Pet Overpopulation and Euthanasia in North Carolina

An interview with Peter MacQueen III

by Denise LeBeau

Peter MacQueen III is president of the Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina and has been compassionately advocating on the behalf of the companion animals of North Carolina for over 20 years. One of his greatest goals is to see the abolishment of the gas chamber, a device that is still so prevalently used in North Carolina on the dogs and cats that can’t find homes before their ‘time is up.’

It’s a tough topic, and Animal Control in most rural areas is just one notch above waste management as far as funding and resources go. Most of the general public don’t even realize that gassing unwanted pets still goes on, let alone at their local shelter!

“Why do seemingly decent people ignore, or worse, condone, this mistreatment of animals in an animal control facility?” asks Peter. “You can’t even dignify them by calling them shelters. Things are changing slowly, but not fast enough considering the lack of care and inhumane euthanasia that these animals face everyday. People have begun to take notice and object to this treatment, but the majority of people don’t seem concerned. When complaints are made the government stonewalls or ignores it until complaints subside then it’s back to business as usual. Also, there’s so many issues concerning Carolinians today, from the environment to child abuse, the general public generally only fight for what effects them, their ‘hot buttons.’ Even the animal rescue community insulate themselves against the horrors of gassing,” he laments.

To make matters worse, it is commonly believed that one person is responsible for the fact that shelters and animal control facilities are using anything but euthanasia by injection (EBI) in the state of North Carolina. That is Dr. Ralph Houser, DVM, North Carolina Animal Rabies Control Association board member and owner of Carolina Veterinary Consulting, who not only advocates for the use of gas chambers on companion animals but manufactures and sells them, too!

Dr. Houser has also ingratiated himself into the Animal Control community with his “down home” rural speech, and his “us against them” propaganda. Whoever doesn’t like to see animals suffer needlessly before they die, is seemingly a bleeding heart liberal sissy. His tactics could be looked at as manipulative…reminding us of another time in history that deftly played upon people’s fears. Like many who will urge people to resist change, he plays the game with stealth-like accuracy.

The guidelines he most often cites in recommending the use of gas chambers as an acceptable form of euthanasia are from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA,) which is viewed by many as somewhat outdated considering that the last report on this issue came out in 2001. The AVMA report gives clear cut protocol on the proper way to euthanize animals, and that’s where Houser and the guidelines part company. He likes to use the AVMA report to sling around as some kind of shield, but when it comes down to implementing their recommendations for a humane euthanasia, Houser consistently refutes and contradicts their suggestions.

“Further more,” as Peter points out, “no where in the AVMA report does it mention animal control facilities, shelters, or rescues for their use of gas chambers. It is specifically guidelines for use in a veterinarian’s office. And it’s estimated that about 98% of the animal control facilities in North Carolina do not have a veterinarian on staff.”

Even more disturbing is Houser’s seemingly nonchalant attitude toward the obvious suffering animals endure during their time in his gas chambers. He’s been allegedly overheard at North Carolina Animal Rabies Association meetings talking about the number of animals you can shove into his chambers, this is not in accordance with the AVMA’s report on the small number of animals that can safely be euthanized at once from gas. He also suggests putting puppies, kittens and sick animals in there too. Again a no-no from the AVMA, his words that have been conveyed to me were to the effect of “if the animal can take a breath he can be gassed.”

The recent number of animals that have survived a gassing and either found alive when being removed from the chamber, or found alive at the garbage dump by civilians is alarming! It is believed that the reason Dr. Houser recommends going against the AVMA report is because the gas chambers quickly lose their argument of “cost effectiveness” when used properly. In 2003, Sampson County Animal Control adopted out puppies to a lady looking for pets. She took the pups home and they started getting sick. After spending thousands of dollars on vet bills, she went back to the facility only to be told that the puppies had been gassed and survived! She had not been told this prior to having taken the animals, it’s hard to tell whether it was a mere oversight or callously intentional.

In subsequent inspections, it was determined that the gas chamber in Sampson County had been leaking “a citation was issued and that was it. It is apparent that not only is it inhumane towards the animals but it is dangerous to the shelter workers. The gas is odorless and it’s physical effects are cumulative! Plus they are never inspected regularly, actually they’re practically never inspected at all. There are ‘regulations’ that come with the gas chamber but they are not routinely inspected, and when the chambers are inspected “ the equipment is just looked at, it is not during a gassing procedure.

A number of states have eliminated or banned gas chambers but no state has banned EBI! Lee Hunter, Director of Animal Welfare, North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture, Veterinary Division was recently put in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. Hunter is allegedly quite friendly with Houser, and the animal control officers are all his colleagues. There are no experts on euthanasia in the department, and they are vying to get Houser as the certified euthanasia trainer for the animal control facilities of North Carolina. It is undetermined what Houser’s qualifications are regarding humane euthanasia, other than his financial vested interest, and the fact that he’s a self appointed expert; he is above rules and regulations and the Animal Control community trusts that he is telling them the truth.

