Could carbon monoxide gas chambers make a comeback?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2006:
Are the surging numbers of dangerous dogs
entering animal shelters retarding progress
toward abolishing gas chambers?
Warren Cox began to wonder in May 2004
when he arrived for a stint as interim executive
director at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter
in Dayton, Ohio, and found a carbon monoxide
chamber that only a few days before was still in
sporadic use.
Having managed more than two dozen
shelters since 1952, Cox knew he was looking at
an anachronism. The Dayton chamber had
supposedly been decommissioned years earlier.
The Dayton Daily News published exposés of
gassing in nearby Fayette County and Darke County
in 1995 and 1997 without apparent awareness that
animals were still gassed right there in Dayton.
Continued gassing at the Mont-gomery
County Animal Shelter came to light as result of
a September 2003 complaint to county officials by
veterinarian Sue Rancurello and shelter
volunteer Jodi Gretchen, and was discontinued
after a shelter evaluation by American Humane
affirmed the obsolescence of gassing.
“Two top administrators at the Montgomery
County Animal Shelter were removed,” the Dayton
Daily News reported, in part for “using carbon
monoxide instead of lethal injection to euthanize
more than the recommended number of animals.”
Cox had the carbon monoxide chamber
removed. But Cox also took note of who used it,
and why. Throughout the first half of Cox’s long
career in shelter work, carbon monoxide, carbon
dioxide, nitrogen, and decompression chambers
were used to kill animals in high volume. The
Dayton gas chamber was used to kill specific
animals whom some of the staff considered too
dangerous to handle.

Cox mentioned to ANIMAL PEOPLE his
concern that the influx of bigger, more
dangerous dogs might bring gassing back–not
because it is safer than sodium pentobarbital
injection, but because it is perceived as safer
by poorly trained personnel. American Humane had
specifically noted poor training at the
Montgomery County Animal Shelter.
“Ohio is definitely the last bastion of
the carbon monoxide box. When I think carbon
monoxide, I think Ohio,” shelter management
consultant and euthanasia trainer Doug Fakkema
But Cox was not the first to mention to
ANIMAL PEOPLE a suspicion that gassing might be
returning to common use, if not public
acceptance, and the shelter personnel who have
mentioned it, though mostly from the Midwest and
South, have hardly all been from Ohio.
Concern that gassing may regain
acceptance tends to take note of rapidly rising
insurance costs at shelters that receive large
numbers of potentially dangerous dogs, leading
to economic pressure to use “no contact” handling
methods, such as prevail in Japan.
Recent shelter surveys have found that
pit bull terriers alone make up 20-25% of the
dogs entering U.S. shelters, and 40-50% of the
dogs who are killed: 10 times more pit bull
admissions and killing than 10-20 years ago,
depending on the survey location.
Rottweilers, German shepherds, and
chows are also among the six breeds most often
entering shelters. Pit bulls have accounted for
roughly half of all the dog attack deaths and
maimings in the U.S. and Canada since 1982,
Rottweilers for about 25%, and German shepherds
and chows are a distant fourth and sixth,
according to the attack log kept since 1982 by
the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE. (Wolf hybrids are
third; Akitas are fifth.)
Other studies indicate that German
shepherds are first among large breeds in bite

Fear of dogs & drug crimes

All of these breeds tend to enter
shelters because they have bitten someone–or,
in the case of pit bulls, because they have been
seized from suspected dogfighters.
Add to the dogs of known high actuarial
risk (insurance payouts divided by attacks) the
increasingly often seen crosses of pit bulls with
mastiffs and other very large dogs: Presa
Canarios, Fila Brasieros, Dogo Argentinos.
Add to that the frequency of dangerous
dogs being kept by drug-savvy dangerous people,
who sometimes feed their dogs home-brewed
methadrine or other chemicals to stimulate them
to fight. There is shelter floor-level suspicion
that some of the tough customers who come to look
at impounded pit bulls and meanwhile “case” the
shelters for possible burglary are increasingly
likely to perceive shelters as a source of both
dogs and drugs of potential street value.
Sodium pentobarbital, the lethal
injectible recommended by the American Veterinary
Medical Association, Humane Society of the U.S.,
American SPCA, and National Animal Control
Association, is a federally controlled
barbituate. Animal sedatives and ketamine,
commonly used in sterilization surgery, also
have street value.
