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Scotlund's Blog

The Gas Chamber

Having been in the field of animal protection for more than two decades and having visited hundreds of shelters around the world, I have often seen the remnants of antiquated sheltering. I was recently at a municipal animal shelter in the Midwest performing an assessment for this agency in order to guide and facilitate much needed operational change. Theirs was an old shelter, built in the early 20th century when it was nothing more than a pound gathering up and disposing of the city’s unwanted animals. As I was surveying the outdoor kennels, I turned a corner and my eyes fell on something that immediately shook me to my core. I was looking at a gas chamber built and installed nearly 100 years ago. It hadn’t been in use for over a decade but I felt the ghosts of the thousands who spent their last living moments in this hellish brick box – trembling animals urinating and defecating on themselves, jammed in with however many terrified others could fit in those 4 square feet. They spent their lasts moments panicking – gasping for air, scratching at the walls trying to escape, and even attacking each other.

I cannot even begin to understand the terror and pain these animals must have experienced, but at that moment, their suffering was very real to me. I was thinking that I wanted nothing more than to go back in time and spare them all this gruesome death when I then met the soft eyes of a young beagle mix in her kennel. She would be adopted and never experience the horrors of those who passed through this place long before but many like her, even today–possibly at that very moment, were dying in modern day gas chambers in other states that have not yet banned the practice.

Just like everything else, animal shelters and methods of “population control” evolve or are discontinued over time owing to proponents of compassion and advances in science. Practices once widely utilized and even thought humane, shock and offend us today. Looking backwards, the history of animal “euthanasia” includes such horrors as bludgeoning, electrocuting, strangling, and drowning. In 1872, the Women’s Pennsylvania SPCA introduced the gas chamber to the U.S. shelter system as a humane alternative to these practices; however, as our understanding of other animals’ capacity for suffering has continued evolving, these gas chambers are now being recognized as cruel devices.

I have never witnessed a gas chamber in use in person, but it is well documented that it is not “humane”. Today carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) are the two most common gases used on non-human animals, causing death by lack of sufficient oxygen to the brain (asphyxia) and in the blood (hypoxia), respectively. Current research suggests that these methods of execution cause great distress, anxiety and pain in animals.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (2013) states that “carbon dioxide has the potential to cause distress in animals via three different mechanisms: (1) pain due to formation of carbonic acid on respiratory and ocular membranes, (2) production of so-called air hunger and a feeling of breathlessness, and (3) direct stimulation of ion channels within the amygdala associated with the fear response”.

Studies conducted with human participants support this, as participants have confirmed that exposure to abnormally high levels of CO2 gas caused the eyes, nose, and throat to burn, a feeling of breathlessness, and an increase in cortisol (called the “stress hormone”) accompanied by an increased sense of fear. Studies conducted with dogs, pigs, rats, mice, chickens, and other animals conclude that animals experience considerable suffering before they lose consciousness regardless of different gases, flow rates, and methods of induction. Their suffering manifests in behaviors such as distress calls, escape attempts, panting, coughing, head shaking, and violent convulsions. Even after the animals are unconscious, they are not afforded any dignity as they may continue to involuntarily drool, gasp, convulse, urinate, and defecate. It is not a peaceful death akin to drifting off to sleep, rather it is speculated by some researchers that due to the inflammatory effect on the lungs the experience may be a sensation similar to drowning. Depending on the concentration of gases, carbon dioxide and monoxide poisoning causes a loss of consciousness within 1–2 minutes, with medical death not occurring for 5–20 minutes (carbon dioxide) or 10–20 minutes (carbon monoxide).

Comparatively, the current shelter industry standard for euthanasia or putting animals to death is sodium pentobarbital, a barbiturate that rapidly depresses the central nervous system when injected intravenously. On average, it quickly and painlessly brings about unconsciousness in five seconds and medical death within 40 seconds.

While I strongly believe no animal should ever be put to death* for reasons of space, time, breed, age, color, and a number of other human-determined factors, proper administration of sodium pentobarbital preceded by sedation, by a trained individual is the preferred method of putting an animal to death endorsed by animal welfare organizations throughout the world. However, many U.S. shelters still forgo this method, and instead continue the archaic, inhumane practice of gassing animals.

