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MONTH: October 2006

Could carbon monoxide gas chambers make a comeback?


Are the surging numbers of dangerous dogs entering animal shelters retarding progress toward abolishing gas chambers?


Warren Cox began to wonder in May 2004 when he arrived for a stint as interim executive director at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in Dayton, Ohio, and found a carbon monoxide chamber that only a few days before was still in sporadic use.


Having managed more than two dozen shelters since 1952, Cox knew he was looking at an anachronism. The Dayton chamber had supposedly been decommissioned years earlier. The Dayton Daily News published exposés of gassing in nearby Fayette County and Darke County in 1995 and 1997 without apparent awareness that animals were still gassed right there in Dayton.


Continued gassing at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter came to light as result of a September 2003 complaint to county officials by veterinarian Sue Rancurello and shelter volunteer Jodi Gretchen, and was discontinued after a shelter evaluation by American Humane affirmed the obsolescence of gassing.


"Two top administrators at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter were removed," the Dayton Daily News reported, in part for "using carbon monoxide instead of lethal injection to euthanize more than the recommended number of animals."


Cox had the carbon monoxide chamber removed. But Cox also took note of who used it, and why. Throughout the first half of Cox's long career in shelter work, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and decompression chambers were used to kill animals in high volume. The Dayton gas chamber was used to kill specific animals whom some of the staff considered too dangerous to handle.


Cox mentioned to ANIMAL PEOPLE his concern that the influx of bigger, more dangerous dogs might bring gassing back--not because it is safer than sodium pentobarbital injection, but because it is perceived as safer by poorly trained personnel. American Humane had specifically noted poor training at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter.


"Ohio is definitely the last bastion of the carbon monoxide box. When I think carbon monoxide, I think Ohio," shelter management consultant and euthanasia trainer Doug Fakkema told ANIMAL PEOPLE


But Cox was not the first to mention to ANIMAL PEOPLE a suspicion that gassing might be returning to common use, if not public acceptance, and the shelter personnel who have mentioned it, though mostly from the Midwest and South, have hardly all been from Ohio.


Concern that gassing may regain acceptance tends to take note of rapidly rising insurance costs at shelters that receive large numbers of potentially dangerous dogs, leading to economic pressure to use "no contact" handling methods, such as prevail in Japan.


Recent shelter surveys have found that pit bull terriers alone make up 20-25% of the dogs entering U.S. shelters, and 40-50% of the dogs who are killed: 10 times more pit bull admissions and killing than 10-20 years ago, depending on the survey location.


Rottweilers, German shepherds, and chows are also among the six breeds most often entering shelters. Pit bulls have accounted for roughly half of all the dog attack deaths and maimings in the U.S. and Canada since 1982, Rottweilers for about 25%, and German shepherds and chows are a distant fourth and sixth, according to the attack log kept since 1982 by the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE. (Wolf hybrids are third; Akitas are fifth.)


Other studies indicate that German shepherds are first among large breeds in bite frequency.


Fear of dogs & drug crimes

All of these breeds tend to enter shelters because they have bitten someone--or, in the case of pit bulls, because they have been seized from suspected dogfighters.


Add to the dogs of known high actuarial risk (insurance payouts divided by attacks) the increasingly often seen crosses of pit bulls with mastiffs and other very large dogs: Presa Canarios, Fila Brasieros, Dogo Argentinos.


Add to that the frequency of dangerous dogs being kept by drug-savvy dangerous people, who sometimes feed their dogs home-brewed methadrine or other chemicals to stimulate them to fight. There is shelter floor-level suspicion that some of the tough customers who come to look at impounded pit bulls and meanwhile "case" the shelters for possible burglary are increasingly likely to perceive shelters as a source of both dogs and drugs of potential street value.


Sodium pentobarbital, the lethal injectible recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society of the U.S., American SPCA, and National Animal Control Association, is a federally controlled barbituate. Animal sedatives and ketamine, commonly used in sterilization surgery, also have street value.


