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.
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:
- 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.
- Start a petition to send to your county commissioners, calling for your local shelter to transition from gas to sodium pentobarbital.
- Involve the local media in order to bring attention to the issue and gain additional community support.
- Ask your state legislators to sponsor a bill banning gas chambers and supporting “direct licensing legislation”.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.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 email@example.com.
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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