfills," Smith says.
"We're like garbagemen," he says. "The job is fine, as long as you don't really look at what comes in. It gets really bad when it's the middle of summer and in comes a really ripe load. Those make the stockyards smell good."
The loads are hauled in by four trucks from the city's ever-busy Bureau of Rodent Control. In an era of reduced city services, citizens can still call up City Hall and get a crew to come out and remove a dead pet or animal from their premises. A good portion of the incinerator's business comes from pickups at vets' offices. Once the Lincoln Park Zoo called to have a fallen giraffe removed.
"I've seen deer, pythons, and a crocodile or two," Smith says."Thank God I've never seen a human dropped off here."
As a staff of six men load the furnaces with the morning's batch of carcasses, Smith watches from inside his white cinder-block office. A glass of juice and a roll sit on his desk.
"We don't broadcast our existence here," he says, smiling. "Some people might not want to know that this occurs anywhere."
Still, a number of people drive up and deliver their beloved pets to the incinerator's doors. "We don't encourage personal drop offs, but I remember a man--an ex-serviceman and his wife who were crying when they brought their dead dog in," Smith says. "The man saluted the dog as he unloaded him into the hopper. He showed the kind of respect you give to a member of your family."
Smith's job took its toll on his own relationship with his collie-shepherd mix, Sheba. Excited to see her master return home from work, she would run to meet him. But after the initial greeting, especially on scorching summer days, she would run off and hide.
When Sheba died two years ago, Smith brought her to work and treated her like the rest of the city's unfortunate beasts. He vows not to raise another dog.
Generally, the incinerator is a clean facility. The disgustingly sweet smell of death is confined to its two huge walk-in refrigerators. The inside of the plant smells like a rib festival that went on too long, but Smith says he tries to avoid thinking about food on the job. "Barbecues smell better than this," he says, frowning. "I try not to associate the two."
Smith has seen many a weak-stomached city worker come and go in nearly ten years of overseeing the incinerators. "When I first got assigned here I said 'Why me? I'm an animal lover.' I had to adjust. This isn't a job for someone who has never seen a dead thing. But the bottom line is it's a sanitary way to dispose of this city's tons of carcasses."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.