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2007 Euthanasia Guide (pdf)

 

A Witness

A personal transformation took over my life in 1988, when I was a witness through a small porthole window of an animal shelter gas chamber doing its savage business.

Two of the employees began pulling and tugging larger dogs toward the chamber -- this in itself was savage. The eyes of the dogs were full of fear as they were shoved into a large cylinder with another six dogs, all types. Next, five puppies were placed in the chamber.

Noise. Yelling. Fighting. All scared, they shivered again and again, their eyes huge, their nostrils flaring. They were completely bewildered. One dog in the chamber, a male chow mix about one year old, started snapping at the puppies. All the dogs and puppies were in a desperate struggle, and the gassing had yet to begin.

Then a button was pushed, and the two employees walked away as the chamber machine began pumping out streams of carbon monoxide. The little puppies started to paw at the glass window. After one full minute they started to whine and then produced a piercing squeal. Then the larger dogs started a high, mournful wailing, then a deeper howl that rose in great desperation for 45 seconds.

The time from inception of hell for the dogs and puppies to the completion of their cries of desperation was between two and six minutes.

As the employees walked away, I knew it was my love, my honor, my devotion to animals that I must not blink and watch every second, every animal struggle to avoid death. However, tears from my heart did overwhelm me that tragic morning, and the final insult was having to load the bodies of the dogs and puppies into a pickup truck and haul them to a local garbage dump.

 

Wide Disparity

Across the country, there is wide disparity among shelters and their methods and application of euthanasia. Problems stemming from inadequate training, insufficient funding, indifference to animal suffering, and failure to recognize the need to change and update procedures, are found everywhere, from small rural shelters to large city facilities.

The urgent need for a consensus on humane euthanasia is graphically illustrated by the following recent cases:

Rogers, AR. Lack of funding, lack of training, and lack of equipment were blamed for four years of "euthanizing" feral cats, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and other wild animals by drowning. Trapped animals were left in their cages and simply dropped into a plastic 55-gallon barrel (which was purchased for that purpose in 1996) filled with water.

The shelter's employees were told by the director that drowning was humane and legal -- it's neither. No charges were filed, but the practice was stopped as soon as the mayor found out about it. The shelter now uses lethal injection.

Long Hill, NJ. A kennel owner admitted using an illegal drug to kill more than 600 animals in 1998 and almost 300 in 1999. The powerful muscle-relaxing drug, succinylcholine chloride, was banned in 1988 for euthanasia in New Jersey. This drug essentially paralyzes the animal, including the diaphragm and breathing muscles, but has no effect on consciousness -- the terrified animal is fully aware that he cannot breathe, and helplessly suffocates to death. Numerous other violations were found by inspectors on several surprise visits, including failure to hold animals for the required length of time before killing them, and neglecting to provide veterinary care to a dog with a broken leg.

Additionally, more than 300 cats were killed by injections directly into the heart -- which is not only stressful but acutely painful. The kennel owner was fined $18,715.

Vermilion Parish, LA. Animals are still euthanized by a regular 6-cylinder gasoline engine that pumps acrid exhaust gas into the small room where they are confined. Even though the gas is pumped through water to cool it a little, the fumes are still hot, irritating, and painful. Their skin and eyes burning, the animals die slowly and horribly. Animal protection groups have been trying since 1992 to get the shelter to change to a more humane method of euthanasia, but in spite of lawsuits and letters, the parish remains resistant to voluntarily changing its ways.

Albuquerque, NM. An audit by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) found many serious problems with the care of animals at the two city shelters. The audit team was so alarmed at the conditions that they issued a preliminary report blasting the treatment of animals. HSUS representatives found that dogs were killed by painful direct injections to the heart while conscious, a practice that even the lenient AVMA guidelines condemns as inhumane. Animals were restrained (and sometimes lifted) with a "catch" or "control" pole (a long-handled pole with a coated wire noose at one end that is placed around the animal's neck and tightened), allegedly to prevent injury to staff members. However, the audit team concluded that it was more likely due to lack of training, as well as an apparent lack of concern for the comfort, anxiety, and needs of the animals being euthanized. The report states, "The HSUS did not witness any instance where an animal was held or comforted for a gentle death." Worst of all, the HSUS team found that seven animals were still alive (their hearts were beating) after they were placed in the freezer.

The Albuquerque shelters euthanize about 18,000 animals annually -- 75% of the animals that come through their doors. (For comparison, San Francisco's euthanasia rate is about 17%.)

