Advocates aim to end gas chamber euthanasia in Utah animal shelters

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North Utah Valley Animal Shelter (NUVAS) in Lindon, Utah, is one of four animal shelters left in the country that euthanizes pets in gas chambers. Thousands have signed a petition to end gas chamber euthanasia at the shelter, and a protest is planned for June 15 at Orem City Hall. (Addie Blacker)

More than 66,000 people have signed a petition to end gas chamber euthanasia for pets at the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon.

According to Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) Director Jeremy Beckham, there are only four animal shelters in the entire country that still euthanize pets in gas chambers. Utah is home to two of them — North Utah Valley Animal Shelter and South Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Spanish Fork. The Summit County Animal Shelter has a gas chamber that it uses for wildlife only.

North Utah Valley Animal Shelter Director Tug Gettling did not respond to The Daily Universe’s request for an interview.

Erica Olsen is a South Jordan resident and member of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition. She heard about the issue through the organization and started the petition, “End North UT Valley Animal Shelter Murdering Animals In Gas Chambers.”

A protest is planned for 4 p.m. Tuesday at Orem City Hall. Utah Animal Rights Coalition members and other supporters of the petition will make a statement to city officials directly after.

Beckham said the purpose of the protest is to make it clear this issue cannot be ignored any longer.

Controversial practice

The Humane Society’s photo of a gas chamber that Heber City Animal Services used in the past, which was removed in 2014. According to Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) Director Jeremy Beckham, there are only two shelters left in Utah that still euthanize pets in gas chambers — North Utah Valley Animal Shelter (NUVAS) in Lindon and South Utah Valley Animal Shelter (SUVAS) in Spanish Fork. (Jim Urquhart/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States)

Beckham said gas chamber euthanasia is not only inhumane and outdated, but it is also more expensive than barbiturate injections and poses a risk to shelter workers.

“I’ve extensively researched this at this point, and there’s just really no reason to continue killing animals in this outdated and cruel method,” Beckham said.

Animals killed in a carbon monoxide chamber can take as long as 30 minutes to die, Beckham said, with some surviving the first attempt and requiring multiple rounds in the chamber.

In 2011, a cat at the West Valley City Animal Shelter survived two rounds in a carbon monoxide gas chamber. A shelter in Missouri stopped using its gas chamber after a dog “gasped for air before collapsing and didn’t die for about 10 minutes.”

To qualify as euthanasia or a “good death,” it’s not good enough for the death to be just pain free. It must be pain free, stress free and fear free, said Sundays Hunt, Utah director for the Humane Society United States.

“Euthanasia drugs are safer. They’re cheaper, they’re more humane than the gas chamber. Switching is not only easy, but it makes sense,” Hunt said. 

Carbon monoxide is also an occupational hazard, Beckham said. Shelters have to bring in compressed canisters of the gas into an enclosed space. Accidents or leaks can hurt shelter employees or visitors. A shelter worker in Tennessee died from inhaling gas while operating a chamber, for instance.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has guidelines for the euthanasia of animals. In animal control, sheltering and rescue facilities, the guide states that the preferred method of euthanasia is injection of a barbiturate or barbituric acid derivative with appropriate animal handling.

According to the guidelines, inhaled agents including carbon monoxide are “acceptable with conditions.” Some of the conditions that need to be met for carbon monoxide euthanasia include a high quality chamber that allows for separation of individual animals. The chamber should not be overloaded and should be kept clean to “minimize odors that might distress animals that are subsequently euthanized.”

“These conditions can be challenging and costly to meet on a practical basis, and there is substantial risk to personnel (hypoxia) if safety precautions are not observed,” the guidelines state.

But while carbon monoxide is acceptable with conditions, it’s not recommended for routine euthanasia of cats and dogs according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“It may be considered in unusual or rare circumstances, such as natural disasters and large-scale disease outbreaks. Alternate methods with fewer conditions and disadvantages are recommended for companion animals where feasible.”

South Utah Valley Animal Shelter Director Kierstan Munford recently sent a letter to Utah County elected officials titled, “The Truth Regarding Animal Euthanasia.” The letter states that the shelter “meets, or exceeds” the conditions required for using carbon monoxide.

The letter says carbon monoxide is the shelter’s primary method of animal euthanasia because it is superior in providing a humane death versus other methods. It continues to say the method is also safer and less traumatic for those conducting the euthanasia than other methods.

Some of the advantages of carbon monoxide the letter mentions are that it induces loss of consciousness without pain, works without the animal’s understanding of what’s happening to them and also works rapidly so they don’t suffer.

