Grassroots activists urge leaders to shut off pet gas chamber
By BY GABE SEMENZA - GSEMENZA@VICAD.COM
April 17, 2010 at 2:01 p.m.
Updated April 16, 2010 at 11:17 p.m.
Activists hope a grassroots campaign will prompt shelter leaders to stop using carbon monoxide to kill unwanted pets.
Cities, counties and states nationwide increasingly ban the use of gas to euthanize animals.
Pet activists and shelter officials debate which euthanasia method is more humane - for the pets and the shelter staff forced to end the animals' lives.
Dispute aside, most agree: Because of civic apathy and irresponsible pet owners, euthanasia remains a necessary evil in the Crossroads.
'... DEMAND THAT CHANGE'
Pet activists from Austin to Corpus Christi and Victoria launched recently an emotion-charged campaign. They bombarded local politicians, animal shelter leaders, the newspaper and others with calls to ban the gassing of unwanted pets.
"May I please draw attention to the gas chamber that is presently being used to kill Victoria's unwanted animals?" one letter writer noted. "This reprehensible means to euthanize kittens, puppies, cats and dogs is a completely archaic and outdated method of animal control. The lethal injection used in almost all kill shelters is at least a kinder death."
Sheila Smith, an Austin nurse and pet advocate with family in Victoria, coordinated grassroots efforts. She launched the campaign after she learned Victoria County gasses most unwanted pets. Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston and many other Texas cities banned the method.
"There is no way things will change unless the citizens demand that change," Smith said. "Out-of-towners can't make it happen for the animals in Victoria. While the 'No Kill' movement is all around us, Victoria not only kills their animals, they do it in an inhumane way. While it may be legal, it's certainly not right."
The Victoria City-County Animal Shelter uses both lethal injection and gas to euthanize pets.
Shelter staff lethally inject the youngest puppies and kittens, as well as older pets - or those whose lungs don't effectively absorb compressed carbon monoxide. Staff also inject severely wounded pets.
For all other animals, death comes via the gas chamber. During this process, staff place several pets into a cage, wheel the animals down a hallway and set them into a chamber. The door closes and carbon monoxide fills the animals' lungs.
The pets howl, whimper and sometimes convulse.
"When it comes to humans, death by gas was considered a barbaric practice that's no longer in use," said Louise Hull Patillo, a Victoria Realtor and pet advocate who did not participate in the letter-writing campaign. "If it was barbaric to do it to humans, it would seem to me to be barbaric to do it to innocent animals."
WHERE IS IT LEGAL TO GAS?
Gassing remains legal in Texas despite research that some say paint an ugly picture.
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians calls unacceptable the use of carbon monoxide for individual or mass companion animal euthanasia. The group cites these reasons:
Placing multiple animals in a chamber can frighten and distress them. This can also dilute the effective concentration of gas and prolong death.
Carbon monoxide stimulates motor centers in the brain, and loss of consciousness may be accompanied by convulsions. It is unclear if convulsions occur only after loss of consciousness.
Vocalization and agitation some dogs exhibit suggest distress.
Sick or pregnant animals can experience delayed gas absorption and circulation, prolonging unconsciousness and death. Many shelters are unlikely to know an animal's age and health status, making inhumane euthanasia likely to occur.
"We all agree too much euthanasia takes place, but you've got to keep your stray populations under control," said Robert Hewitt Jr., president of the Dorothy H. O'Connor Pet Adoption Center's board of directors. "You certainly don't have to take a bunch of dogs at one time, put them in a room together and turn on the carbon monoxide and have them die that way. I abhor that."
Already, 16 states ban euthanasia by gas, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Fifteen states, including Texas, allow it. The others don't mention the process at all in state law.
"The gas chamber is going by the wayside. In a state like Texas, where shelters can get the drugs without a veterinarian, there is no reason to use the gas chamber," said Kim Intino, the Humane Society's director of shelter services.
A HUMANE WAY TO DIE?
