Utah bill to end animal gas chamber deaths stalls, frustrating director

Another effort to end the use of gas chamber animal euthanasia in Utah — one of the few states that still uses it — is stalled in the Legislature as an animal advocacy director says those who oppose the bill did not follow through on promises to work together.

Utah is one of just three states where the method is still used, according to the Humane Society of the United States. It involves an animal being placed into an enclosure, without sedation, where carbon monoxide is released. Animal advocates say it can take 20 to 30 minutes for an animal to die in a chamber, during which they experience pain and discomfort.

According to American Humane, gas chambers cause animals to lose consciousness after their vital organs shut down, while injection causes animals to lose consciousness within three to five seconds and die within five minutes.

Just two shelters in the state still use gas chamber euthanasia — the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon and South Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Spanish Fork.

"(Animals) smell death. And so the first thing your animal, instead of seeing you, they smell you. … So they know exactly what they're getting into. They don't fear death, they fear pain, and so that's the first thing," said Sundays Hunt, Utah director of the Humane Society of the United States, during a House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee earlier this month.

Animal workers also experience trauma during the process, she said, "because not only are they having to go through having to put these animals into this chamber, they're also having to come back and pull out these bodies."

SB69 would ban the practice in Utah on cats and dogs, and instead require shelters to use euthanasia by injection in most cases. After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was held in the House committee on Feb. 8 and the clock is running out on its chance to get another hearing.

Bill sponsor Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, noted he ran the bill last year but it did not get heard in the House before the end of the session.

Hunt said she's been working on the legislation for the past nine years.

Promises to change methods?

Hunt said her organization partnered with the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter's director in 2018 to end the practice and switch to euthanasia by injection, the method widely considered more humane.

Director Tug Gettling accepted a $15,000 grant, which Hunt says is higher than any other shelters have received, from the Humane Society and donors to make the change. But according to Hunt, he delayed starting the process for six months, saying government bureaucracy and "red tape" were getting in the way — despite other shelters in the state having received the injection drug quickly after applying.

"This isn't something that takes a significant amount of time to do," Hunt said.

Those who had donated the funds ultimately became frustrated and asked Gettling to return the money, according to Hunt.

Gettling did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, Gettling said he began “researching, in-depth, animal euthanasia methodology.”

“My research revealed that, while both methods of animal euthanasia can be conducted humanely and in compliance with all applicable laws, statutes, and mandates, the method currently considered to be the most effective, most preferred, and most humane is euthanasia by injection of sodium pentobarbital or a derivative thereof,” he said.

He said in August, the shelter “began the process” of switching from carbon monoxide euthanasia to injection.

“We are currently awaiting our DEA registration approval so that we can make the change,” Gettling said.

In July, Hunt said Gettling received additional appeals from community animal rights advocates to end gas chamber euthanasia.

"We euthanize using carbon monoxide. And carbon monoxide has been shown to be an effective way to euthanize animals," Gettling said during an Orem City Council meeting last year, the BYU Daily Universe reported.

He said he uses the method because he believes it's the safest for workers and less stressful for them, and that it's the most humane method for animals, the report states.

Gettling contended during that meeting that animal rights advocates across the U.S. try to "intimate, coerce and misinform."

"We don't believe we should be bullied into something because they disagree with it," Gettling said, according to the Daily Universe. "It's a fight we don't want. We don't hate them. We don't go after them. We simply try to do what's best for the animals and the citizens."

In September, the Daily Herald reported that Gettling announced he would switch to euthanasia by injection after doing research into the issue and learning that injection is the "preferred process."

Bill stalled

During its latest committee meeting, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith spoke against the bill on behalf of the Utah Sheriffs' Association, prompting legislators to ask for more work on the bill before they vote to approve it.

Smith said during the committee meeting that he's witnessed "feral, vicious" animals and "harm to the shelter workers as they have tried to give these animals shots."

He added that he believes the bill is unnecessary.

Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis also opposed the bill, explaining that the shelter director in his county is quitting, partially due to the stress of giving a shot to animals. He said he doesn't want another veterinarian to tell his shelter how it needs to run.

Hunt questioned why the association opposes the bill when most counties already ended their use of gas chamber euthanasia. She said she and members of animal rescue group Nuzzles & Co. have spoken with both Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez. They claim the two sheriffs said they support the bill and did not know that the association had taken a stance against it.

Hunt said the request from legislators for both sides of the issue to work together hasn't happened despite her attempts to reach leaders of the Utah Sheriffs' Association just days ahead of the end of the session.

This week, Hunt said she learned the association is circulating a video of a "crazy" cat clawing at an officer in a shelter.

"Any trained officer would be prepared to handle these type of situations. I don't presume this was staged, but I do know that the 58 municipal shelters in the state all get the same type of animals. The staff all are provided training. And 56 of the shelters in our state are being able to treat the animals in their care with kindness, not make them go through unnecessary pain or suffering, or an unjustifiable death," Hunt said in an email to legislators.

Leaders of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association have been asked to comment but have yet to respond.