PA bill would ban gas chambers in animal shelters

Count Pennsylvania among the shrinking number of states where dogs and cats meet their often gruesome end in gas chambers.

Five facilities (two shelters, two municipal holding kennels and one contract animal control officer), all of them in the western part of the state, still destroy animals by locking them in a metal box like the one above and filling it with carbon monoxide.

That could change if a bill, stalled for three years, but now moving through the state Senate very quietly this session gains momentum. SB 672, sponsored by Sen. Sean Logan (D., Allegheny) passed the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee last month and is awaiting action by the full Senate.

An amendment tacked on by the farm lobby would allow farmers the right to euthanize their animals using gas. I wondered about the practical application of that provision considering farm animals are not slaughtered with CO. Kristin Crawford, executive director of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told me farmers wanted to have the ability to use gas if, for instance, there was an avian epidemic in a chicken house.  

Five states this year have passed gas bans, among them Georgia, a state with a large number of over-crowded, high-kill shelters.

Once the predominant method of destroying stray animals, gas chambers have largely been eliminated in most shelters nationwide in favor of more humane lethal injection.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, in its 2007 report stating why it favored lethal injection, details the slow, torturous death animals can experience in these tanks.

Often shelter workers are not properly trained in administering the gas, which means it takes longer for animals to die. (There have been many stories of animals that amazingly survive. In fact Georgia's anti-gas chamber legislation which just passed the legislature last week, is named Gracie's Law for a beagle that survived gassing).

They experience extreme stress, howling and clawing frantically to escape.

Animals of different ages, breeds and temperaments are put in the tank together, leading to fighting before death.

Just which shelters in Pennsylvania still use gas chambers is a closely-held state secret. The Department of Agriculture, which inspects all licensed kennels and shelters, says it doesn't keep a list of which shelter uses which type of euthanasia. Anne Irwin, president of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, said she has the information, but declined to release it out of fear the shelters would be targeted by protesters.

There is good reason, she says. Some of the shelters are located in remote areas with limited access to veterinarians and the inability to order necessary drugs legally to perform euthanasia by lethal injection.

Amendments to the Senate bill establish procedures for the state Board of Veterinary Medicine to determine euthanasia drugs that should be permitted and for the State Board of Pharmacy to issue direct access licenses to shelters and kennels.

The committee also passed an amendment that would create the profession of certified euthanasia technician and provide for licensing and training requirements. Only certified euthanasia technicians could perform euthanasia by injection. Irwin said her group plans to offer training to employees in those shelters affected by the law.

Meanwhile, the Animal Law Coalition, the League of Humane Voters and other animal groups are urging lawmakers to bring the bill to a vote and ban the use of gas chambers before the legislative session expires at the end of the year.