So if there is sufficient evidence that gas chambers cause animal’s considerable physical and mental anguish, why are so many shelters still using them?

Some claim that gas chambers are necessary to protect shelter employees from getting close to aggressive animals. This defense is untenable, as staff should be trained in proper animal handling and sedation methods. Others have voiced safety concerns over handling sodium pentobarbital, a Class B controlled substance. Since it is federally controlled, it is regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and there are strict safety and recording procedures in place, and again, staff can and should be trained in its appropriate handling and administration. Additionally, CO and CO2 gases are difficult to detect, as they are colorless and odorless. This puts employees at risk of being poisoned by leaks in the chamber and of being proximate to an explosion. Multiple shelter employee deaths have been documented due to the operation of gas chambers, many of which are homemade from gasoline engines, and there is no registration, inspection, or oversight of these systems by any regulatory body.

Cost is another defense put forth as an excuse for not switching over to sodium pentobarbital, but a 2009 study commissioned by the American Humane Association asserts that proper operation of a gas chamber can run almost twice the cost of sodium pentobarbital.

Despite admitting that gas chambers most likely cause animals distress, the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (2013) lists CO and CO2 gassing as a method that is “acceptable with conditions”, merely stating that it is “not recommended for routine euthanasia of cats and dogs”. When the AVMA was confronted by a displeased public, their defense was that “there are still shelters and animal control operations that do not have access to controlled substances and/or the personnel authorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration to administer them”. Although this is no excuse to categorize gas chambers as an “acceptable” form of euthanasia, this lack of direct access to sodium pentobarbital is a valid issue.

Since sodium pentobarbital is federally regulated, it is only accessible to licensed veterinarians in states without laws (called direct licensing laws) that allow its purchase and use by humane societies or animal control agencies. In these states, shelters must either have a veterinarian on staff or must contract a private veterinarian in order to perform euthanasia by injection on-site or at a private clinic; however, the cost of both may be prohibitive.

Currently 21 states have banned the use of gas chambers. The remaining states have not banned gas chambers and only some of those states have direct licensing laws, which allow shelters direct access to sodium pentobarbital. For a map with a detailed breakdown, please click here. Every effort must be made to ban gas chambers in the states where they remain legal and help shelters secure access to the appropriate drugs and receive the training required in order to convert to sodium pentobarbital injection.

To be very clear, I believe that every healthy or treatable animal deserves an opportunity to live as a beloved family member and that this is attainable in the near future. I have made this my life’s work and champion this change through direct action and advocacy. We should stop at nothing to make that day a reality. Their lives depend on it. Until that day, whether an animal is being euthanized or put to death, it is amongst the most important moments of their life because it is the last. It should always be handled with compassion, respect, skill, and patience with proper sedatives and the use of sodium pentobarbital, introduced intravenously by a trained professional in a private room specifically designed for such procedures with no other animals present.

Despite the well-documented ethical, economical, and safety reasons for putting an end to gas chambers in animal shelters, their use continues. We must ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in – one that uses cruel practices created more than a century ago or one that practices compassion as it strives for greatness. Together, our compassionate actions will lead to a day when we look back on the gassing of millions of homeless animals as we now do other dark and barbaric times in our ignorant past.

One Nation Under Dog: gas chamber scene

 

The work of Animal Rescue Corps is featured in the HBO documentary “One Nation Under Dog”. An important part of this documentary is a three-minute segment on animals being put to death using a modern day gas chamber. As difficult as it is, I ask you to consider viewing it in hope that it will drive you to put your compassion into action, and that you will stand with me in ending the use of the gas chamber once and for all.

How you can help:

Call on the AVMA to condemn the use of gas chambers.

