Corbett to sign gas chamber ban bill, shelters cite funding concerns

A friend called last night wondering if the much-anticipated bill to ban gas chambers in Pennsylvania had passed the legislature. He hadn't seen any news posted here and he wondered if lawmakers had taken final action or let the bill die another session.

It took me 24 hours to figure out what was in the final bill and many questions remain about its implications for shelters.

Indeed the House and Senate did vote finally and overwhelmingly to end the practice of killing shelter animals using carbon monoxide still the case in three animal control facilities in the state.

When Gov. Corbett signs the bill in the next ten days, as his staff told me he would, Pennsylvania will become the 20th state to end this inhumane practice.

It was no easy task to get the bill through and it came in just under the wire, only hours before the General Assembly closed its 2011-2012 session. Initially there was opposition from farmers who feared they wouldn't be able to destroy a barn full of diseased chickens if necessary and then there was word the governor wouldn't sign any bill that created new licensing with fees involved.

"This bill went back and forth more times than a dog lifts his leg in a day," said Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), sponsor of the Senate bill on the Senate floor, referring to the five versions of the bill that bounced back and forth between the House and Senate.

Dinniman, who called his bill "Daniel's Law" after the Alabama dog who survived not one, but two trips to the gas chamber, said passage of the legislation represented a "milestone" in the humane care of dog, cats and other small pets.

He pointed to the language of the 1983 dog law defining the guidelines for gassing as nothing short of chilling.

If an internal combustion engine is used, a means of cooling the gas to a temperature not to exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit at the point of entry into the cabinet and not to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit at any point in the cabinet as determined by temperature gauges permanently installed at point of entry and inside the cabinet.

"Thirty years later we realize this is inhumane and get rid of it altogether," said Dinniman.

Daniel's story had a happy ending. After being pulled alive from a trash heap, he was sent to a New Jersey animal rescue and has since found a loving home. Alabama banned gas chambers.

Questions remain about the implications for shelters in Pennsylvania in the final bill (HB 2630), sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R., Allegheny). (The bill passed 49-0 in the Senate. There were three no votes in the House, Reps. Scott Perry R., York, Fred Keller R., Snyder and Brad Roae, R., Crawford) 

Language that was added at the last minute creates a new certification for "euthanasia technicians" and requires shelters to pay for 14 hours of training. It also requires the roughly 70 shelters that perform euthanasia to do so under supervision of a licensed veterinarian which was the very reason the three facilities all in the rural western part of the state still used gas chambers.

They said they used the chambers because veterinarians were not available in their areas to oversee the use of sodium pentobarbitol, the drug used in humane lethal injection.

Under the new law a shelter may apply to Board of Pharmacy to obtain drugs but only an individual certified by state Board of Veterinary medicine may adminster the drugs. The veterinary board may inspect the facilities and revoke licenses. Gas chambers must be dismantled in 30 days and the Department of Agriculture may distribute money to those shelters when it is available in the dog law restricted account (considering that fund is running out of money, it's hard to imagine when that would occur.)

Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs has offered to cover costs relating to the transition to humane euthanasia for the three remaining shelters, two of which are in Crawford and Venango counties.

Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she is pleased the use of carbon monoxide will end, but remains worried that the cost to train technicians will a "significant burden" for shelters.

The Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania board member Karel Minor agrees that the added costs of requiring training and certification for any non-veterinarian performing euthanasia will be another hit to the dwindling number of "open admission" shelters, which suffered during the recession and still bear the burden of taking in all stray animals with little or no state funding. Currently, a vet tech or other shelter staff member can perform euthanasia by injection under the supervision of a veterinarian without having to get state-mandated training.

It's unclear who will run the program that must certify all the technicians by early 2014. For those larger shelters that already send their staff to euthanasia training, a second mandatory training would be redundant and costly, some shelter directors say.

"I'm uncertain why shelters already in compliance and which euthanize humanly now have an unfunded mandate that is actually less training," said Minor, director of the Humane Society of Berks County. "We will have to pay to provide less training - 14 hours of standard euthanasia by injection training. Our own staff now gets trained by our vet over six weeks."

Minor said he is concerned about the additional state bureaucracy and also fears the law will give the veterinary medical board too much authority over shelter operations, pointing to the state veterinary board in Alabama that just weeks ago was planning to issue a rule that would have forbidden vets from working for non-vets, thus eliminating all low-cost services in shelters, advocates said. 

Animal welfare advocates charged the Alabama board's motive was ending competition for for-profit veterinary offices which charge considerably more for services like spaying and neutering. After a national outcry the board backed down.

Another concern for some with the Pennsylvania law is the exemption for dangerous animals. Minor said that means a dog or cat deemed dangerous could be destroyed by some other undefined method.

Here's another thing we don't know about the commonwealth's soon-to-be-new-new law: Since normal agricultural practices will be exempt under the new law, does that mean a kennel operator could jury rig a killing machine like the Amish farmer in the Finger Lakes did in 2010 when he gassed 93 dogs using a hose and a farm engine?

We certainly hope not.

(Photo/Animal Law Coalition)