Michigan must abolish cruel gas chamber deaths for shelter pets

Jenifer Martin
Humane Society of Huron Valley

We all realize that a time comes when every animal must die, just like each of us. Lost, homeless and abused animals in our shelters are routinely euthanized; this is a reality in our state and across the nation. But the use of carbon monoxide in gas chambers is cruel, barbaric and completely unnecessary. Indeed, in Cass, Van Buren, Branch and Berrien counties, dogs and cats that die in shelters suffer slow, painful and traumatic death in small hot boxes, usually with other panic-stricken animals.

This inhumane practice needs to end immediately. In 1996, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that execution by poison gas constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Death by gas chamber is no less cruel for an animal, and 22 states have made it illegal to kill dogs and cats in gas chambers. Even Texas, with disproportionate rates of human execution, passed a law in 2013 making it illegal to gas dogs and cats.

The term "euthanasia" does not apply to gas chambers. Euthanasia, by definition, means "good death." Death without pain or fear. Certainly not what happens in a gas chamber.

Euthanasia by injection (EBI) is the most humane method of euthanizing shelter animals the animal feels nothing; it is a speedy and humane death. EBI is the method preferred by all major veterinary associations and humane organizations, including the National Animal Control Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, the American Humane Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and The Humane Society of the U.S.

EBI causes loss of consciousness within three to five seconds and clinical death within two to five minutes. EBI causes animals to lose consciousness and brain function before their vital organs shut down. In contrast, when successful, the gas chamber can take up to 25 to 30 minutes to end an animal's life; animals lose consciousness and brain function only after their vital organs shut down, causing prolonged suffering and distress. Old, neonatal and injured animals (disproportionately represented in our shelters) are often biologically unable to absorb the gas as readily as larger or healthier animals and are therefore subjected to further trauma and stress.

To our state's credit, we have some of the toughest animal cruelty laws in the country. The continued use of gas chambers stands in violation of those laws. Gas chambers intentionally cause pain and suffering, unnecessarily, which according to MCL 750.50b is a form of torture against an animal without just cause. With easy and affordable access to both the drug required to perform EBI and the training needed for staff, there is no justification for the continued use of the gas chamber.

Notably, a 2009 study by the American Humane Association showed that EBI is less costly than gas to communities. All of Michigan's shelters are trained in EBI procedures, and the Michigan Department of Community Health offers certification for shelters to obtain these drugs. Funding for removal of gas chambers and EBI training for shelter staff is readily available through nonprofit organizations. With the alternative of EBI easily within the reach of every shelter in Michigan, there is simply no excuse for this horrific practice.

This issue demonstrates a lack of standards in our animal shelters, disregard for the care of our state's lost, homeless and abused animals, and the ever increasing divide between our personal values regarding our own pets and public policy. Ideally, we would end euthanasia of dogs and cats in shelters altogether through the "no kill" philosophy that includes high-volume, low-cost spaying and neutering programs, comprehensive adoption strategies, partnerships with foster homes and certified rescue groups, and other proven elements. But when an animal must be euthanized, it must be done in the most compassionate way possible.

During the last legislative session, Senators Rick Jones (R-Williamston) and Steve Bieda (D-Macomb) led a bipartisan effort to require euthanasia by injection for dogs and cats abandoned in Michigan's animal shelters. Senate Bill 354 passed the Senate unanimously, but was never considered by the House. Senators Jones and Bieda plan to reintroduce this short, simple proposal this spring.

Gandhi famously said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." We must pass this legislation ending the horrific use of the gas chamber as a first step toward compassionate, humane care of our animals.


Jenifer Martin is director of government relations at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is also a board member of the Humane Society of Huron Valley.

Published: Thu, Mar 26, 2015