Update April 13, 2009: During a hearing on October 13, 2008, Union County stipulated it was complying with all laws including regulations governing euthanasia and would in the future abide by all such regulations, as modified. The case was dismissed on the basis of that stipulation.
Now, the plaintiffs, North Carolina Coalition for Humane Euthanasia (NCCHE) and the Humane Society of Union County (HSUC), have through their attorneys obtained records and conducted interviews they believe establishes Union County is violating this stipulation.
Attorney Rodney Alexander has notified Union County’s attorney, William McGuirt, as well as John Aldridge of the North Carolina Attorney General’s office; Dr. Lee Hunter, Director of the Animal Welfare Section, Animal Health Div., North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture; and Judge Christopher W. Bragg, that the county shelter is using the gas chamber to kill animals under 16 weeks of age in violation of NC Administrative Code Section 52J.0602. The plaintiffs also charge the County with falsifying intake documents to make it appear as if staff is complying with state law.
Alexander has also advised that the County is euthanizing animals before the requisite 72 hour hold. Alexander’s letter to McQuirt is attached at the end of this article and can be downloaded.
It remains to be seen what action will follow. For information about the case, read Animal Law Coalition’s original report below.
Original report: The North Carolina Coalition for Humane Euthanasia (NCCHE) and the Humane Society of Union County (HSUC) have brought a lawsuit in state court against Union County officials including Sheriff Eddie Cathey and Dempsey E. Benton, Secretary of North Carolina Health and Human Services.
The plaintiffs claim Union County illegally kills young, old, injured, sick and pregnant animals in the gas chamber.
Under North Carolina law euthanasia is defined as "the humane destruction of an animal accomplished by a method that involves rapid unconsciousness and immediate death or by a method that involves anesthesia, produced by an agent which causes painless loss of consciousness, and death during such loss of consciousness." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 19A-23 Under N.C. Gen Stat. §19A-24(5) "[a]n animal shall only be put to death by a method and delivery of method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, or the American Humane Association.
The AVMA has said in its 2007 and 2000 Euthanasia Reports:
Neonatal animals appear to be resistant to hypoxia, and because all inhalant agents ultimately cause hypoxia, neonatal animals take longer to die than adults. Glass et al,44 reported that newborn dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs survived a nitrogen atmosphere much longer than did adults. Dogs, at 1 week old, survived for 14 minutes compared with a 3-minute survival time after a few weeks of age. Guinea pigs survived for 4.5 minutes at 1 day old, compared with 3 minutes at 8 days or older. Rabbits survived for 13 minutes at 6 days old, 4 minutes at 14 days, and 1.5 minutes at 19 days and older. The panel recommended that inhalant agents not be used alone in animals less than 16 weeks old except to induce loss of consciousness, followed by the use of some other method to kill the animal.
Similar results have been reported for sick and old animals whose blood pressure and weakened hearts delay loss of consciousness from CO gas.
The Humane Society of the United States has said gas chambers should at the least not be used on animals that are young, old, sick, injured, and pregnant. Of course, the American Humane Association opposes the use of gas chambers for killing of any animal.
Union County’s Animal Services Officer, Lt. Michelle Starnes, has stated publicly that puppies and kittens should not be killed in the gas chamber because it takes them too long for them to lose consciousness. Starnes is a defendant in the case.
Impound sheets obtained by the plaintiffs show the county routinely gasses animals that are under 16 weeks of age, old, sick, injured and pregnant.
The plaintiffs, NCCHE and HSUC, contend in their Complaint that killing these animals in this way violates the state’s animal cruelty laws. The theory is that the AVMA, HSUS and AHA do not approve of the use of the gas chamber to kill young, old sick, injured and pregnant animals and it is not "euthanasia" as defined by North Carolina law to use CO gas on these animals.
As such, it is animal cruelty which is defined as "every act, omission, or neglect whereby unjustifiable physical pain, suffering, or death is caused or permitted." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 19A-1 Unlawful means of killing an animal to "protect the public, other animals, or the public health" are not exempt from the animal cruelty laws. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 19A-1.1(5)
In fact, killing any shelter animal at all particularly in this way arguably violates the state’s animal cruelty laws unless it is to "protect the public, other animals or the public health".
The plaintiffs have requested injunctive relief requiring Union County officials and the Secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services to comply with the law and not kill in the gas chamber animals under 16 weeks of age, as well as those that are old, sick, injured and pregnant. In their Complaint the NCCHE and HSUC call on the Court to order the defendants to devise a plan for euthanasia of these animals. The plaintiffs also ask for an order requiring the county to keep records of the age, health or pregnancy status of all shelter animals as required by North Carolina law. N.C. §52J0.100
The 2000 AVMA report on euthanasia states that the "preferred method" for euthanasia of animals is lethal injection by barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. The AVMA’s 2007 report describes this as the "most desirable method" of euthanasia. For the animal, if administered properly, it is usually no different than a shot given by a veterinarian. If the animal is or becomes aggressive, it can be sedated prior to the injection. Training for lethal injection costs about $255.
Many states including Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, and Colorado, among others, now ban the gas chamber. Less than 1% of shelters in the U.S. continue to use the outmoded gas chamber.
Shelter workers are at risk from carbon monoxide poisoning when they load and unload or clean the gas chamber, breathing in low levels of the gas on a regular basis. The 2007 and 2000 AVMA reports warn, "[Carbon monoxide gas is]…. hazardous to personnel because of the risk … or health effects resulting from chronic exposure". According to the 1993 AVMA Report, as the concentration of CO [in the body] increases, humans may experience decreased visual acuity, tinnitus, nausea, progressive depression, confusion, and collapse along with convulsions and muscular spasms. Long-term effects may include cancer and cardiovascular diseases." In Tennessee a shelter worker died from CO poisoning from the gas chamber. As a result Tennessee has banned the use of gas chambers.
It is also clear that use of the gas chamber causes incalculable psychological suffering for many shelter workers. Animals don’t lose consciousness or die until there is a build up of the CO gas in their lungs. Shelter workers have documented that until that build up happens, they hear the piercing cries, howling, frantic calls, scratching and panic of animals. The 2007 and 2000 AVMA reports confirm this. It is not uncommon for shelter workers to have to gas some animals a second time.
Lethal injection or EBI is actually cheaper. A study conducted by the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society by using an Animal Euthanasia Cost Analysis work sheet developed at Texas A&M University, showed in September 2000 concluded that to euthanize 10,000 animals per year, cost of gassing averages $13,230 while lethal injection averages $12,700.
It is not a defense to the gas chamber to say that lethal injection is just as cruel if not done properly. Any method of euthanasia must be performed properly, and proper use of gas chambers as well as lethal injection requires training. But gas chambers are dangerous to workers and cruel and inhumane to workers and animals even if used properly. The goal is to euthanize as few animals as possible, not argue over the best method of killing. But in the meantime, there is no reason to use this particularly cruel, outmoded method of killing.