If you live in a state that still permits the death of shelter animals by gas chamber (see map here), you can do the following:

  1. Contact your local shelter to determine its practice and policies for putting animals to death. If the shelter uses gas, politely ask the shelter director to transition to sodium pentobarbital. Consider donating or holding a fundraiser to help cover the cost of training technicians.
  2. Start a petition to send to your county commissioners, calling for your local shelter to transition from gas to sodium pentobarbital.
  3. Involve the local media in order to bring attention to the issue and gain additional community support.
  4. Ask your state legislators to sponsor a bill banning gas chambers and supporting “direct licensing legislation”.
  5. Share the following resources with shelter management. They are in place in order to aid shelters committed to transitioning to sodium pentobarbital:
  • The American Humane Association provides training in euthanasia by injection to technicians around the country. Contact training@americanhumane.org
  • Animal Care Technologies offers training in euthanasia by injection via a six- video program produced in collaboration with the HSUS. Available at 4act.com
  • The staff of the Animal Sheltering Issues section of the HSUS are also available to help advise and guide shelters and animal control agencies seeking to transition to injection euthanasia. Contact asi@humanesociety.org.

Help address the root of the problem: Animals are put to death in shelters because these organizations lack the resources and sometimes the philosophies and leadership necessary to propel themselves towards progressiveness. Strong community spay/neuter initiatives and adoption/transfer programs are a start.

 

* A note on terminology: The word “euthanasia” originates from the Greek “euthanatos”, which translates to “good death”. Formal definitions of “euthanasia” include “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals…in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy” and some definitions take it further to also touch on issues of consent. However, “euthanasia” is also informally and incorrectly used in ways that do not strictly apply to the millions of healthy or treatable animals who die within the U.S. shelter system every year. This is not true euthanasia, but rather the animals are being put to death because of being an undesirable age, breed, or color, having a treatable illness, and adding to a shelter’s burdened population, not for being hopelessly sick or injured.

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20 responses to “The Gas Chamber”

  1. sandra quinn says:

    its so sad the way animals r treated,especialy in some countries.but we r no better by using gas shelters, if they have to kill them at least do it a humane way,with no suffering.i don’t believe they should b killimg them at all,they r living things with feelings,some people r wraped op in their own littke world to care or say they r only animals.well I am sorry I prefere animals to some of the evil scum that call themselves humams.thank god there r some good people who r doing everything in their power to change things,but we can all do a little bit to help

  2. Tara Freemole says:

    There was one of these places by the county jail in Maricopa County, Az (Phoenix) I don’t know if they still use it or not but the smell was horrific. I hope it has been shut down but maybe you can see if it has been

  3. Michael says:

    Scotlund, as an ARC monthly donor, I fully support everything you and your team work for. I wish I could personally shake your hand, and the hands of each ARC member. Your points on the gas chamber are very clearly and eloquently presented, and I hope it helps make a difference. I would also like to ask: I’ve read so many horrible stories about the heart-stick method of putting animals down. It almost seems more barbaric and cruel than even the chamber. I would love to hear your thoughts on this method. Are you equally appalled by this as well? Or if done properly, can this be a more humane way of euthanizing? Great thanks and the utmost respect go out to you. Thanks so much.

  4. Diane says:

    This broke my heart. I couldn’t read it all. Sounds too much like what the Germans did to the Jews. Totally barbaric!!!!

  5. Sara Lee says:

    Great essay. I was looking at the map you linked re: the states that still do this. From the map, it appears that only about 50 known shelters use this method. Am I reading the map incorrectly?

  6. Roberta Peters says:

    Yes, I agree this is like looking at Auchwitz Concentration Camp
    Only for animals…who in their right mind could end the life of any
    Living animal this way?
    This makes me feel so sick….I have had to end the suffering of 4 dogs
    And it was the hardest thing I have ever done…even though my Vet
    And I held them and spoke of how much they had meant in my life
    The injection they used ended their life quickly and painlessly
    And they passed in my arms knowing that in their last moments
    Nothing would cause them suffering. It took a year before I could even
    Talk about the experience the loss of each one of them was tremendous
    To me.
    I cannot understand this barbaric treatment, I hope this will be stopped
    Throughout the United States.

    • Pamela Wiles says:

      I put down the animals at the Wake County ASPCA in Raleigh, NC. There is no animal that it’s not put down humanely. I know that it’s not this way everywhere but NC has strict laws on this and although I HATE doing what I do, I know that their last moments are in a loving atmosphere. It is infuriating to see Michael Vick got barely any punishment for what he did. We need to fight for them before they get to the shelter. Here’s a toast to all animal lovers and activists!!!!