Dr. Bain Cate is director of the Victoria City-County Health Department, which oversees the animal shelter. He argues against a growing number of states that suggest gassing is inhumane.
"The premise that compressed carbon monoxide euthanasia is reprehensible is incorrect," Cate said.
Humans who survive significant carbon monoxide poisoning lose consciousness and awake later with no memories of the event, he said.
"CO (carbon monoxide) works by ending oxygen delivery to individual cells. Only later, with cessation of breathing and heart action does the human or animal cease to live," Cate said. "It is, in fact, a very humane way to die."
Ninety percent of the 4,000 animals euthanized at the shelter each year die from compressed carbon monoxide, he said.
Cate points to the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2007 Guidelines on Euthanasia.
Carbon monoxide induces loss of consciousness without pain and with minimal discernible discomfort, the guidelines note. Death occurs rapidly if shelters use carbon monoxide concentrations of 4 to 6 percent, according to the report.
Victoria County uses concentrations of 6 percent, Cate said.
"This is much more humane than holding the pet down, inserting a needle into the vein and waiting several seconds, if not a minute, for the pet to lose consciousness," Cate said. "This is just common sense, if one is not blinded by the 'satanic gas chamber' mentality."
In the same 39-page medical report Cate points to, however, authors also note: "The use of injectable euthanasia agents is the most rapid and reliable method of performing euthanasia. It is the most desirable method when it can be performed without causing fear or distress in the animal."
SHELTER STAFF STRESS
Wildlife and aggressive animals can pose dangers to shelter staff during lethal injection. In these cases, animals are sedated and then injected or placed into the gas chamber.
Handling pets during euthanasia also causes staff members stress, Cate said.
"Please try to put yourself in the place of an animal shelter employee. For the CO chamber, though the result is the same, the 'hands off' scenario is much more tolerable for the employee," Cate said.
Cate said the shelter would need an extra full-time employee to lethally inject most animals. The cost of pharmaceuticals - injection doses or the compressed gas - is about the same.
While county leaders say they rely on Cate's input for these decisions, Cate says he relies on county leaders for policy direction.
"As you know, neither the city of Victoria nor the county of Victoria prohibit CO euthanasia," Cate said. "They have adopted the state statute as their standard. Certainly, if either entity would choose to forbid compressed CO euthanasia, the animal shelter would immediately stop the practice for animals coming from their jurisdiction."
Jeff Straub is police chief, assistant city manager and director of Taylor Animal Control. Taylor, population 18,000, is 20 miles northeast of Austin.
A few years ago, the city of Taylor delegated animal control to the police department.
"I was assured the shelter's use of carbon monoxide for euthanasia was an inexpensive, safe method that was permitted by state law and required few personnel to utilize," Straub said. "We confirmed the practice was lawful and went about day-to-day operations."
In June 2009, Straub received hordes of letters, phone calls and complaints that gassing is inhumane. Straub polled shelters in his area and learned Taylor's was the only to still use the method.
"I then caused the practice to cease immediately," he said.
The switch to strictly lethal injection remains a bit more costly, Straub said, but only because his shelter pays outside veterinarians to perform euthanasia. Victoria County's staff is trained in the method.
"In government, we tend to fold our arms across our chests and argue we are legal," Straub said. "I'd encourage your leaders to be open-minded. Try it and see if it works. It's a trade off. Do you want to use a recognized method - a method that people agree is the best method - or not?"
'NEITHER ONE IS MORE HUMANE'
Pet advocates place blame not on the shelter workers who euthanize animals, but rather on irresponsible pet owners who contribute to growing stray and shelter populations. If residents spayed and neutered their pets, advocates say, shelter staff would not have to kill pets.
Heather Kern is the city-county shelter's assistant manager. In 22 years, she worked at shelters that strictly use lethal injection and those that use gas.
She said the gas method remains easier on shelter employees.
"I would love to not have to do either," Kern said. "Which is better? Neither one is more humane."