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Bill to ban gas chambers at animal shelters delayed until next year

A bill to ban gas chambers for animal euthanasia in Utah will be delayed until next year’s legislative session.
A bill to ban gas chambers for animal euthanasia in Utah will be delayed until next year’s legislative session.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to ban gas chambers for animal euthanasia in Utah will be delayed until next year’s legislative session.

A Senate committee unanimously voted Friday to place SB197 on a master study list in an interim committee for more in-depth consideration after listening to comments from Humane Society officials and animal control officers.

The bill would prohibit Utah animal shelters from using carbon monoxide gas chambers to euthanize animals and establish lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital as the only lawful method.

“None of us want to think about our (animals) being euthanized,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “But I think if we have to do it, we should do it in the most humane way possible.”

Gene Baierschmidt, Humane Society of Utah executive director, said SB197 will transfer to an interim committee due to the need for more exhaustive debate with animal control officials, but the society “stands firmly that we need to end this type of killing of animals in shelters.”

“The process of a gas chamber, we believe, places undue stress on the animal,” Baierschmidt said. “It’s in an unfamiliar, dark environment, and it can create terror."

Baierschmidt said in the unfortunate circumstance that an animal must be euthanized, using a gas chamber does not fulfill a “moral and ethical” obligation to give a humane death.

If the chambers aren’t properly calibrated for certain young, old or sick animals, it can sometimes take up to 25 minutes for them to lose consciousness and asphyxiate, and “even the best chambers” can take minutes, Baierschmidt said.

A lethal injection takes three to five seconds and offers shelter staff the opportunity to comfort the animal as it falls asleep, he said.

Utah is one of nine states that still use gas chambers, Baierschmidt said. Out of the state’s 57 shelters tracked by the Humane Society, only eight still use gas chambers: Carbon County, Draper, Sandy, South Jordan, north Utah County, south Utah County, Weber County and West Valley City.

Debbie Pedersen, South Salt Lake animal control officer, said shelter staff use gas chambers to euthanize animals that are aggressive and “do not welcome human touch or compassion."

Baierschmidt said the Humane Society uses devices to restrain feral animals for sedation and lethal injection. However, Pedersen said shelter personnel prefer not to fight the animals in such ways, and sometimes sensitive animals resist sedation drugs, so the gas chamber can in some cases be better a solution.

“When we do have to euthanize, none of us want to have to manhandle those animals by squeezing them in nets, putting muzzles on them, and having two people sit on top of them just to give them an injection,” Pedersen said.

Pam Rasmussen, vice president of Animal Control Officers Association, said such officers often deal with wildlife, and at times they encounter animals like raccoons, which are known to carry not only rabies, but also “paristical worms” that can be deadly to humans if contracted.

“I don’t know if the Humane Society would like for us to bring a raccoon over there for them to handle to euthanize,” Rasmussen said. “It’s scary to even handle these animals. … If you take this chamber away for this purpose, it’s like taking away a bullet proof vest from a police officer.”

Pedersen also argued that animals don’t feel pain in the gas chambers.

“I have watched it,” Pedersen said. “When we place the animals in the chamber, they are quiet. When they come out of the chamber, they are in the same position.”

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he supported the motion to send HB197 to an interim committee because the Senate committee on Friday wouldn’t “do it justice.”

Weiler said cities and counties are encouraged to “work voluntarily to no longer use gas chambers rather than be mandated not to do so.”

“We want to get everybody’s opinion from animal control so we can work with them and eventually get this bill passed next year,” Baierschmidt said.

Baierschmidt said about 12,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in Utah last year.