Pets agree: Death chamber a bad idea

State quietly floats plan to allow more gassing of animals

Over the past decade, Georgia has been phasing out gas chambers at animal shelters. That may change.

Within weeks, the state could allow carbon monoxide chambers in shelters where they're currently outlawed. As a result, a greater number of animals may be put to death and may die more painfully, animal-rights activists fear.

"I envision gas chambers popping up everywhere," says Cheryl McAuliffe, with the Atlanta chapter of Friends of Animals. "[The amendment] will allow the gas chambers in any place that wants to have them."

State officials see the issue differently. Georgia animal shelters are overcrowded, according to Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who will decide whether to OK the construction of new gas chambers. He says chambers can help reduce the number of sick and abandoned animals, all of which are already scheduled for death.

"There is no real suitable way to put animals down," Irvin says. "But in some cases, you have large numbers. It becomes a real difficulty."

The current law allows shelters that had gas chambers prior to 1990 to still use them. Otherwise, shelters have to euthanize animals by lethal injection.

Injections, Irvin says, are time-consuming and, because they must be administered by a veterinarian, expensive. But shelters with chambers can gas a half-dozen or more cats and dogs, without a veterinarian, in the time it takes to inject one animal. Irvin says it is therefore unfair to permit gas chambers at some shelters but not others.

"We've got to find some way to give shelters enough leeway to deal with the issue," he says.

Irvin describes the current gas chamber rule as "more restrictive than national organizations' proposals."

Yet one of those organizations says the trend in other states is to do away with gas chambers.

"I think the move nationally is to get away from them," American Humane Society spokesman Howard White says. "Animals have been partly euthanized and have been in pain [in gas chambers]. The more accepted standard is injection."

The American Veterinarian Medical Association, in a recent panel on euthanasia, ranked both barbiturate injections and carbon monoxide chambers as acceptable methods for shelters to use. (Irvin cites the association's findings as part of the reason he's considering allowing the construction of new gas chambers.) Stawniak But the association's report also states that dogs in gas chambers become "agitated and vocalized," that they suffer convulsions and that "it is not known whether animals experience distress." It states that barbiturate injections are more effective, are inexpensive and cause minimal pain.

Fulton County has a gas chamber. It's been at the animal shelter since 1978. The county therefore has the state's approval to use it. The county chooses not to.

"We like to think that we're taking the route that is less stressful for the animal and less stressful for our staff," says Ron Totten, director of Fulton County animal control.

Six years have passed since a dog or cat has stepped into Fulton's three-by-three-foot concrete chamber, according to Totten. Back then, a tube would be hooked to a bottle of purified carbon monoxide and fed into the chamber. Gas would flow for up to 30 seconds, depending on the number and size of the animals inside. The animals would sit in the poisoned air until they stopped breathing. Then the gas would be suctioned out, via fan, and released outdoors.

"I don't know of very many agencies who continue to use them," Totten says. "A lot of those [rural] facilities are new, and they never had the opportunity to use [the gas chamber]."

Fulton County euthanized 11,000 animals last year — twice as many as in Cobb County, where the shelter continues to use the gas chamber as its primary method of euthanasia. Neither county reports a growing number of animals euthanized.

Totten had not heard of the proposed change in state rules in time to attend a public hearing earlier on it this month — nor had the agency that oversees the Fulton shelter, the Atlanta Humane Society. In fact, few animal rights groups knew of the agriculture commission's proposal.

Nonetheless, Atlanta Humane Society director Bill Garrett says he's not opposed to the chambers. "I would say to anyone, if you have the ability to use carbon monoxide legally, then maintain the right to do it." He says that last year, the supply of barbiturates used in injections ran out, so shelters ought to have a method to fall back on.

Neither People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals nor Friends of Animals, more hardcore activists than the Humane Society, share Garrett's sentiment. Neither group had heard of the proposed change until mid-July, more than a week after the public hearing. But both groups hope to keep the change from taking effect.

Says McAuliffe, with Atlanta's Friends of Animals chapter: "Why do we want to cause more suffering to animals when we've got enough suffering right now?"??