Sacramento, CA. As it had in Albuquerque, word got out about the poor conditions at the Sacramento City animal shelter. The HSUS was brought in to assess the shelter and make recommendations. Consultants found "most staff displaying a lack of concern for an animal's anxiety level, pain response, and overall well-being," as well as an obvious lack of training. Supervision was extremely poor in many areas. Shelter personnel never scanned animals for microchips before killing them, refused to use tranquilizers for fractious animals (relying instead on brute physical force to restrain them), killed dogs in full view of live dogs awaiting euthanasia, and committed many other violations of shelter policy. A chloroform chamber used to kill small animals was used improperly. A live newborn kitten was put into the chamber with six dead kittens who had been killed the day before. The following day, a live pigeon was placed in the chamber with the seven dead kittens. An HSUS team member finally asked a supervisor to check the chamber, at which time they removed the dead animals -- four days after the first six kittens died in it.

Unlike Albuquerque, however, Sacramento immediately began to remedy the deficits, and has made an effort to be responsive to the report findings as well as to the concerned citizens in the community. Not all the news is bad, of course. At least one community has had a major wake-up call. In Greensboro, NC, frustrated Sheriff BJ Barnes, upset at learning that more than 75% of the animals entering his shelter were being killed, decided to televise the euthanasia of a dog on his weekly show. Viewers were shocked, but they also got the message: animal overpopulation is everyone's problem. Adoptions from the local shelter skyrocketed, and local veterinarians reported an increase in inquiries about spaying and neutering. And cities like San Francisco, where municipal animal control and the SPCA are working together to make sure that every adoptable animal gets a good chance for a home, have set a wonderful example for other agencies.

As we can see below, many rural communities are trying to stop the stressful process of the gassing of animals whether in the best gas chambers that still force attendants to put up to 8 dogs on top of each other as they are wheeled around the shelter collecting them, and then wheeled into the gas chamber room; as the Utah County Mayors, myself and animal control officers witnessed at the Utah County Animal Shelter 4yrs ago when Lte. Morgan arranged for the Animal Task Committee to compare Gas Chamber euthanization with the Humane and Stressless Euthanization by Injection and held individually by the employees of the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter. Hopefully we can educate the decision makers here in Utah County with all the findings to date about the reason why the Humane Society of the United States and the American Humane Association feel that Gas Chambers are not humane.

We are awaiting a report, from a Utah Veterinarian that worked for years in Utah County, about the EBI and Gas Chamber Euthanization.

In 2004, 6-8 million lost and unwanted dogs and cats entered animal shelters throughout the US. Only half made it out alive: the other 3-4 million were euthanized. That's nearly a quarter million animals a month, 405 every hour, one every nine seconds. In human terms, this is proportional to losing the entire human population of Los Angeles every year.

More than 12 million cats and dogs enter U.S. shelters annually, an endless tide of incoming animals. Few of these animals will be reclaimed, and many shelters lack space to keep even most adoptable animals. Of lost cats that end up in shelters, only 2% will be returned to their homes. Dogs have it better, because they are more likely to be wearing rabies or identification tags, but even so only 16% will be reclaimed. On average, only about 1/3 of animals put up for adoption at shelters will actually find homes. For the rest, euthanasia.
"Euthanasia" literally means "good death," and is usually interpreted to mean a quick, painless, and humane method of dying. It seems self-evident that death should also be in the best interests of the animal. The decision to euthanize a sick, dangerous, or otherwise unadoptable animal is relatively uncomplicated to make.

However, millions of healthy, friendly animals also end up in shelters.  They are adoptable -- but there are just not enough homes available for all of them. It is the task of shelters to select those who will be placed in the adoption kennels. Animals who have been in the adoption kennel too long, and all the rest who never had the chance, are taken to the euthanasia room.

Methods:

The euthanasia method of choice for use in animal shelters is the injection of an overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic called sodium pentobarbital. In API's view, it is the only acceptable method of euthanizing shelter animals. When injected into a vein, this drug produces rapid unconsciousness and death without the pain and distress that accompany all other methods. For cats, kittens, puppies, and other small mammals, a direct injection into the abdominal cavity is also acceptable, though not as rapid or reliable as the intravenous route.

This method is the most cost-effective and overall least expensive of all euthanasia techniques (according to the Michigan Humane Society, the cost of lethal injection, materials and labor is $2.88 per animal). It does require adequate staff training, and because each animal is handled individually, it is somewhat more emotionally taxing to workers than mass euthanasia methods. The injection process allows shelter staff to provide personal comfort to each animal in its last moments, which may greatly offset the emotional stress. Five states (CA, FL, ME, OR, PA) specify lethal injection (usually of a barbiturate) as the only allowable method of euthanasia, and similar laws are currently being considered in Tennessee and Rhode Island. About 20 states specifically allow lethal injection.  Shelters employ a number of other "euthanasia" methods. One common method is the gas chamber. Either carbon monoxide (CO) or carbon dioxide (CO2) is generally used, though some still use nitrogen gas.

