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A Better Way to Kill?
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A Better Way to Kill?

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In circles of debate the dividing line is often to be, or not to be. With euthanasia in animal pounds the contenders agree that there is a necessity, but the methods used across Virginia are stirring a cauldron of strife.

The majority of the state's more than 120 facilities use lethal injections to put animals to sleep. But 26 still rely on carbon monoxide gas chambers, 26 more than humane and rescue societies would like to see because they claim it is painful for both the animal and the animal control officer.

"The reality is that killing occurs every day in our pounds," said Jeanne Bridgeforth , president of Save Our Shelters, a Carytown-based animal rescue, adoption and advocacy group. "Until more people spay and neuter their animals, our pounds will continue to manage their populations by killing the dogs and cats no one wants. There are humane ways to do it."

Chesterfield County Supervisor Edward Barber echoed Bridgeforth's sentiments. "The debate ought to be over the reasons we have so many unwanted animals in the first place."

Chesterfield is among the Richmond-area localities using the gassing method, along with New Kent, Charles City and Prince George counties. Henrico County officials abandoned the chamber June 1, and the Richmond pound has used lethal injections for more than five years. Animal Control officers generally put down animals that are unclaimed after 30 days.

SOS has launched a statewide campaign to ban the use of gas chambers, taking their case as high as the General Assembly. Chesterfield has been the group's recent focus.

Both methods require professional training and at least two people to administer. With injections, a lethal dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital is inserted intravenously and the animal falls asleep before the drug does its internal work.

In gas chambers an animal or group of animals is loaded into an outdoor box then sealed in as a canister releases a 4 percent to 6 percent concentration of carbon monoxide. The process takes between 40 and 60 seconds in properly operating chambers.

Opponents of the chamber say the apparatus causes a torturous death. Animals kick, scratch, howl and defecate until unconsciousness sets in. The process can be longer for sick or younger, undeveloped animals. In documented cases across the state, some chambers had faulty seals that could extend the procedure and even expose the operator to the odorless, toxic fumes.

"If you find a stray and take it to the pound you expect it to be put down easily if a home isn't found," said Jennie Knapp , an SOS volunteer. "We're also concerned that there's no counseling available for the people putting the animals in. It's very traumatizing."

Injection also allows for a connection with the animal, a chance to share comfort and mercy, Knapp said, while gassing can haunt memories for a lifetime. Dr. Marc Nay , a veterinarian at the Deer Run Animal Wellness Center in Midlothian, said he and his staff have offered to donate time to educate and train the Chesterfield Animal Control staff in the use of sodium pentobarbital. "Chesterfield Animal Shelter is a state-of-the-art facility, it should be easier," Nay said.

Compared with Richmond and Henrico, Chesterfield's facility took in the most dogs and cats in 2001 but had the lowest euthanization rate (32.89 percent) and highest rate of animals adopted or reclaimed (40.78 percent). Richmond and Henrico both put down more than 54 percent of the animals they took in. Chesterfield also fell well below state euthanization averages and above state adoption or reclaim figures. Virginia's city and county pounds and humane and rescue groups put down nearly 133,000 dogs and cats last year. Lea Morris is a court-certified humane investigator and has been involved with animal control for 27 years. He spent much of that time euthanizing animals by gassing, injecting, and, early in his career, decompression, an arcane method that killed by suffocation.

"No shelter or pound in Virginia should kill animals in a gas chamber when there are humane options available," Morris said. "There is no comparison. One is humane, the other is not." Dr. Robert Whiting , who works in the field division of the State Veterinarian's Office, said the gas chamber is not as bad as it seems.

"It's not what it looks like," he said. "The information about reactions to carbon monoxide we've gathered is from human reactions." He added that the gas renders the animals unconscious and the disruptions heard in the box are often involuntary actions.

"Injectable [euthanasia] is probably the best, or at least it has a few advantages," Whiting said. "People like it aesthetically."

But Whiting said gas chambers are more efficient for overburdened areas or areas with a limited staff. "In a lot of the Southwest Virginia counties it's a one-man operation. One person does everything – cleaning, catching, injecting."

The gas chamber also calls for minimal handling, especially in cases with a frightened or wild animal. "The critics have never dealt with one that's feral," Whiting said.

So far Bridgeforth and other SOS members have not been allowed to speak at Chesterfield's Board of Supervisors meetings. They have also requested to view and videotape a gas chamber killing but were denied by the county attorney.

"If they're claiming it's so humane, let's see it," Bridgeforth said. "People everyday request to see human executions, and they're not turned down."

Florida deemed lethal injection the only way for animal euthanasia at a time when death row inmates still faced the century-old method of electrocution.

In some areas, including Westmoreland County, veterinarians helped ease the transition from gas chambers by contracting with the cities or counties to perform the injections until animal officials were trained.

Richmond's pound was plagued with problems in the mid-1990s along several lines, including euthanasia, cleanliness and handling. Inspection reports showed gross misconduct and incompetence by supervisors and employees.

The euthanizing method then was intra-cardiac injection, where a needle was injected directly into the animal's heart. But uncertified employees often stabbed lungs or other organs and animals would drown in their own blood or not die at all.

Clean-up efforts in 1996 and 1997 turned the facility around. Veterinarian Kim Eaton volunteered to teach Richmond officers proper injection techniques and is now on contract with the city to oversee animal welfare.

The American Veterinary Medical Association endorses both methods, but conditionally for gassing, depending on proper operation, a competent operator and proper rate of gas flow.

The debate is present across the country. California, Florida and Tennessee passed legislation to end gas-chamber usage in their municipal pounds. Tennessee's halt came two years ago, after an animal control officer died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas chamber.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered to pay to lethally inject animals of Enoch, Utah, in April after it was reported that the city used auto exhaust fumes to euthanize strays. The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that for more than a year officials connected a hose from the exhaust system of a city-owned pickup to a shed to kill unclaimed dogs and cats.

Legislation in Georgia phased out gas chambers for injection during the last decade, but state officials halted the process last summer to address overcrowding.

"It's not a pretty thing to tell you the truth," Whiting said. "But everybody has a perceived idea of what euthanasia has to be. Unless you're lying down and going to sleep they think it's painful."

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