McLean County Animal Control Ending Use Of Gas Chamber
By Sean Powers
McLean County officials say their animal control center will stop using carbon monoxide to euthanize animals. It is the last Illinois animal control center using a gas chamber.
Large dog cages fill a room at the McLean County Animal Control Center. Dogs held there are strays or newborns, others are quarantined for biting or there because of a pending court case.
Animal Control Director Marshell Thomson said she wants all of these dogs to find a suitable home, but that does not always happen. The county’s Health Department said of the more than 600 dogs accepted into the animal control center last year, nearly 170 were euthanized, and roughly 40 percent of those were with gas.
In another part of the animal control center, there is what appears to be a large steel kettle connected to a gas tank. This is the carbon monoxide chamber.
“The carbon monoxide goes into as the air exits, and the animal just quietly goes to sleep,” Thomson explained. “It happens fairly quickly, you know, the euthanasia process, and it is monitored every time by our county veterinarian.”
Illinois does not ban the chamber, but it is heavily regulated. State Veterinarian Mark Ernst said in Illinois, a licensed veterinarian needs to be present whenever carbon monoxide is used on an animal, and only one animal can be put in the gas chamber at a time.
“I think if it’s done according to the guidelines that are provided through the American Veterinary Medical Association, it is an acceptable method of euthanasia,” he said.
“It is possible to use that in instances where perhaps you’ve got an animal that may be very difficult to handle and to actually provide an injection in that animal as opposed to placing it into a chamber,” Ernst added.
Thomson said she prefers injection over gas. She said most animals euthanized in McLean County are injected with a lethal dose of an anesthetic, but she added there are times when the chamber is the best option.
“We use it for the best needs of the animal,” she said. “So, if any animals is highly fractious and does not care to have restraint, it is better in that aspect cause the animal is less distressed. And we also look at safety for our personnel.”
“It’s a completely inhumane way of putting a dog down,” said Valerie Wellin, who heads a coalition of animal rights groups in McLean County pushing to end use of the chamber.
Wellin explained that there are more humane alternatives, like storing a lethal dose of anesthetic in food or water. This year, the McLean County Animal Control Center agreed to phase out the gas chamber. That was something Wellin admits she didn’t expect to happen so quickly.
“We always felt that we had the angels on our side, and that they would eventually come to understand that,” she said. “With many states no longer using gassing, we figured it would eventually happen in McLean County.”
The national Humane Society estimates about 10 states have shelters still using the gas chamber.
According to the McLean County Health Department, in 2011 animal control euthanized 78 dogs with carbon monoxide (it is only dogs put in the chamber). By 2012, that dropped to 66, and 15 this year with the last one in May.
Health Department Assistant Administrator Cathy Coverston Anderson said it is ready to look beyond the chamber.
“We’re trying to put more animals into our adoption program, and our statistics show we’ve been reducing our euthanasia rate by carbon monoxide at least in the last three years,” Anderson said.
But before the county gets rid of the chamber, Anderson said it has to look at other ways of handling dangerous, aggressive animals. She is hoping with help from the Humane Society, the county can buy several thousand dollars in new equipment, like a large restraint cage, an anesthetic machine with masks, and a dart gun with sedatives.
“There will be more movement of an animal if you’re trying to sedate them, and then get them into a restraint cage,” she said. “We’ll have to look at how…try to do that as least, with the minimal amount of stress as possible.”
Asked if dart guns would prove any less stressful than the chamber, Anderson said: “No, I really can’t say that.”
“Actually a dart gun is never necessary in a shelter setting,” said Inga Fricke, the director of shelter and rescue group services for the Humane Society of the United States.
“Always the method of least resistance and least restraint,” Fricke added. “If you can give that to an aggressive animal and not have to stress that animal out any more than just eating some food, that’s the perfect method.”
McLean County plans to uninstall the gas chamber by early next year, but Fricke said it doesn’t need to take that long. She said the Humane Society is willing to help the shelter find and pay for new equipment and training appropriate for the animals and staff.
In fact as of Wednesday, the McLean County Health Department said it has received confirmation that it is getting a $3,000 grant from the Humane Society for certifying more staff to administer lethal injection, but that money does not cover equipment.
The Health Department said it is going to use the next few months to make sure the transition is as seamless as possible.