With shelter break-ins to steal dogs and drugs having approximately tripled in 10 years, shelter staff are often working scared, especially on night shifts in bad neighborhoods and remote locations. Without strong leadership to demonstrate otherwise, many may imagine that the best way to protect themselves is to kill potential fighting dogs immediately, and avoid having drugs on the premises.


"Animal control agency reluctance to use sodium pentobarbital, from my discussions with them, stems from not wanting staff to be handling the animals," Humane Society of the U.S. director of companion animal issues John Snyder told ANIMAL PEOPLE. "They are concerned about the potential for injuries and the stress on staff--but hundreds of humane societies use sodium pentobarbital and do not have those problems," at least "not solely related to euthanasia. I used a carbon monoxide chamber for 14 years," Snyder continued. "I know how they work. Putting vicious animals in the chamber can be quite dangerous, if they are put in the chamber humanely and correctly isolated, or if are they pushed in on the end of a control pole and the door slammed shut. Placing the animal in a segregated cage within the chamber is not without risk.


"If you are handling a dangerous dog or feral cat," Snyder recommends, "simply give the animal a sedative before sodium pentobarbital, to minimize stress on the animal and injury to the employee. With dangerous dogs, a breath powered blowgun can deliver the syringe with sedative. You simply wait for that to kick in, and then give the animal the lethal sodium pentabarbital injection, removing the potential for injury to the employee.


"A jab syringe pole or piece of PVC pipe with plastic syringe dart powered by breath does not require a chemical capture course," Snyder added. "Any competent veterinarian can usually teach all that is needed to do euthanasia sedation.


"Regarding diversion of controlled substances," Snyder continued, "this will happen from time to time. This has happened at veterinary offices forever, and at a much higher incidence than at animal shelters. Drug and criminal background checks have become more common in government agencies, to screen out potentially risky employees. Cases [of diversion of drugs] are few and far between, considering turnover and other issues" involved in animal control work, including a longtime high rate of alcohol and recreational drug abuse among staff who become demoralized by killing animals.


"This is the same rationale that veterinary associations in many states use to keep shelters from obtaining sodium pentobarbital," Snyder said, "and from getting direct purchase legislation passed," allowing shelters to buy sodium pentobarbital without going through a veterinarian.


"There is no mystery about maintaining shelter security of controlled substances," Synder maintained. "When shelters store controlled substances according to state and federal regulations, then they're not going to be easily accessible to thieves. Xylazine (Rompun) added to ketamine denatures the ketamine. It is no longer abusable or usable as a date rape drug. Shelters should not keep un-denatured bottles of ketamine on the premises.


"Animal control work in major cities is more dangerous now for sure," Snyder acknowledged, "but I believe you will find that in the majority of major cities both animal control and humane societies already use sodium pentobarbital. Street level reality here in Washington D.C. is that the Washington Humane Society has the animal control contract and uses sodium pentobarbital, handling large numbers of bully breeds in one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., in my opinion, to do animal control.


"In my opinion," Snyder finished, "shelter directors who play the security card as the principal reason for using carbon monoxide are just throwing out a convenient excuse for not doing the right thing."


Affirmed Fakkema, "Using euthanasia by injection on dangerous dogs, mandated in many states with high populations of dangerous dogs, is a training and equipment issue. This comes up in many of the classes I teach. With the right training, equipment, and pre-euthanasia anesthetics, any dog can be safely euthanized by injection. It is entirely specious to suggest that a chamber is needed for dangerous dogs. This is a belief espoused by the poorly trained or by those who have never used or seen euthanasia by injection.


"In order to put a dangerous dog in a chamber," Fakkema contended, "he or she must first be put on a rabies pole. I can euthanize a dangerous dog in his/her kennel by feeding sodium pentobarbital--no handling necessary. Or, once on the pole, I can put the dog behind a restraint gate and administer ketamine/xylazine compound intra-muscularly to anesthetize the dog for completely safe euthanasia by injection.


