The recent protest against a gas chamber at the Rock Springs, Wyoming, animal shelter made national news and put the four states that still allow such chambers in the spotlight. Utah is one of those states.
Gas chamber euthanasia has been decried as inhumane by animal-rights activists, and the National Veterinary Medical Association does not recommend it for routine euthanization of shelter animals, but bills to ban it have died at the Utah State Legislature in each of the past five years.
Only four of Utah’s 57 animal shelters are known to still use gas chambers, which employ carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide to end an animal’s life. The Cache Humane Society animal shelter in Logan, a “no-kill” facility, does not use gas in the limited instances where it must put animals down. Shelter Director Stacey Frisk said her staff follows the standard practice of veterinarians: administering sodium pentobarbital shots.
“Using euthanization by injection is faster, it’s painless, it’s less expensive than the gas chamber, and it’s the only method that’s preferred by the every national animal welfare and veterinarians’ association,” said Utah Humane Society communications specialist Deann Shepherd, who for the past five years has found sponsors for bills and lobbied the Legislature to change the law.
“Some years it has passed the Senate and failed the House, other years it has failed the Senate, and still other years it has failed on the first day of the session,” she said. “This past session it didn’t go anywhere.”
State Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who represents a portion of Cache Valley and served on the Senate committee that reviewed and rejected the bill this year, said the decision was largely a matter of safety and practicality for small, rural shelters that euthanize a lot of “nuisance wildlife” such a raccoons.
“You’ll get animal shelter caregivers who will come to the Legislature and say, ‘If we don’t have the option to gas these animals, we have to put ourselves in the precarious position to go in and try to euthanize using lethal injection and restrain the animal to do that,’ so the gas chamber situation is the most logical to handle this,” he said.
As far as using the chambers for stray dogs and cats in addition to captured wild animals, Sandall said, “I think those people that care for those animals want to adopt them out, and if they can’t, they need all the tools available to use at their discretion. To make it a wholesale, all-out ban seems like you’re tying their hands in what we ask them to do.”
Shepherd explained the differences between the two forms of euthanasia and why she considers the gas-chamber option inhumane:
“When you’re using sodium pentobarbital, which is the drug that’s injected, it goes to the central nervous system immediately and shuts that down so the animal feels nothing — no pain, fear, anything. The brain has been shut down before the body shuts down. It takes maybe five seconds for the animal to lose consciousness and three minutes for the heart to stop. With the gas chamber, it’s the opposite. It actually starts shutting down the circulation of oxygen to the body, so the vital organs shut down before the central nervous system. It can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes for the animal to expire. Sometimes it never does, and they’ve had to go through multiple sessions in the gas chamber.”
This month’s Wyoming protest was staged by two animal-rights activists carrying signs in front of the city offices in Rock Springs, one of only a few towns in that state that use the chambers. In addition to Wyoming and Utah, other states that still allow euthanizing animals with gas are Missouri and Idaho.
The Humane Society of the United States has offered grants to shelters in the four states to defray costs in converting to lethal injection. Shepherd said the animal shelter in Sandy took one of the grants a few years ago and removed its gas chamber.
To her knowledge, the only remaining facilities in Utah that use gas are the animal shelters in Draper and West Valley City along with two in Utah County known as Northern and Southern Utah Valley Animal Services. The Summit County shelter has a gas chamber but has stopped using it, she said.