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Pet euthanasia: A political debate on methods of animal control

SPECIAL REPORT

November 08, 2010|By Kristin Bien (kbien@wsbt.com)

Every year thousands of animals come through the doors of animal shelters – and, because of the out-of-control pet population, many end up with a death sentence.

But there is a political debate going on in Michigan and around the country concerning the most humane way to euthanize – through lethal injection or the gas chamber.

Karen King is on a mission. The Berrien County animal activist has been on the front lines working to get legislation passed to ban animal euthanasia by gas.

"It is a shock, I mean, it is the secret in our backyard," King said. 

The majority of shelters in the state use lethal injection to put animals down. But, according to the Legislature, there are eight counties in Michigan that still euthanize through inhalation using carbon monoxide.

It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic gas, and many, like King, believe using it to put down animals is simply wrong.

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"The inhumanity,” King said. “It is a method of euthanasia where the animal’s organs shut down prior to them losing consciousness. And it is a long death. It is 20 to 25 minutes before an animal passes away. For older animals it is even longer, because their heart and lung capacity is diminished and it takes longer for them to take in that much gas.”

"I think it is a scary way to end what was probably a difficult life to begin with," said Doctor Joe Turk. The Benton Harbor veterinarian advocates for the use of lethal injection instead – One shot that within a few seconds will end an animal's life.

"Lethal injection, usually within just a couple seconds the animal is unconscious,” he said. “It is a power sedative first, but as it goes in stops the heart. They are completely asleep when it happens, they don't feel anything. You can hold them, comfort them and talk to them.”

But animal control officers say they can't hold every animal that comes through their shelter. Many of the animals they deal with are dangerous.

"It is a whole different situation where I have got five pit bulls taken from an owner and they are so aggressive I can't handle them and the owner can't handle them,” said Ernie Baker, the animal control officer in Branch County. “I am going to put those dogs on a control pole. Those dogs are under an extreme amount of stress, now, and for me to get a good injection into those dogs is going to be very difficult.”

On the day WSBT visited Cass County's shelter, an adult pit bull was in quarantine because it bit part of its owner’s face off.  

Animal control officers from Cass, St. Joseph, Berrien and Branch ounties met WSBT to share their side of the story.

Their counties use carbon monoxide to euthanize animals. And they believe the procedure is safe and humane.

"This machine protects the people doing the job and it is a humane method for the animals. Especially for the animals, like you said, that we deal with that aren't the gentle dog that have been held for 12 years," Baker said.

Baker has been using gas since 1993, before that he used lethal injection. He says it was traumatic – not only for the animals that had to be held down or muzzled before being given the toxic shot, but also for shelter staff. And it was dangerous too.

"The one time when we did, the dog jerked back and I shoved the syringe in and probably put about 1cc of the pentobarbital into my hand," Baker said.

Now, they use carbon monoxide.

They showed us a video of it actually being used. The animals are loaded into separate compartments in a special cage. The cage is then rolled into the gas chamber. The carbon monoxide gas is turned on.

"You can tell, the dog, he knows something is wrong, but he is not yelping in pain," Baker said as he showed us the video.

According to Baker, within 17 seconds the animals are asleep, and minutes later they have died.

"We want the whole system to work perfectly. There is not stress on the animal. They go in, they breathe and they go to sleep," Baker said.

But the video is strikingly different to other clips found on the internet, and one shown at the Legislature months earlier.

The video begins with the words, "The following footage, shot in the late 1990's, is of the ‘kill box’ at the Yadkin County, North Carolina, animal ‘shelter.’"

Viewers watch as two men load several dogs into a metal box. The men attach a hose to the box, turn on the "poison gas" and wait until the animals, crowded into this box, perish. The men then load puppies into the box, on top of the already dead animals and start the process again.

This is part of what led then Michigan State Representative John Proos to vote in favor of the ban.  

"The committee process had long and really pretty stirring testimony about the challenges and really the awful nature of the gas chamber usage in Michigan," Proos said.

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