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MONTH: May 2008

Abolition of gas chambers and heart-sticking progresses nationwide


RICHMOND--Virginia Governor Tim Kaine on April 13, 2008 signed a bill by Spotsylvania representative Bobby Orrock that prohibits using a carbon monoxide chamber to kill dogs and cats.

"The bill passed the state senate just as Scott County animal control officers received final certification in injectable euthanasia," Margaret B. Mitchell Spay/ Neuter Clinic chief operating officer Teresa Dockery told ANIMAL PEOPLE."Scott County was the last shelter in Virginia to convert to injectable euthanasia," Dockery said.

Dockery, then president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies, and longtime Humane Society of the U.S. staff member Kate Pullen initiated the drive to abolish gas chambers in Virginia in November 2000. They obtaining grant funding to provide equipment and injectible euthanasia training to the 23 shelters then using gas. But the money ran out before Scott County, Lee County, and the city of Martinsville were able to make the transition to using sodium pentabarbital.

"Shelters must have two staff members to perform injectable euthanasia," explained Dockery. "These localities did not have the funding for an additional position. In addition, Scott and Martinsville did not have the shelter space" they needed to use injection. Cisco Systems cofounder Sandy Lerner, of Upperville, Virginia, contributed the $75,000 needed to get the job done.

The North Carolina Board of Agriculture on February 13, 2008 approved a set of standards for the continued operation of carbon monoxide chambers by the 25 agencies in the state that still use them, but allowed gassing to continue until 2012.

The Catawba County Animal Shelter quit gassing just a week later, followed by Burlington Animal Services in mid-March. Wake County, which now gases about 400 of the 7,000 animals killed in the county shelter each year, announced on April 14 that it will stop gassing by July 1.

The North Carolina Coalition for Humane Euthanasia and the Humane Society of Union County meanwhile sued Union County for allegedly illegally gassing young, old, injured, sick, and pregnant animals, for whom the plaintiffs contend gassing does not meet American Veterinary Medical Association, HSUS, and American Humane Association standards.

Sedation controversy

The Athens County, Ohio board of commissioners on April 8, 2008 rejected a request to abolish gassing presented by Friends of the Athens County Dog Shelter, after kennel keeper Sherry Armstrong testified that she prefers to use gas. Armstrong argued that the sedation often given as prelude to a sodium pentabarbital injection leaves dogs terrified. Her contention, as summarized by Athens Messenger staff writer Casey S. Elliot, paralleled claims recently made to the U.S. Supreme Court by attorneys for two murderers who were sentenced to death in Kentucky.

"The prisoners contended that the three-drug procedure used on death row-one drug each to sedate, paralyze, and end life-was unconstitutional," summarized David Stout of The New York Times. However, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 that the plaintiffs "failed to show that the risks of pain from mistakes in an otherwise 'humane lethal execution protocol' amounted to cruel and unusual punishment," Stout wrote.

The Macon city council in February 2008 postponed acting upon a motion by council member Erick Erickson to switch to lethal injection, in compliance with the intent of the 1990 Georgia Humane Euthanasia Act, which allowed agencies that used carbon monoxide gas chambers to keep using them, but did not allow new gas chambers to be installed.

Macon animal control director Jim Johnson objected that he "would need at least two new full-time staff members," who "likely would spend their entire day performing euthanasia," paraphrased Matt Barnwell of the Macon Telegraph.

Council member Larry Schlesinger testified that he witnessed 17 dogs being gassed in January, Barnwell wrote. "'All of a sudden there was this squeal,' Schlesinger said. 'And then a chorus of squeals. It has haunted me ever since.'" Improper injection Sodium pentabarbital injection can also cause suffering if improperly performed.

Under-dosing is one common mistake. Tony Serbantez, chief of police in Brownfield, Texas, told Joshua Hull of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in early May 2008 that the Brownfield shelter "has improved how it euthanizes animals after a former employee and a local veterinarian claimed animals were still clinging to life two hours after drugs were given," Hull reported.

Former shelter worker Lisa Gersbach alleged to the Avalanche-Journal that "she was once told by her supervisor to 'choke out' small cats with an animal control stick, rather than use proper euthanizing agents, and that many animals were placed in bags and disposed of before they stopped breathing," Hull wrote.

Hired on March 3, 2008, Gersbach resigned on April 14. A much more often reported practice is the so-called "heart-stick," an obsolescent procedure in which sodium pentabarbital is injected into the heart of the animal, instead of a vein. How common it still is came to light in November 2007, "when a former jail inmate secretly shot video of William Baber, DVM allegedly performing intercardiac euthanasia on animals without sedation at the county animal shelter in Gallatin," reported Jennifer Easton of the Nashville Tennessean.

"Baber, a practicing veterinarian for more than 25 years, acknowledged using the procedure," Easton continuned, "but said he was unaware of changes in state law made in 2001, intended to prohibit euthanasia by the intercardiac method without sedation. The state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners suspended Baber's license until April 2008."

A bill to clarify and reinforce the 2001 law unanimously cleared the Tennessee legislature, and was quicky signed by Governor Phil Bredesen. The bill also extended the shelter holding time for impounded animals to at least three full business days

. Publicity about the Baber case and the Tennessee bill brought similar claims from other jurisdictions. Michigan veterinarian Jeanette Roberts alleges in a lawsuit filed on April 11, 2008 that workers at the St. Clair County animal shelter use the heart-stick, and that the county improperly fired her "after she reported her concerns to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal shelters and launched an investigation," wrote Angela Mullins of the Port Huron Times Herald.

Working part-time at the shelter since October 2007, Roberts read an article about the Baber case on February 11, 2008, she claims; brought the article to the attention of her superior; and was fired the next day. St. Clair County Administrator Shaun Groden told Mullins that the Michigan Department of Agriculture found that the shelter only was heart-sticking feral cats.

The county council in Cherokee County, South Carolina, in late April 2008 began reviewing animal killing procedures at the county shelter after receiving complaints about heart-sticking from volunteers Andrea Gilfillan and Libby Swad, the former president of the now defunct Cherokee County Humane Society. "An intracardial injection may only be used after the animal is heavily sedated, anesthetized or comatose, according to South Carolina law," reported Lynne P. Shackleford of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

The South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control took notice of the matter, Shackleford wrote, "because the shelter isn't licensed to have sodium pentobarbital on site."

Heart-sticking also attracted concern from the police department in Great Falls, Montana, which took over management of the city shelter from the Cascade County Humane Society in mid-2007. A performance review issued in January 2008 disclosed that the first veterinarian the police department hired used the heart-stick to kill cats. Shelter staff objected, and that vet "was never retained for services after the first day," the review stated.