Abolition of gas chambers and heart-sticking progresses nationwide
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:
RICHMOND–Virginia Governor Tim Kaine on April 13, 2008
signed a bill by Spotsylvania representative Bobby Orrock that
prohibits using a carbon monoxide chamber to kill dogs and cats.
“The bill passed the state senate just as Scott County animal
control officers received final certification in injectable
euthanasia,” Margaret B. Mitchell Spay/ Neuter Clinic chief
operating officer Teresa Dockery told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Scott County
was the last shelter in Virginia to convert to injectable
euthanasia,” Dockery said.
Dockery, then president of the Virginia Federation of Humane
Societies, and longtime Humane Society of the U.S. staff member Kate
Pullen initiated the drive to abolish gas chambers in Virginia in
November 2000. They obtaining grant funding to provide equipment and
injectible euthanasia training to the 23 shelters then using gas.
But the money ran out before Scott County, Lee County, and the city
of Martinsville were able to make the transition to using sodium
“Shelters must have two staff members to perform injectable
euthanasia,” explained Dockery. “These localities did not have the
funding for an additional position. In addition, Scott and
Martinsville did not have the shelter space” they needed to use
Cisco Systems cofounder Sandy Lerner, of Upperville,
Virginia, contributed the $75,000 needed to get the job done.
The North Carolina Board of Agriculture on February 13, 2008
approved a set of standards for the continued operation of carbon
monoxide chambers by the 25 agencies in the state that still use
them, but allowed gassing to continue until 2012.
The Catawba County Animal Shelter quit gassing just a week
later, followed by Burlington Animal Services in mid-March. Wake
County, which now gases about 400 of the 7,000 animals killed in the
county shelter each year, announced on April 14 that it will stop
gassing by July 1.
The North Carolina Coalition for Humane Euthanasia and the
Humane Society of Union County meanwhile sued Union County for
allegedly illegally gassing young, old, injured, sick, and
pregnant animals, for whom the plaintiffs contend gassing does not
meet American Veterinary Medical Associ-ation, HSUS, and American
Humane Association standards.
The Athens County, Ohio board of commissioners on April 8,
2008 rejected a request to abolish gassing presented by Friends of
the Athens County Dog Shelter, after kennel keeper Sherry Armstrong
testified that she prefers to use gas. Armstrong argued that the
sedation often given as prelude to a sodium pentabarbital injection
leaves dogs terrified. Her contention, as summarized by Athens
Messenger staff writer Casey S. Elliot, paralleled claims recently
made to the U.S. Supreme Court by attorneys for two murderers who
were sentenced to death in Kentucky.
“The prisoners contended that the three-drug procedure used
on death row-one drug each to sedate, paralyze, and end life-was
unconstitutional,” summarized David Stout of The New York Times.
However, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 that the plaintiffs “failed to
show that the risks of pain from mistakes in an otherwise ‘humane
lethal execution protocol’ amounted to cruel and unusual punishment,”
The Macon city council in February 2008 postponed acting upon
a motion by council member Erick Erickson to switch to lethal
injection, in compliance with the intent of the 1990 Georgia Humane
Euthanasia Act, which allowed agencies that used carbon monoxide gas
chambers to keep using them, but did not allow new gas chambers to
Macon animal control director Jim Johnson objected that he
“would need at least two new full-time staff members,” who “likely
would spend their entire day performing euthanasia,” paraphrased
Matt Barnwell of the Macon Telegraph.
Council member Larry Schlesinger testified that he witnessed
17 dogs being gassed in January, Barnwell wrote. “‘All of a sudden
there was this squeal,’ Schlesinger said. ‘And then a chorus of
squeals. It has haunted me ever since.'”
Sodium pentabarbital injection can also cause suffering if
improperly performed. Under-dosing is one common mistake.
Tony Serbantez, chief of police in Brownfield, Texas, told
Joshua Hull of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in early May 2008 that
the Brownfield shelter “has improved how it euthanizes animals after
a former employee and a local veterinarian claimed animals were still
clinging to life two hours after drugs were given,” Hull reported.
Former shelter worker Lisa Gersbach alleged to the
Avalanche-Journal that “she was once told by her supervisor to ‘choke
out’ small cats with an animal control stick, rather than use proper
euthanizing agents, and that many animals were placed in bags and
disposed of before they stopped breathing,” Hull wrote. Hired on
March 3, 2008, Gersbach resigned on April 14.
A much more often reported practice is the so-called
“heart-stick,” an obsolescent procedure in which sodium
pentabarbital is injected into the heart of the animal, instead of a
vein. How common it still is came to light in November 2007, “when
a former jail inmate secretly shot video of William Baber, DVM
allegedly performing intercardiac euthanasia on animals without
sedation at the county animal shelter in Gallatin,” reported
Jennifer Easton of the Nashville Tennessean.
“Baber, a practicing veterinarian for more than 25 years,
acknowledged using the procedure,” Easton continuned, “but said he
was unaware of changes in state law made in 2001, intended to
prohibit euthanasia by the intercardiac method without sedation. The
state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners suspended Baber’s license
until April 2008.”
A bill to clarify and reinforce the 2001 law unanimously
cleared the Tennessee legislature, and was quicky signed by Governor
Phil Bredesen. The bill also extended the shelter holding time for
impounded animals to at least three full business days.
Publicity about the Baber case and the Tennessee bill brought
similar claims from other jurisdictions.
Michigan veterinarian Jeanette Roberts alleges in a lawsuit filed on
April 11, 2008 that workers at the St. Clair County animal shelter
use the heart-stick, and that the county improperly fired her “after
she reported her concerns to the Michigan Department of Agriculture,
which oversees animal shelters and launched an investigation,” wrote
Angela Mullins of the Port Huron Times Herald.
Working part-time at the shelter since October 2007,
Roberts read an article about the Baber case on February 11, 2008,
she claims; brought the article to the attention of her superior;
and was fired the next day.
St. Clair County Administrator Shaun Groden told Mullins that
the Michigan Department of Agriculture found that the shelter only
was heart-sticking feral cats.
The county council in Cherokee County, South Carolina, in
late April 2008 began reviewing animal killing procedures at the
county shelter after receiving complaints about heart-sticking from
volunteers Andrea Gilfillan and Libby Swad, the former president of
the now defunct Cherokee County Humane Society.
“An intracardial injection may only be used after the animal
is heavily sedated, anesthetized or comatose, according to South
Carolina law,” reported Lynne P. Shackleford of the Spartanburg
The South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental
Control took notice of the matter, Shackleford wrote, “because the
shelter isn’t licensed to have sodium pentobarbital on site.”
Heart-sticking also attracted concern from the police
department in Great Falls, Montana, which took over management of
the city shelter from the Cascade County Humane Society in mid-2007.
A performance review issued in January 2008 disclosed that the first
veterinarian the police department hired used the heart-stick to kill
cats. Shelter staff objected, and that vet “was never retained for
services after the first day,” the review stated.