California banned the use of CO gas chambers for euthanasia effective January 1,2001. Many injection givers initially resisted the change, because injection requires two workers and extended physical contact with the animal, but once they understood the process, they realized it is better for the animal, and actually less stressful for them. For some animals, the gentle touch of a shelter worker during the euthanasia process may be the only real affection they have ever had. The lethal injection technique allows the worker to comfort the animal and experience closure of the death process.  Three states (AZ, SC, TN) specifically allow nitrogen gas, and three (OK, SC, TN) allow carbon monoxide; all of these states also allow lethal injection, with gas as an alternate method. Gas chambers have many limitations which make the method less practical, slower, more dangerous to staff (a shelter worker died of CO poisoning just last year), and ultimately more expensive than lethal injection.

Abuse of the chamber is common. While shelter policies commonly require physical separation in individual cages and close observation of the process, in many cases animals are simply shoved into the chamber, the door sealed, the button pushed, and the employee walks away. The sponsor of the bill in Tennessee that would mandate lethal injection said of the gas chamber that it "results in a slow, painful death." Ronald R. Grier and Tom L. Colvin's 1990 Euthanasia Guide for Animal Shelters recommends that all animals should be tranquilized before placement in the chamber --something that is virtually never done in practice.

Three states (DE, OK, TN) allow chloroform for animals under 8 weeks of age (young animals up to 4 months old are resistant to gas euthanasia). Eleven states defer to a higher authority, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the state veterinary board (OH), or the state veterinarian (VA), or provide standards for humane death (IA, NH, ND, RI, SC, WA). One state (SC) allows shooting (in emergencies). Only one state (AZ) allows the use of T-61, a drug that is considered unacceptable by AVMA because it immobilizes and suffocates the animal without causing unconsciousness, resulting in pain and distress. Twenty-five states have banned the use of "high altitude "decompression chambers, which were used extensively in the 1950s and 1960s, but were subsequently deemed to be cruel.

The Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia is used as a reference by hundreds of shelters around the country, and four states (GA, KS, MO, NY) mandate using only methods considered acceptable in this report. The report was revised in 2000; unfortunately, the updated version has significant problems, but nevertheless was passed and published by the AVMA, primarily through the force of will of a single individual who ramrodded it through -- over the reservations of the committee that produced it, as well as the unanimous disapproval of the organization's main governing body. The report fails to address the inappropriateness of CO for animals under 16 weeks of age, and sick, pregnant, injured, or old animals. In spite of the report's own statement that CO2 "may be distressing" especially to cats, it is included as an acceptable method of feline euthanasia. Suffocating birds by pressing on their chests is referred to as "apparently painless." Kill-traps, which rarely function properly even under controlled laboratory conditions and are indiscriminate killers of any animal that gets caught in them, are promoted as "practical and effective" for wildlife. And electrocution is considered "conditionally acceptable" for dogs.

The Last Stop

The local shelter is too often the last stop for a dog or cat. Shelters have been put into this unenviable position by the irresponsible breeding of far too many animals. Puppy mills, pet stores, backyard breeders, "responsible" hobby and show breeders, people who simply won't, don't bother, or "forget" to have their animals spayed or neutered, pet food companies who subsidize breeders with free samples and discount coupons, and the cat and dog breed "clubs" that encourage breeding -- all contribute to this massive problem. It is a sad fact that, when a human being chooses to create a relationship with another living being, then fails to live up to the responsibilities that go with that relationship, we allow the human to walk away guilt-free -- it is always the animal who pays 100% of the price for the human's errors.

We often hear "responsible" breeders complain that the real problem is the irresponsible owners, backyard breeders, and puppy mills. And there's no doubt that those are huge problems. Puppy mills around the country contribute thousands of puppies to pet overpopulation every year. According to a 1999 issue of the Pet Products News Buying Guide, a pet store trade publication, "Livestock sales of dogs rose a healthy 35.6 percent in 1998." Sales generated from these puppies shot to $33.6 million in 1998, compared to $15.2 million in 1996.