"In my experience euthanizing animals, only about 10% of dogs need to be anesthetized prior to euthanasia," Fakkema added. "It is not necessary to anesthetize all animals prior to euthanasia."
Among the selling points for sodium pentobarbital is that using it avoids the risk of accidental gassing, an occasional occurrence at shelters with the walk-in "lethal rooms" that were part of standard shelter architecture as recently as 20 years ago.


The most recent human fatality due to accidental gassing at an animal shelter was Vernon W. Dove Jr., 39, who inadvertently entered the "lethal room" at the Humane Education Society of Chattanooga on March 28, 2000. The Humane Education Society of Chattanooga was fined $22,800 for related code violations by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


As recently as May 2006, the North Carolina Department of Labor told WXII News in Lexington that it was investigating a potential human safety hazard from gassing at the Davidson County Animal Shelter.


"The labor department said a worker complained about having to hold his breath after turning on the gas to kill animals," reported WXII. "The Davidson County sheriff's office said there was a gas leak, but Sheriff David Grice didn't comment further."


"Staff injury is again a training issue," Fakkema emphasized. "Staff are injured when the organization fails to provide proper training, equipment, and pre-euthanasia drugs. Good training and safety always go hand in hand."


Last stand for gas

If a shelter still has a gas chamber, Cox believes, it will be used.


"That's why we got rid of it in Dayton," Cox explained. "Perhaps the equipment could have been recycled for something else, but if it exists on the premises, the temptation will always be there to try to solve a problem by whatever somebody thinks might be the easy way."


Political momentum wherever gassing has become a public issue favors sodium pentobarbital injection--as it has for more than 20 years.


Almost the only public defender of gassing in recent years has been Sheriff Eddie Cathey, of Union County, North Carolina.


Union County purchased a carbon monoxide chamber in August 2006, after heated public debate. The purchase followed similar controversies after Union County animal control allegedly killed a lost pet cat in February 2005, and was sued in September 2005 over the pneumonia death of a pet dog who was impounded for biting.


Wrote Cathey to carbon monoxide critics, "This is obviously a very emotional topic in which there are strong arguments on both sides. The obvious best solution is to decrease the unwanted birth of animals through an aggressive spay/neuter program, which is an integral part of our new shelter. But for right now, we simply have too many unwanted animals in the county and are forced to euthanise many dogs and cats. Since I am not a veterinarian and therefore, definitely not an expert on animal euthanasia, I read the 2000 Report of the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia," which conditionally approved of the use of carbon monoxide if for some reason sodium pentobarbital injection could not be done.


"This is all about the installation of a chamber," Cathey continued. "What do you want me to do with dangerous dogs, animals with rabies, and animals with [other] diseases? The shelter needs to have the option of the chamber," Cathey insisted. "Officers do not need to be needlessly exposed. We use both the chamber and shots. We try to apply common sense," Cathey said.


But Detroit Animal Control, among the shelters handling the most dangerous dogs in the U.S., quit gassing animals in 2002. San Antonio quit in October 2005. Quitting earlier in 2005 were East Providence, Rhode Island; Isle of Wight, Virginia; and Johnston County, North Carolina. The Long Island Humane & Dog Protective Association, on Long Island, quit gassing animals in January 2006. It may have been the last non-government shelter in the greater New York City metropolitan region to use gas.


"I don't think there is a resurgence [of carbon monoxide use], not nationally anyway, and that's my beat," said Fakkema.


"In my experience traveling all over the U.S.," Fakkema added, "I'd say that well over half or better of animal care and control shelters are using euthanasia by injection. There are at least 14 states which mandate euthanasia by injection. A few others prohibit the likely alternative, carbon monoxide, thus effectively mandating euthanasia by injection. In terms of the actual number of animals killed in U.S. shelters, I guess that close to 70% or better are put to death using injection. Most of the facilities still using carbon monoxide are small rural dog pounds," as in North Carolina, Fakkema believes.


