*WARNING: This is a LENGTHY post. I will include pictures of dogs rescued from euthanasia in order to break up this massive wall of text. I think it’s an interesting read and I tried to avoid bias at all costs, but be warned, it is four full pages on Word.*
I had an article planned for today, but I will have to put it off. You see, a good friend of mine, and a fellow blogger, made a plea on her blog to end gas chamber euthanization today. But truth be told, I don’t really know why. I mean, why gas chambers in particular. I tend to be overly emotional and empathetic, so I try to avoid painful topics. But that’s just not excusable if I’m going to be serious about animal welfare. So I went on a little research spree to see what was worse about gassing than other forms of euthanasia. (Granted, none of them are good, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about.)
Pets who are euthanized because their quality of life is low are killed by lethal injection, often with the owner by their side. Is lethal injection used for beloved family pets because it is less painful, or so that the owner can be there when their pet passes on? After hours of research, the conclusion at which I arrived surprised me to say the least. One thing’s for sure, I didn’t fall victim to the confirmation bias…
It turns out euthanasia by gassing takes longer than euthanasia by injection. When animals receive an injection, they generally lose consciousness within 2 to 5 seconds. They die within minutes, according to American Humane. The same group claims gas chambers may take up to 25 minutes to kill the animals, but does not say how long until they lose consciousness.
The same group says shelter workers prefer to euthanize animals with injections. They do not provide the source for their information, and I could easily see the argument going both ways. They explain that workers would rather allow the animal to feel comforted in its last moments, which is only possible when they are euthanized through injections. While I imagine it would be heartbreaking to witness so many deaths, I would have to agree – I’d rather provide the animals comfort than avert my eyes for my own comfort. However, I imagine there are some who would rather not see what it is they have to do and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand that, too.
Their most logical argument, at least for people who are more concerned about money than morals, is a cost comparison between injection and gassing. They calculated that injections cost less than $2.5 per animal while gassing, even without tranquilizer (and tranquilizer would obviously be more humane), costs more than $4.5 per animal. However, other sources say lethal injections cost about $5 more per animal than gassing. I’m not sure who to trust on this issue, but money’s not my priority anyway.
So maybe you think I feel like my job is done. But I don’t. All I know is one side’s arguments, and my source didn’t even cite all their sources. I know more than I did before, but I’m too gullible a person to not research a little more. What I wanted to see was what actually happens when animals are put to death. To see the difference between gas chambers and injections, “first hand”. The closest I could come was searching the internet for videos.
I saw a ton of videos of sad music and pictures of bodies. It is awful to see piles of carcasses, there’s no denying that. But seeing a dead dog does not tell me whether or not its death was painful. So I had to search a little more. I came across one video where I saw a handful of dogs, many of them puppies, receive lethal injections. Naturally, I was crying by the end. But through blurry tears I saw what was described above. Dogs receiving an injection while in the arms of shelter staff, who were giving them as much comfort as one can through touch. I counted the seconds until the dogs lost consciousness, or at least until their heads fell, and as American Humane said, it was just seconds. Even after they lost consciousness the staff gently turned their bodies over. While you sometimes hear about cruel staff who abuse the shelter animals, more often than not they respect, love, and care for the animals, even after they are gone. That’s why they do what they do. I honestly believe that’s probably one of the hardest jobs out there. (Don’t blame the shelter staff for euthanasia; they are merely cleaning up a mess made by their community. A no-kill shelter cannot work in a uninformed community allowed to breed, buy and sell pets, etc. freely.)
I had to search to find videos of injections, but it would take even more effort to find proof of what happens inside the gas chambers. These were the videos I dreaded most, based on internet rumor, but I felt like I needed to know. I needed an unbiased source, or my word was worthless. I found the same video over and over. It showed the outside of the windowless gas chamber (really more of a box). All the viewer had to rely on was sound. Don’t get me wrong, the sound was nerve wracking. But how could I know it wasn’t added after the fact? Well, honestly I can’t. The video showed shelter workers piling dogs into a gas chamber, and when the gas was turned on, there was screaming. But was it caused by the gas or by piling so many animals into a dark box? Was there perhaps a fight between some of the confused dogs? And is it really common practice to euthanize so many at once, or do we merely see the extremes, because the rest isn’t “shocking” and won’t bring viewers?
I had to look elsewhere, so I looked at Capital Punishment. Gas chamber execution of humans is no longer allowed in the United States. It was deemed inhumane. This may be partially attributable to our perception of gas chambers as particularly cruel because of their association with the Holocaust. For human executions, the gas of choice was usually Cyanide-based. The exception being the Holocaust, which like animal euthanasia generally used Carbon Monoxide (though a compound called Zyklon-B, a Cyanide-based poison, was also used). However, the Holocaust had far more cruelties than gassing, so I am not sure comparing the two is fair. I concluded that firsthand accounts of human executions by gas may not be comparable to what animals suffer in gas chambers – another dead end for my search for unbiased data.