  7. Lynn says:

    In the County of Davidson in N.C. we now have a Sheriff that believes that only the use of the Gas Chamber is Humane. We recently held a Rally on behalf of the animals at which time we attended a County Commissioners meeting. At this time our County Commissioners are leaving the Gas Chamber up to our Sheriff. We as being against this way of putting the animals down feel we have nobody to help get this horrible thing removed. We are getting ready to have an election of I hope a new Sheriff who when elected in the Primary on May 6, 2014, the Gas Chamber will be dismantled. Our current Sheriff and the person that works at the shelter are very much against us as putting the animals down with an injection. They do not deserve to die the way they are currently being done. Please Pray that our County will Vote for a new Sheriff.

  8. Vicki says:

    this is so horrific and should never happen

  9. stephanie says:

    I believe that peaople who r doing this will suffer in hell being done the same thing.I dont think animals should be treated like this if people think that dogs and cats are animals well technically we are animals.we have animal cells that’s my opinion:) I♥animals no animal should be treated like this

  10. Bryna Gastley says:

    What can we do if we don’t live in one of those states? I’m in TN and they’ve banned them here, but I want to do SOMETHING.

    • Tim Woodward says:

      Dear Bryna – for those that live in states where it’s already banned, you can still call on The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to condemn this practice. It is their assessment that it is “acceptable with conditions” that some shelters still rely on to justify the practice. Thank you.

  11. sandra quinn says:

    the thing is they know better now .they have all the fa
    cts & information,& still they r doing this to animals. to me a lot of officals & goverments have the power to stop it.its as though they don’t give a dam what upsets a hell of a lot of people.all they r interested in is money or power.we should find out what our local polititions intend to do or are doing about it before we vote them in.i have just sent a email to the local m p fore morse about banning cosmetics from coming into the the country that r tested on animals.i got a reply I think from his secretary,in political talk,from what I can make out from that gabel is there r already some or enough laws for this in aus. don’t know why I wasted my time,they evidently arnt interested.definatly will never vote for them or their party

  12. Pam Seitz says:

    I am confused we have pushed the petion to ban this and now I keep seeing articals saying things like it will continue to keep going on I tired of the games I have said this over and over if they banned the gas chamber for human monster saying it s inhumane then they better get of there asses and ban it for inocent animals I have like so many other been under the impression that we did the right thing in using a pen and paper to ban a horriable act that is going on now they better get there shit togather and act Because there is alot of people like myself who are tired of fighting the leable way its time to do the moral thing now My kid is grown snd all.Ihave know is my passion is getting stronger in the injustice we see everyday now if they don t ac t then we will ther is something this group said that stays with me they stated they were pirates of compassion standing up against pirates of profit the balls in there court we are tired of the bullshit Iam serious how do we live in a socity where this is permited to contintue We Don t

  13. Barbara P Turner says:

    Any shelter still using this form of euthanasia needs to be simply closed down! There is NO excuse for this! They have got to stop using these chambers!

  14. maylen hayes says:

    all of GODS animals should never ever be killed AMEN

  15. maylen hayes says:

    GOD’S gave us humans the privilege to live and also all other living animals and specie lord please stop humans from killing period……………….

  16. Joan Campbell says:

    I think it is deplorable in this day and age for this atrocity to be going on it beggars belief so tragic wish I could do something about it makes me want to cry and feel sick Joan Campbell Scotland

  17. These evil barbaric things shouldn’t even exsist in this modern day an age I am strictly against killing any perfectly adoptable animal but with the over population of animals in shelters due to sorry pet owners for not caring enough about their pets to have them spayed or neutered that if animals must be killed at least do it in a humane way No animal should have to die this Horrific way in the gas chamber We will continue fighting til these things are truly a thing of the past

  18. Elisabeth Eastley says:

    Think how heartbreaking it is to have your pet put to sleep, quietly and calmly with the hand of a loved one stroking him. Imagine how horrific it is for a once loved pet to be tossed into a box with other animals – terrified, scratching to get out. When the gas is turned on, they fight to get out, they cry, they claw and it takes far too long for them to die. And when they have died,they are pulled out and tossed on a heap like garbage. The death of any animal is a tragedy. But death by gas chamber is one of the cruellest, most savage ways for an animal to spend his final moments.

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