Out of Gas

Critics say the Animal Humane Society's method of dispatching the unadoptable is cruel. It's certainly becoming unusual.

Last year nearly 3,600 lost or unwanted animals came to the Minnesota Valley Humane Society in Burnsville. By the organization's count, approximately 75 percent of those pets found homes. The other 879 that weren't adopted--owing to poor health or temperament--were killed.

When it comes to euthanasia, officials at Minnesota Valley and other animal shelters across the nation have a choice: They can kill pets one at a time, with an injection of sodium pentobarbital; or in groups, in a carbon-monoxide gas chamber. Of the two methods, lethal injection is by far the more common, and it's the one Minnesota Valley employs. "The use of carbon monoxide, or gassing the animals, is considered sort of old-fashioned," explains Lynae Gieseke, the shelter's executive director. "I'm guessing that 90 to 95 percent of the shelters in the country use lethal injection. It is considered much more humane. The animal is not crying out in pain or in fear, and the animal is not seeing other animals dying."

But to the great dismay of local animal-rights activists, the metro area's largest animal shelter does things the old-fashioned way. For the past several years, along with her colleagues at the Minneapolis-based Animal Rights Coalition, Minnetonka resident Joanne Murphy has lobbied the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley to eliminate its gas chamber, but to no avail. "I think that we need a large humane society that provides vital services to the animals in our community, but it's wrong for the Animal Humane Society to be gassing dogs and cats," Murphy complains. "I believe they have a moral obligation to give these animals the most humane death possible."

Some states have gone so far as to prohibit the use of carbon monoxide to kill animals. Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon have all banned gas chambers. A California ban took effect in 2000, and earlier this year the Tennessee Legislature passed a law mandating lethal injections. "We feel that sodium pentobarbital is probably the preferred method for euthanasia," asserts Arnold Baer, a regional representative for the Humane Society of the United States whose territory includes Minnesota. Lethal injections are quick and humane, says Baer: One shelter worker typically cradles the animal while a second worker administers the injection. Gas, meanwhile, doesn't involve such individual attention and sometimes doesn't work well for pets whose respiratory systems aren't fully functional, as in very young or aging animals, he explains: In such cases the gas doesn't work as quickly, and the animal suffers more.

"Sodium pen would be the way we'd like to see shelters go," asserts Baer. But he stops short of condemning carbon monoxide outright, noting that it remains an "acceptable" method in most states. "They have every right to make their own policies, as long as the animals are being dealt with humanely," he says of the AHS.

Alan Stensrud, the AHS's executive director, says Murphy and her fellow activists are engaged in an exercise of hairsplitting. "They're like pit bulls--they have to have their issues," he says, pointing out that the American Veterinary Medical Association's most recent report on euthanasia deems carbon monoxide an "acceptable" method. (The same report notes, however, that barbiturates are the "preferred" method of euthanasia of dogs, cats, small animals, and horses.) "If it's humane, it's humane," says Stensrud. "Most homes in Minnesota have carbon monoxide detectors because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and painless." Stensrud contends that lethal injections would be more "traumatic" on his staff, as they require more personnel, including a certified veterinary technician. (A single trained person--not necessarily a veterinary technician--may operate the carbon monoxide chamber.)

Joanne Murphy says that she and others have been raising the issue with AHS for years, dating back to a December 1997 meeting that AHS held with local animal activists. "They certainly have the money to change to a more humane method," she scoffs. And indeed, tax returns filed with the state for the year 2000 show the organization comfortably in the black, having brought in $5.7 million in revenue last year, with expenses of $3.1 million. The nonprofit's current assets include $7.4 million in securities. "I think that as the largest and wealthiest humane society in the state, they should be taking the lead in the humane treatment of animals," Murphy argues.

In the spring of 2000, the Animal Rights Coalition unsuccessfully pressed Golden Valley politicians to ban the use of carbon monoxide for euthanasia. More recently the coalition began buying ads in suburban newspapers, urging citizens to contact local politicians about changing the policy. "It's the right time to do this; it's time to do something different," says Murphy, a past president and board member of the 1,000-member group. Next year, she says, they intend to take the issue to the state Legislature.

In January coalition activists took their show on the road, rigging a small truck with a video monitor, parking it outside the homes of Stensrud and other AHS officials, and playing videotapes of animals being fatally gassed.

"It bothered my neighbors more than me. I wasn't home," Stensrud says flatly, adding that the activists have preferred to send letters and e-mails and stage protests rather than sit down with him face-to-face to discuss the issue.

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