By ALEXA MILAN
SANFORD — The efforts of vocal community members who are anti-gas chamber euthanasia seem to have paid off. The Lee County Animal Shelter will no longer use the gas chamber as a method of euthanasia, opting instead for euthanasia by injection.
The gas chamber broke in June, and Lee County Health Director Howard Surface decided not to repair it. The gas chamber will be demolished in October.
“I thought, ‘If there is this much concern in the community, maybe this is an opportunity to make a change,’” Surface said.
Euthanasia via gas chamber in animal shelters is legal in North Carolina, but it’s an issue most animal welfare activists oppose. Surface said the community’s input played a major role in the decision to switch to euthanasia by injection.
“We weren’t doing anything illegal, but you have to look at what the community standards are,” Surface said. “This is what they feel is safer and more humane.”
In June, Sanford resident Keely Wood distributed a petition to ban the use of gas chambers at the shelter on behalf of the North Carolina Coalition for Humane Euthanasia. The petition encouraged the shelter to euthanize the animals they can no longer keep by injection of sodium pentobarbital, the method most often used by veterinarians.
Wood said she jumped for joy the night she heard the news that the Lee County Animal Shelter would switch from gas chamber euthanasia to lethal injection.
“I sat in on an animal control meeting and learned a lot listening to them re-write the animal bylaws for Lee County,” Wood said. “I think we are moving in the right direction.”
Abbey Lindauer of Carolina Animal Rescue and Adoption, who has served as a consultant to the Board of Health’s animal control subcommittee, said she is thrilled the shelter switched to injections because the cons of gas chamber euthanasia far outweigh the pros.
She said there are reports of gas chambers in North Carolina exploding and giving shelter staff carbon monoxide poisoning. There have been cases in which animals have gone through the gas chamber but not died the first time. And according to a 2009 study from the American Humane Association, it costs about $2.29 per animal to euthanize by injection, while gas chamber euthanasia costs $4.66 per animal. Lindauer said injection also allows animals to die more quickly and peacefully.
“Packing up the animals and starting the gas chamber and running its cycle and letting it decompress properly, that can take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes,” Lindauer said. “To inject an animal, it usually takes about five minutes.”
Surface said he feels the time is right for the change, but it isn’t without some challenges. One concern, he said, is that limited staff will be doing hundreds of injections a week. The more hands-on process of euthanasia by injection is more comforting to the animal, but could lead to “euthanasia fatigue” for the staff. Surface said he doesn’t want shelter staff to grow weary and leave, or become desensitized to the euthanasia process.
“You want those people to love animals and do the best they can,” Surface said. “It’s not an easy task for them.”
Surface and the animal shelter staff have been working with Board of Health member and Willow Creek Animal Hospital veterinarian Diane Schaller to make sure the staff is well-trained and runs efficiently. Lindauer said CARA, the Board of Health and the Lee County Animal Shelter are also working with the Humane Society to develop low-cost spay/neuter options in Lee County. Spaying or neutering an animal in Lee County currently costs anywhere from $150-$300.
“Basically if you can’t get your animal to Vass or Wake County, you’re kind of stuck,” Lindauer said.
By educating people about the importance of spay/neuter and potentially offering a low-cost option, Lindauer said she hopes animal overpopulation will be controlled to the point that one day, shelters may not have to use euthanasia at all.
On the heels of the shelter’s switch to euthanasia by injection also come several changes to Lee County’s animal control ordinance. Surface said the issue with the gas chamber prompted the board to update the ordinance. The Board of Health formed the animal control subcommittee in fall 2009, and its revisions to the ordinance will be reviewed by the Board of Health in November before being presented to the Board of Commissioners in December.
“I think it strengthens some ideas and gives better definitions to others,” Surface said.
The draft of the revised ordinance includes enhanced sections on animal abuse and animals at large, as well as the addition of tethering regulations. The draft calls for animals to be tethered by a coated cable at least 15 feet long. Animals cannot be tethered by chains or ropes. The tether must be secured to a collar, it must be attached to swivels to prevent twisting or entanglement and shelter and water must always be within the animals reach. The draft says an animal can be tethered for a maximum of 12 hours a day, though Surface said the maximum could be lowered before the final draft is presented.
A few counties such as Durham County have banned tethering altogether, but Surface said the committee felt a restricted option should be available because there are many pet owners in Lee County without fences.
“It’s a step forward,” Lindauer said. “We would like it if no animal was tethered, but we also understand that there are certain situations in which people have no other alternative.”
The ordinance also addresses educating people about the proper care of animals, because strengthening personal responsibility of pet owners, Surface said, will only help animal control’s service and efficiency.
“Sometimes we get, ‘This is how I grew up. This is how I was raised,’” Surface said. “So I think you have to have that education.”
Surface said the economic downturn prevented the board from making certain changes previously, but he hopes the revised ordinance will improve the quality of life for the county’s animals and benefit the community.
“I’m pleased we’re moving in this direction,” Surface said. “We needed to move in this direction. Now, things seem to be coming together.”