But let's take a closer look at those "responsible" breeders. They generally advertise in a few well-known national magazines, or on their own websites. In one issue of one cat magazine there are individual listings for about 700 breeders; and a similar number in a comparable dog publication. If each of those breeders produces only three litters per year (an extremely conservative estimate), with an average of 6 per litter, those breeders are putting out more than 25,000 puppies and kittens per year. The American Kennel Club registered nearly 1,175,500 puppies in 2000; the Cat Fanciers Association registered about 107,000 kittens from 13,951 active breeders.

Whether they admit it or deny it, the truth is that each and every person who -- accidentally or purposely -- produces even one more puppy or kitten is part of the problem. We all have to work together to solve it -- nobody can be exempt. Until pet overpopulation is controlled, 8-10 million cats and dogs will be killed this year, and every year, in U.S. shelters. (And this shocking figure doesn't include countless thousands of animals who never make it to the shelter, but are abandoned to live and die on the streets or in the country.)

The good news is that pet overpopulation is on the decline. However, projections suggest it will be another twenty-five years before we end it; and that's only possible with continued hard work, dedication, and public education. We are making progress, but this is in spite of people who continue to breed and industries that support breeding. If those who are creating the problem would take full responsibility, we could reach the ultimate goal -- to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals -- much faster.

A shelter should be there to care for animals, to relieve suffering --not amplify or prolong it. An animal may have already suffered greatly prior to ending up at a shelter, and the unfamiliarity, confinement, and noise of the shelter environment is extremely stressful in and of itself. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that needless suffering is not that animal's tragic end to life.

The Human Toll

Shelter workers must daily confront the need to euthanize many healthy, friendly, adoptable animals. They must accept these animals from the public, listen to the flimsy excuses for relinquishment ("I'm moving," "I got new furniture," "My boyfriend doesn't like him"), smile politely, and swallow the words that they must so often want to shout -- "This animal trusts you! This animal loves you! You have a responsibility here! How can you abandon him?" Having accepted these unwanted animals, shelter workers must feed, brush, walk, care for, and get to know them for three or five or seven days, and then, except for those few that have been adopted, they must take them into a small, barren room and kill them.

How do shelter workers cope with their duties that, on one hand, require them to care deeply for the animals they work with, yet on the other hand, require them to release that attachment when the animal is either adopted or euthanized?

Research has shown that new shelter workers tend to become very attached to certain animals, whose subsequent death was terribly distressing. Over time, workers learn to keep a certain impersonal distance between themselves and the animals, seeing them as more of "a population of refugees" than as individuals, as pets. Those who are responsible for euthanasia concentrated on the mechanics of the act, becoming proficient at killing so that they can gain some satisfaction for making the death as quick and painless as possible. They may compensate by becoming more involved in foster programs, education about spay/neuter, or other means of increasing adoptions and reducing the numbers of incoming animals. They must all make a special effort to control their feelings of frustration, anger, and hostility in order to interact appropriately with co-workers and the public.

Shelter workers also learn to see euthanasia as a means of preventing suffering. Death becomes a better alternative than other fates that could befall the animals -- starving to death, contracting a serious disease, or being abandoned, injured, predated upon, poisoned, sold to a research lab, abused in an unhappy home, or used as target practice or as bait for fighting dogs.

Understandably, shelter workers sometimes transfer their frustration and anger onto the people who brought the animals in, and blame them as the ones who behaved wrongly or immorally toward the animals. They see the public as "the enemy." One shelter worker said, "People think we are murderers, but they are the ones that have put us in this position." And certainly much of the problem does lie with the throwaway attitude of society, the irresponsible people who fail to spay and neuter, who let their animals run loose. This attitude does not necessarily make it easy for animals to be adopted out, as some shelter workers see all people in the same tainted light, and they have trouble trusting potential adopters.

One thing shelter workers should not do is to separate themselves so much from the euthanasia act that they become apathetic. Carter Luke, a consultant with the Massachusetts SPCA, says, "I don't consider uncaring people effective. If you become too comfortable with euthanasia so that it doesn't affect you, you've lost an edge. Because euthanasia is not an acceptable solution to pet overpopulation. We should always see it as something we abhor, and wish to get rid of or at least minimize. We should never become comfortable with euthanasia."

While shelter workers eventually learn to cope with the stress of euthanasia, they all experience uneasiness at certain times, or at a low but constant level. Spring and summer -- when large numbers of animals, especially kittens, come into the shelters -- are especially difficult.

"Some days we can be euthanizing all morning and you look at the pile of animals that nobody wants and it hurts." But then they remember the ones who lived, the ones who found wonderful homes. It is sometimes a dirty job, but it does have its rewards.



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