With shelter break-ins to steal dogs and
drugs having approximately tripled in 10 years,
shelter staff are often working scared,
especially on night shifts in bad neighborhoods
and remote locations. Without strong leadership
to demonstrate otherwise, many may imagine that
the best way to protect themselves is to kill
potential fighting dogs immediately, and avoid
having drugs on the premises.
“Animal control agency reluctance to use
sodium pentobarbital, from my discussions with
them, stems from not wanting staff to be
handling the animals,” Humane Society of the
U.S. director of companion animal issues John
Snyder told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “They are concerned
about the potential for injuries and the stress
on staff–but hundreds of humane societies use
sodium pentobarbital and do not have those
problems,” at least “not solely related to
euthanasia. I used a carbon monoxide chamber for
14 years,” Snyder continued. “I know how they
work. Putting vicious animals in the chamber can
be quite dangerous, if they are put in the
chamber humanely and correctly isolated, or if
are they pushed in on the end of a control pole
and the door slammed shut. Placing the animal in
a segregated cage within the chamber is not
without risk.
“If you are handling a dangerous dog or
feral cat,” Snyder recommends, “simply give the
animal a sedative before sodium pentobarbital,
to minimize stress on the animal and injury to
the employee. With dangerous dogs, a breath
powered blowgun can deliver the syringe with
sedative. You simply wait for that to kick in,
and then give the animal the lethal sodium
pentabarbital injection, removing the potential
for injury to the employee.
“A jab syringe pole or piece of PVC pipe
with plastic syringe dart powered by breath does
not require a chemical capture course,” Snyder
added. “Any competent veterinarian can usually
teach all that is needed to do euthanasia
“Regarding diversion of controlled
substances,” Snyder continued, “this will
happen from time to time. This has happened at
veterinary offices forever, and at a much higher
incidence than at animal shelters. Drug and
criminal background checks have become more
common in government agencies, to screen out
potentially risky employees. Cases [of diversion
of drugs] are few and far between, considering
turnover and other issues” involved in animal
control work, including a longtime high rate of
alcohol and recreational drug abuse among staff
who become demoralized by killing animals.
“This is the same rationale that
veterinary associations in many states use to
keep shelters from obtaining sodium
pentobarbital,” Snyder said, “and from getting
direct purchase legislation passed,” allowing
shelters to buy sodium pentobarbital without
going through a veterinarian.
“There is no mystery about maintaining
shelter security of controlled substances,”
Synder maintained. “When shelters store
controlled substances according to state
and federal regulations, then they’re not going
to be easily accessible to thieves. Xylazine
(Rompun) added to ketamine denatures the
ketamine. It is no longer abusable or usable
as a date rape drug. Shelters should not keep
un-denatured bottles of ketamine on the premises.
“Animal control work in major cities is
more dangerous now for sure,” Snyder
acknowledged, “but I believe you will find
that in the majority of major cities both animal
control and humane societies already use sodium
pentobarbital. Street level reality here in
Washington D.C. is that the Washington Humane
Society has the animal control contract and uses
sodium pentobarbital, handling large numbers of
bully breeds in one of the most dangerous cities
in the U.S., in my opinion, to do animal
“In my opinion,” Snyder finished,
“shelter directors who play the security card
as the principal reason for using carbon monoxide
are just throwing out a convenient excuse for
not doing the right thing.”
Affirmed Fakkema, “Using euthanasia by
injection on dangerous dogs, mandated in many
states with high populations of dangerous dogs,
is a training and equipment issue. This comes up
in many of the classes I teach. With the right
training, equipment, and pre-euthanasia
anesthetics, any dog can be safely euthanized by
injection. It is entirely specious to suggest
that a chamber is needed for dangerous dogs.
This is a belief espoused by the poorly trained
or by those who have never used or seen
euthanasia by injection.
“In order to put a dangerous dog in a
chamber,” Fakkema contended, “he or she must
first be put on a rabies pole. I can euthanize a
dangerous dog in his/her kennel by feeding sodium
pentobarbital–no handling necessary. Or, once
on the pole, I can put the dog behind a
restraint gate and administer ketamine/xylazine
compound intra-muscularly to anesthetize the dog
for completely safe euthanasia by injection.