But for Houser, it’s all business! If an Animal Control decides to switch to EBI, he’ll let them use his medical license to procure the drugs. It is purported that Moore County did this, and that there are allegedly other counties that did the same, Houser chooses the laws he abides by, by his pocket. He also teaches courses on cruelty to ACOs, and has also been publicly questioned regarding a demonstration in New Bern where he killed sixty animals during the class. New Bern is a small town and sixty animals is a lot for them to have at one time. The question is: what rules and protocols were broken to facilitate this demonstration? Perhaps either animals were not held the requisite three days, or animals were held longer in order to be put to death in this learning forum, but there is no concrete evidence to prove any misdoings.

Houser also allegedly advocates the use of another excruciatingly painful means of euthanasia: the intracardial (chest) injection, or as it’s commonly known as, the heart stick. When used correctly by caring, compassionate, trained professionals it can be less traumatizing than the gas chamber. Unfortunately this is often not the case! There are three drugs that need to be administered at just the right time for it to be relatively painless. However, reportedly according to Houser, you can forego the sedatives and just go to the paralyzing death drug where the animal remains fully conscience while it slowly dies. Again cost effectiveness seems to be his main concern, or rather selling point “money is at the crux of all his actions, the welfare of the animals he has taken an oath to entrust does not seem to factor into any of his actions.”

Taxpayers are the ones footing the bill for this cruel mistreatment, and if more of them knew that their tax dollars were funding all of this, more than likely they’d be outraged. It has been proven that there are cost effective, humane options available. The public needs to be better informed what is happening in their own communities. The sooner this happens the needless suffering will surely end.

Peter ends with this poignant thought, “All animal welfare groups recognize that pet overpopulation is still a challenging problem, and that euthanasia is unfortunately still a necessity. Quite simply, there are not now enough adopters, nor is there readily available low cost spay/neuter programs and marketing campaigns targeted to the community at large to encourage adoption over buying animals from breeders and pet stores. With knowledge, compassion and community spirit as our guides, we as a country can reach the goal where healthy adoptable animals in our animal shelters do not have to die a premature death. Until then…legally, morally and ethically we have to provide these innocent, unconditionally loving animals a humane death.”

Georgia Judge Finds Dept. Of Agriculture Is Violating The Law By Allowing Animal Gas Chambers

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Cynthia D. Wright ordered the Georgia Department of Agriculture to enforce the 1990 Georgia Humane Euthanasia Act which with few exceptions bans the use of carbon monoxide gas chambers to euthanize animals.

The ruling was the result of a motion for a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought against the Department and its Commissioner Tommy Irvin, whom the judge noted had violated the law by permitting shelters, with “a wink and a nod,” to gas animals to death for the past 17 years.

“We have an elected official, not a judge, who has clearly been told by the General Assembly, ‘This is what needs to happen,’ and has ignored what the General Assembly has said,” Judge Wright said in her ruling.

The plaintiffs in the case are Chesley Morton, a former legislator who sponsored the Georgia Humane Euthanasia Act, and Jennifer Robinson, who lost her dog and before she could claim him at the local shelter, he was gassed.

The Georgia Humane Euthanasia Act which became law in 1990. O.C.G.A. §4-11-5.1 That statute mandates that the use of sodium pentobarbital or a derivative must be the exclusive method for euthanasia of animals in public shelters. O.C.G.A. §4-11-5.1(a); Ga. Comp. R. & Regs §40-13-13-.08(1)

There are exceptions, however, that have allowed some shelters to continue to use animal gas chambers in Georgia. The statute specifically exempts or grandfathers in those gas chambers in use at the time the Humane Euthanasia Act became effective on July 1, 1990. O.C.G.A. 4-11-5.1(b)(1). Rural counties with populations less than 25,000 people may also continue to use animal gas chambers. O.C.G.A. §4-11-5.1(h).

Also, the statutes provides “in cases of extraordinary circumstance where the dog or cat poses an extreme risk or danger to the veterinarian, physician, or lay person performing euthanasia”, then animal gas chambers may be used. O.C.G.A. §4-11-5.1(c) Basically, any dog or cat that a veterinarian or anyone else believes may bite them can be shoved into a gas chamber rather than euthanized by EBI. But state law states no animal may be left unattended during euthanasia. O.C.G.A. §4-11-5.1(f).

The evidence presented at the hearing established animals suffer greatly in gas chambers.

Mary Green, director of animal protection for the Department of Agriculture, testified several counties use gas chambers to kill dogs and cats though some may be exempt under the law. But she acknowledged at the time this lawsuit was filed earlier this month, her staff only located one request from a county for an exemption.

The Department has not decided if it will appeal the judge’s decision.

Euthanasia by injection of sodium pentobarbital or EBI is far more humane than killing animals in carbon monoxide gas chambers. Many times several dogs and cats are forced into small cages and wheeled into the chamber which resembles a metal box. Their cries, whining, howling and scratching are plainly audible to anyone in the vicinity of the chamber. Their agony and fear, their suffering, goes on for some time. Puppies, kittens and pregnant or sick animals may not die quickly. They may require multiple gassings before they are finally dead.

Many times animals are denied food and water during the day before they are gassed to make clean up more convenient. There will be less feces and urine from the gassing if they are first starved and denied water. Of course, this only adds to their stress.

Last year in a highly publicized case, a dog, Grace, was found alive in the Liberty County, Georgia gas chamber after a gassing, though she was shaking violently and covered in the blood, feces and urine of the animals who died around her in the chamber.