"On the West Coast," Fakkema told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "animals are killed probably almost entirely by injection. This is by law in California and Oregon. The Northeast has the least amount of euthanasia of anywhere in the U.S., with little if any use of methods other than injection. The Mid-Atlantic states mostly do euthanasia by injection, I think. In the South and Southeast. there is a higher percentage of carbon monoxide use, I'd guess, except in Florida, Arkan-sas, and Georgia, which mandate euthanasia by injection. In the Midwest, Ohio and Indiana have a higher percentage of carbon monoxide use. Many small rural pounds still have a cinder block gas chamber outside behind the shelter. In the West, since the major gas chamber manufacturer is in Salt Lake City, probably more facilities use carbon monoxide. Larger cities are more likely to use euthanasia by injection than small cities."


Fakkema's view is affirmed by many of the electronic alerts distributed by breed rescuers and adoption transporters, who often headline their appeals on behalf of particular pound animals with a mention that the pound in question uses gas. Most such messages pertain to animals taken out of rural Southern or Midwestern shelters, especially in North Carolina, and Louisiana., and Georgia, where the mandate for sodium pentobarbital allowed shelters to continue using carbon monoxide chambers if they had them in 1990.


Public perception

"A major factor in the trend toward euthanasia by injection is public involvement," said Fakkema.

"From the pickets carrying signs outside the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society back in the 1970s to the horrendous press given to San Antonio earlier this year, the public is clearly making a difference."
Public attention toward methods of shelter killing tends to focus on the perception that sodium pentobarbital injection is quicker and causes less suffering to the animal than any other method.
There is also a perception that sodium pentobarbital effects death more certainly.


Miracle Dog (2005) by Stray Rescue founder Randy Grim sparked renewed anti-gassing activism throughout the U.S. by telling the story of a dog whom Grim named Quentin, after the well-known gas chamber at San Quentin Prison in California. The dog survived the St. Louis Animal Regulation gas chamber in August 2003.


In July 2006 a similar story emerged from Liberty County, Georgia, in July 2006, where a dog now named Amazing Grace survived half an hour in a gas chamber.


Gassing had already been a hot issue in Georgia since 1998, when Augusta animal control director Jim Larmer took early retirement after a television exposé caused mayor Larry Sconyers to order an end to gassing.


But sodium pentobarbital injections can also be problematic. At least half a dozen cases of animals not dying or not dying promptly after sodium pentobarbital injection occurred in early 2000, including some animals who were injected by experts during training sessions. These cases, never conclusively explained, appeared to involve a bad batch of the solution. Isolated cases have been traced to corrupt shelter workers "cutting" the solution with other substances, in order to steal some to distill the barbituate content.


Between the Quentin and Amazing Grace cases, a feral cat later named Tom Brooklyn in July 2004 survived sodium pentobarbital injection and being placed in a freezer at Brooklyn Animal Control in Brooklyn, Ohio. The attention given to that case may have further retarded the introduction of sodium pentobarbital injection in Ohio.


The most common problem associated with sodium pentobarbital, however, is that workers who have never learned how to properly administer an injection may resort to the so-called "heart jab," in which the animal is painfully speared with the needle.


Heart-jabbing was banned by law in Illinois in 2001; in California was banned in January 2002 by the legal opinions of attorney general Bill Lockyer and deputy attorney general Gregory L. Gonot, issued at request of California senate president pro tempore John Burton; and was banned in New Mexico in December 2003 by a legal opinion issued by state attorney general Patricia Madrid, at urging of activist Marcy Britton.


"I think the best check and balance is to allow only compassionate animal care and control workers to euthanize," opines Fakkema. "When killing is done by poorly trained, unmotivated workers, or workers without compassion, then any method can and will be inhumane. I see this over and over. The chamber is removed and the same untrained worker who was shoving the animals into the chamber is given a syringe and told to go forth and do good work. The animal advocate walks away thinking all is now in harmony at the animal shelter." --Merritt Clifton