“In my experience euthanizing animals,
only about 10% of dogs need to be anesthetized
prior to euthanasia,” Fakkema added. “It is not
necessary to anesthetize all animals prior to
Among the selling points for sodium
pentobarbital is that using it avoids the risk of
accidental gassing, an occasional occurrence at
shelters with the walk-in “lethal rooms” that
were part of standard shelter architecture as
recently as 20 years ago.
The most recent human fatality due to
accidental gassing at an animal shelter was
Vernon W. Dove Jr., 39, who inadvertently
entered the “lethal room” at the Humane Education
Society of Chattanooga on March 28, 2000. The
Humane Education Society of Chattanooga was fined
$22,800 for related code violations by the
Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health
As recently as May 2006, the North
Carolina Department of Labor told WXII News in
Lexington that it was investigating a potential
human safety hazard from gassing at the Davidson
County Animal Shelter.
“The labor department said a worker
complained about having to hold his breath after
turning on the gas to kill animals,” reported
WXII. “The Davidson County sheriff’s office said
there was a gas leak, but Sheriff David Grice
didn’t comment further.”
“Staff injury is again a training issue,”
Fakkema emphasized. “Staff are injured when the
organization fails to provide proper training,
equipment, and pre-euthanasia drugs. Good
training and safety always go hand in hand.”

Last stand for gas

If a shelter still has a gas chamber, Cox believes, it will be used.
“That’s why we got rid of it in Dayton,”
Cox explained. “Perhaps the equipment could have
been recycled for something else, but if it
exists on the premises, the temptation will
always be there to try to solve a problem by
whatever somebody thinks might be the easy way.”
Political momentum wherever gassing has
become a public issue favors sodium pentobarbital
injection–as it has for more than 20 years.
Almost the only public defender of
gassing in recent years has been Sheriff Eddie
Cathey, of Union County, North Carolina.
Union County purchased a carbon monoxide chamber
in August 2006, after heated public debate. The
purchase followed similar controversies after
Union County animal control allegedly killed a
lost pet cat in February 2005, and was sued in
September 2005 over the pneumonia death of a pet
dog who was impounded for biting.
Wrote Cathey to carbon monoxide critics,
“This is obviously a very emotional topic in
which there are strong arguments on both
sides. The obvious best solution is to decrease
the unwanted birth of animals through an
aggressive spay/neuter program, which is an
integral part of our new shelter. But for right
now, we simply have too many unwanted animals in
the county and are forced to euthanise many dogs
and cats. Since I am not a veterinarian and
therefore, definitely not an expert on animal
euthanasia, I read the 2000 Report of the
American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on
Euthanasia,” which conditionally approved of the
use of carbon monoxide if for some reason sodium
pentobarbital injection could not be done.
“This is all about the installation of a
chamber,” Cathey continued. “What do you want
me to do with dangerous dogs, animals with
rabies, and animals with [other] diseases? The
shelter needs to have the option of the chamber,”
Cathey insisted. “Officers do not need to be
needlessly exposed. We use both the chamber and
shots. We try to apply common sense,” Cathey
But Detroit Animal Control, among the
shelters handling the most dangerous dogs in the
U.S., quit gassing animals in 2002. San Antonio
quit in October 2005. Quitting earlier in 2005
were East Providence, Rhode Island; Isle of
Wight, Virginia; and Johnston County, North
Carolina. The Long Island Humane & Dog
Protective Association, on Long Island, quit
gassing animals in January 2006. It may have
been the last non-government shelter in the
greater New York City metropolitan region to use
“I don’t think there is a resurgence [of
carbon monoxide use], not nationally anyway,
and that’s my beat,” said Fakkema.
“In my experience traveling all over the
U.S.,” Fakkema added, “I’d say that well over
half or better of animal care and control
shelters are using euthanasia by injection.
There are at least 14 states which mandate
euthanasia by injection. A few others prohibit
the likely alternative, carbon monoxide, thus
effectively mandating euthanasia by injection.
In terms of the actual number of animals killed
in U.S. shelters, I guess that close to 70% or
better are put to death using injection. Most of
the facilities still using carbon monoxide are
small rural dog pounds,” as in North Carolina,
Fakkema believes.