“Animal rights groups often make claims that are untrue, misleading and/or not supported by science,” the letter states, going on to list and refute claims it says are representative but not comprehensive.

One claim is that animals try to claw their way out of the chamber. “In our 15 years of operation we have never once witnessed this behavior.”

Another claim it lists is that the gas chambers “incinerate” the animals to death. “Carbon monoxide units, professionally designed for animal euthanasia, are not capable of incineration and do not produce any heat whatsoever.” Munford did not respond to several requests from The Daily Universe for comment on the letter.

Beckham wanted to clarify that the Utah Animal Rights Coalition never said the gas chambers incinerated animals to death, but rather pointed out that carbon monoxide is a flammable gas and the chambers have malfunctioned and exploded on occasion.

He said the letter misrepresents the guidelines for the euthanasia of animals and that these guidelines are used for a variety of contexts, with pros and cons listed for different methods. “It’s true they list some advantages to carbon monoxide, but they also list advantages to decapitation, gun shot, electrocution…”

Temperament tests

This Instagram post shows a cat who was euthanized in a gas chamber at North Utah Valley Animal Shelter after failing a temperament test. These animal intake forms show all the animals euthanized at the shelter in January, February and March of this year. (@ericaaolsen on Instagram)

The Utah Animal Rights Coalition obtained these animal intake forms from the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter through a GRAMA request. The forms show all the animals euthanized at the shelter in January, February and March of this year with the reasons for doing so.

NUVAS uses temperament tests to determine whether an animal should be euthanized. Shelter workers rank the animals on a scale of one to 10 with one meaning “very submissive” and 10 being “very aggressive.” Animals on both ends of the scale were euthanized for reasons such as being skittish or lashing out by hissing or growling. Other reasons for euthanasia included illness/injury, expired adoption time or if the animal is feral.

One cat was euthanized after failing the “kennel approach” test. The shelter worker wrote, “All the other days the cat has been here it hisses whenever I approach the cage. Today, it seemed really friendly and was rubbing on the bars, then after a minute it was hissing. I don’t trust it.”

Making a change

In a letter written on May 19 to the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter Control Board, Beckham urged members to introduce a resolution that would remove the shelter’s carbon monoxide gas chamber, transitioning to a barbiturate injection as recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Members of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition have been making statements at city council meetings around Utah County. “We’re trying to dial up the public outrage machine, I guess you could say. To get people to pay attention to this issue,” Beckham said.

Their goal is for cities in Utah County to change the contracts they have with the shelters, he said. For example, the Orem City Council could insert language into the contract like “any animal originating from Orem who is being euthanized at your facility cannot be killed in a gas chamber.”

Beckham said he anticipates by the end of 2021, these shelters will not be using gas chambers anymore because of the protest.

Olsen said she will print off a list of all the petition signatures to present at the protest. “We just need you,” she said. “We need as many people as we can possibly get to just show up.”

History in Utah

Advocates and community members destroy the Heber Valley Animal Services’ gas chamber in a 2014 event called “Bash the Gas.” The Heber Valley shelter was the first in Utah to eliminate its gas chamber. (Jim Urquhart/AP Images for the HSUS)

Heber Valley Animal Services was the first shelter in Utah to eliminate its gas chamber, Hunt said.

Advocates hosted an event in 2014 called, “Bash the Gas,” where community members hauled the old gas chamber out of the Heber shelter and took a sledgehammer to it.

“Everyone in the community had an opportunity to take this sledgehammer and destroy this gas chamber,” Hunt said. “It was really cool because it was a community effort to abolish this outdated, abhorrent method of euthanizing animals within the shelter.” 

She said growing up in Heber City, she was the typical community member that had no idea this was going on within the shelter system. The typical Utahn has no clue this is still going on at their community shelter, she said.

“When they find out that it is, they’re horrified that this outdated method… how can this still be going on in 2021?”

Advocates have been asking Utah legislators to vote in support of banning gas chambers since 2013. Lawmakers considered SB237, “Animal Shelter Revisions,” in the 2021 general session.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and would have required shelters in Utah to use sodium pentobarbital or a derivative as the exclusive method for euthanasia.

The bill passed the Senate but didn’t come to a vote on the House floor before the session ended.

“We made it further than we’ve ever made it before,” Hunt said. “Senator David Hinkins is an amazing hero for us because he took this issue on.”

She hopes to continue working on the bill to see it through.

Society has a moral obligation and responsibility to give animals a humane end when they end up in the shelter system, she said. “When the end is required, be it behavioral issues, health issues, shelter stress, they deserve a humane end.” 

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