Shelter gas chamber ban bill gutted before Senate passage

In what is being touted as a major victory for animal lovers, a bill that would forever ban the use of gas chambers in Pennsylvania shelters was unanimously passed by the state Senate on Wednesday.

“This is a good day for dogs, cats and the people of Pennsylvania,” said bill sponsor Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) on the Senate floor. “Because the way we treat our pets is indicative of the way we treat each other, and when we stand up for all God’s creatures, we stand up for our own humanity.”

But advocates say the Senate-approved version of SB 1329 is a shell of its original self.

"It was gutted," said Sarah Speed, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Shortly before the final vote was taken, language was removed that would have given the remaining handful of shelters that use carbon monoxide chambers to destroy animals access to drugs to provide humane euthanasia.

In other words, the shelters, which are located in rural areas, would have to employ a licensed veterinarian to euthanize animals with an injection of sodium pentobarbitol, the most common drug used put down animals.

But lack of access to a vet was exactly why the shelters continued to use gas chambers, a practice outlawed in 19 states and a number of municipalities nationwide.

The bill also exempts research facilities and "normal farming operations." This vague language about farms alarms animals welfare advocates who fear that dog kennel operators will fashion their own gas chambers to destroy their unproductive or sick breeding dogs as one breeder did in a stunning case in New York in 2010.

The Pennsylvania dog law currently mandates that commercial kennel operators must use a licensed veterinarian to euthanize their dogs.

It is not clear why the gas chamber bill was drastically amended at the eleventh hour. After all, the legislation had been in discussion for at least two legislative sessions and is the first companion animal welfare bill to move through a legislative chamber since 2009.

Anne Irwin, president of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, said removal of the language that also contains training provisions for shelters is a "big problem."

"Without access to the necessary drugs and training to assure that the drugs will be used properly it could be extremely difficult for agencies in rural areas to be certain that they could find a veterinarian to take over the responsibility of oversight for euthanasia by injection in the places where carbon monoxide is now being used," said Irwin, whose group represents the shelters that still use gas chambers. "The language related to access to drugs and training for euthanasia technicians is as important as the language banning gas chambers. Other states have specific language linking access to drugs to training and oversight. Act 83 of 1983 has the skeleton of some language, but it has never been fleshed out enough to be put into use."

Irwin says the change means additional work will have to be done on the bill in the state House.

Only three or four shelters in Pennsylvania still use the carbon monoxide chambers to destroy unwanted animals, a method of euthanasia that can take 20 minutes or more and has been universally criticized as inhumane. Irwin has been reluctant to identify them for fear of reprisal against the shelters.

A Pittsburgh TV station, WTAE, exposed one shelter in Crawford County that still gases animals in an investigative report last year.