“On the West Coast,” Fakkema told ANIMAL
PEOPLE, “animals are killed probably almost
entirely by injection. This is by law in
California and Oregon. The Northeast has the
least amount of euthanasia of anywhere in the
U.S., with little if any use of methods other
than injection. The Mid-Atlantic states mostly
do euthanasia by injection, I think. In the
South and Southeast. there is a higher
percentage of carbon monoxide use, I’d guess,
except in Florida, Arkan-sas, and Georgia,
which mandate euthanasia by injection. In the
Midwest, Ohio and Indiana have a higher
percentage of carbon monoxide use. Many small
rural pounds still have a cinder block gas
chamber outside behind the shelter. In the West,
since the major gas chamber manufacturer is in
Salt Lake City, probably more facilities use
carbon monoxide. Larger cities are more likely
to use euthanasia by injection than small cities.”
Fakkema’s view is affirmed by many of the
electronic alerts distributed by breed rescuers
and adoption transporters, who often headline
their appeals on behalf of particular pound
animals with a mention that the pound in question
uses gas. Most such messages pertain to animals
taken out of rural Southern or Midwestern
shelters, especially in North Carolina, and
Louisiana., and Georgia, where the mandate for
sodium pentobarbital allowed shelters to continue
using carbon monoxide chambers if they had them
in 1990.
Public perception
“A major factor in the trend toward
euthanasia by injection is public involvement,”
said Fakkema. “From the pickets carrying signs
outside the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society back in
the 1970s to the horrendous press given to San
Antonio earlier this year, the public is
clearly making a difference.”
Public attention toward methods of
shelter killing tends to focus on the perception
that sodium pentobarbital injection is quicker
and causes less suffering to the animal than any
other method.
There is also a perception that sodium
pentobarbital effects death more certainly.
Miracle Dog (2005) by Stray Rescue
founder Randy Grim sparked renewed anti-gassing
activism throughout the U.S. by telling the story
of a dog whom Grim named Quentin, after the
well-known gas chamber at San Quentin Prison in
California. The dog survived the St. Louis
Animal Regulation gas chamber in August 2003.
In July 2006 a similar story emerged from
Liberty County, Georgia, in July 2006, where a
dog now named Amazing Grace survived half an hour
in a gas chamber.
Gassing had already been a hot issue in
Georgia since 1998, when Augusta animal control
director Jim Larmer took early retirement after a
television exposé caused mayor Larry Sconyers to
order an end to gassing.
But sodium pentobarbital injections can
also be problematic. At least half a dozen cases
of animals not dying or not dying promptly after
sodium pentobarbital injection occurred in early
2000, including some animals who were injected
by experts during training sessions. These
cases, never conclusively explained, appeared
to involve a bad batch of the solution. Isolated
cases have been traced to corrupt shelter workers
“cutting” the solution with other substances, in
order to steal some to distill the barbituate
Between the Quentin and Amazing Grace
cases, a feral cat later named Tom Brooklyn in
July 2004 survived sodium pentobarbital injection
and being placed in a freezer at Brooklyn Animal
Control in Brooklyn, Ohio. The attention given
to that case may have further retarded the
introduction of sodium pentobarbital injection in
The most common problem associated with
sodium pentobarbital, however, is that workers
who have never learned how to properly administer
an injection may resort to the so-called “heart
jab,” in which the animal is painfully speared
with the needle.
Heart-jabbing was banned by law in
Illinois in 2001; in California was banned in
January 2002 by the legal opinions of attorney
general Bill Lockyer and deputy attorney general
Gregory L. Gonot, issued at request of
California senate president pro tempore John
Burton; and was banned in New Mexico in December
2003 by a legal opinion issued by state attorney
general Patricia Madrid, at urging of activist
Marcy Britton.
“I think the best check and balance is to
allow only compassionate animal care and control
workers to euthanize,” opines Fakkema. “When
killing is done by poorly trained, unmotivated
workers, or workers without compassion, then any
method can and will be inhumane. I see this over
and over. The chamber is removed and the same
untrained worker who was shoving the animals into
the chamber is given a syringe and told to go
forth and do good work. The animal advocate
walks away thinking all is now in harmony at the
animal shelter.”

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