I thought looking specifically at Carbon Monoxide may take my search in a different direction. When I was a little girl, I learned in school you could die of Carbon Monoxide poisoning and not even notice you were dying. They said it would make you fall asleep. Needless to say, I was terrified to sleep at night for many months. Later, I learned about Carbon Monoxide poisoning as a method of suicide. It’s less messy than some. I’ve heard horror stories of people who jump from buildings but during the fall change their minds and start flailing around, but it’s too late. If people panicked during suicidal Carbon Monoxide poisoning, (more often than not) they could change their mind. They could open their garage door, run onto the driveway, and breathe in the fresh air. They would still need to seek medical attention, but they could avoid the death. This leads me to believe controlled Carbon Monoxide poisoning might not be so cruel after all. But, I refuse to end my search based on personal inferences. So I did a bit more research on Carbon Monoxide.
The speed of death by Carbon Monoxide poisoning depends on the concentration of CO in the air. Most accounts of which I’ve heard say animals may spend 20-40 minutes in the gas chamber before their bodies are removed, but since nobody can witness the deaths, it may not take that long for them to lose consciousness or die. I found a chart about Carbon Monoxide poisoning on Wikipedia, but no data on the concentration of the poison used in gas chambers, so there is little I can deduce from the chart (though I’ve included it here for you):
National Geographic tackled this issue in the past, and quoted the following: “It’s America’s dirty little secret,” said Grim, author of Miracle Dog: How Quentin Survived the Gas Chamber to Speak for Animals on Death Row. “If people actually saw the gas chamber working, they would sign a petition tomorrow to ban it.”
But I tried to see one working, and I couldn’t. Not that I would have enjoyed possible ensuing nightmares, but because I need to know the facts. And they are currently eluding me. Taking a step back, I have to admit Grim, as an author, has something to gain by saying gas chambers are cruel. In fact, judging by his book’s title, I’d guess he opposes all non-medically necessary euthanasia. So does he really believe gas chambers in particular are worse, or would a bit of context change the implied meaning of his quote? I can’t answer that question without having witnessed the interview, so I have to keep searching.
So I checked with a new source, one that is supposed to be completely unbiased: The American Veterinary Medical Association. They made it clear lethal injection is the preferred method of euthanasia, but they do not consider it the only acceptable one. The following appears on their website:
This means that the use of CO or CO2 for euthanasia of dogs and cats is ONLY considered acceptable when ALL of the following criteria are met. For more details, consult the full Guidelines.
- Personnel must be instructed thoroughly in the gas’s use and must understand its hazards and limitations;
- The gas source and chamber must be located in a well-ventilated environment, preferably out-of-doors;
- The gas must be supplied in a precisely regulated and purified form without contaminants or adulterants, typically from a commercially supplied cylinder or tank;
- The gas flow rate must allow operators to achieve known and appropriate gas concentrations within the recommended time;
- The chamber must be of the highest-quality construction and should allow for separation of individual animals. If animals need to be combined, they should be of the same species, and, if needed, restrained or separated so that they will not hurt themselves or others. Chambers should not be overloaded and need to be kept clean to minimize odors that might distress animals that are subsequently euthanized;
- The chamber must be well lighted and must allow personnel to directly observe the animals;
- If the chamber is inside a room, monitors must be placed in the room to warn personnel of hazardous concentrations of gas; and
- It is essential that the gas and the chamber be used in compliance with state and federal occupational health and safety regulations.
No matter what, I believe euthanasia should be completed by trained personnel and precisely regulated. Sanitation should always be a priority. So if shelters follow these common sense rules, the AVMA deems gas chambers as “acceptable”? It seems so.
I still wanted one more source. A veterinary student who was kind enough to share her time with me. She informed me she was unaware of a stigma about gas chambers among her circle of peers, mostly fellow vet students. I asked her if she knew much about gas chambers, particularly if they were a painful or slow source of death. Despite my research, her answer was surprising to me. “Gas chambers are definitely not painful. It is pretty peaceful, they just kind of fall asleep. I don’t know if it is necessarily quick, but I don’t believe they are painful.” She followed up with the reminder that of course no one can know for sure. In our chat, we did specify that we were discussing Carbon Monoxide poisoning, not just any poison, but again, that is the most common poison used for euthanasia. (I believe Nitrogen is also used sometimes, but I’ve heard, even from anti-gas chamber advocates, that Nitrogen is more peaceful.)
So what did I conclude after hours of painstaking research?
Lethal injections seem to be the ‘best’ form of euthanasia, though finding homes for all shelter animals is obviously everyone’s first choice. Other than that, there was insufficient unbiased information about gas chambers for me to feel as though I could confidently say they should be banned. My search for the truth about gas chambers led to as many questions as it did answers. However, it seems at this point, that if gas chambers really are that much cheaper than lethal injections and the only thing some shelters can afford, they are, as the AVMA worded it “acceptable”.
Are you unconvinced? As I said, I thought there was irritatingly little factual evidence, such as the percentage of the concentration of gas used in chambers, and I still feel like I don’t know as much as I would like to about gas chamber euthanasia. If you know something I don’t, I will gladly listen. I would like to clarify that I am by no means attacking anyone’s view. When I started this article, I thought I would walk away emotionally charged and ready to knock on the doors of the White House demanding an end to gas chambers. But that didn’t happen. I still hope for a future where the United States is a no-kill nation (except for medical/dangerous behavioral reasons). But at this point I am not comfortable expending my energy on a war against gas chambers.
*Update: among my friends who work in animal shelters, many seem to believe gas chambers are unacceptable. I’ll soon be diving into more research on why, and of course will update this post if I find new evidence.