SMITHFIELD — Starting next year, most euthanasia at the Johnston County Animal Shelter will be done with lethal injection instead of a gas chamber.
The shelter has pledged to change its practice after months-long pressure from animal-rights activists.
But shelter director Ernie Wilkinson says he will continue to use the chamber to put down vicious animals, because he believes it is safer for staff members. “I’m not going to jeopardize my staff with animals that are vicious and dangerous when I have the option of protecting my staff with a CO gas that is totally in compliance with (state law),” he said.
A group calling itself Citizens for Animal Shelter Reform has butted heads with Wilkinson since the spring on everything from the lack of a volunteer program to the shelter’s spaying and neutering policy. The two sides met Dec. 6 at the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield.
The sides agreed on the terms of a new volunteer program, but the group’s most-vocal members, Tammy Godusi and Leslie Smith, were upset that the shelter did not plan to completely abandon its gas chamber.
“You’re not going get volunteers in there who are going to be happy with the gas chamber,” Godusi said.
On average, Johnston County euthanizes 4,700 animals a year, Wilkinson said. Most of them are gassed, but state law requires lethal injection on young, pregnant or sick animals. In those cases, the shelter goes to an outside veterinarian for lethal injection.
The county announced last month that it would launch a volunteer program in January. The announcement followed months of behind-the-scenes talks in which Godusi accused Wilkinson of dragging his feet. The two sides agreed to the terms of the program during the Dec. 6 meeting.
But the group has also worked to convince the shelter to stop using the gas chamber and switch exclusively to lethal injection. Godusi thinks it is a more-humane method of putting down animals, pointing to graphic videos on the Internet showing animals audibly yelping after being placed in a gas chamber.
“Euthanizing is supposed to be a peaceful death,” she said. “If you’ve ever seen a YouTube video of a dog in a gas chamber, you know it’s not a peaceful death.”
In September, Godusi and others brought their concerns to county commissioners. Board chairman Allen Mims said the county had applied three years ago for the necessary drug license for lethal injection from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; the county was simply waiting for the slow-moving federal bureaucracy to respond.
But Mims’ assertion turned out to be untrue. The county had not sought the DEA license. Instead, in June 2011, about 18 months ago, the county sought state approval for lethal injection. The state must say yes before a county can apply for the DEA license.
On Dec. 4, County Manager Rick Hester conceded that the county had not made the DEA application three years ago; it has since done so, and the DEA granted the drug license earlier this month. Hester blamed the mix-up, in part, on a personnel change, specifically the 2009 departure of county attorney Mark Payne, who would have overseen the application.
Payne and Wilkinson had discussed it, and Wilkinson said he was under the impression that Payne had filed the DEA license application. Payne said, via email, that he remembered the discussions but couldn’t recall sending in an application.
Hester said he took the blame for failing to properly vet the assertion Mims made at the meeting. “I manage the day-to-day operations, and mistakes are my responsibility,” he said.
The use of gas chambers has provoked a powerful negative response in recent years. Petitions to ban it are all over the Internet, and in several states, every legislative sessions brings bills to end gas chamber use.
Many animal-rights activists compare it to the Nazis’ use of gas chambers during World War II. But experts are split on the matter. The American Veterinary Medical Association considers it an acceptable method if done correctly. The American Humane Association, on the other hand, has lobbied against it for years.
Brenda Stevens, a professor at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine, said in most cases, she considers lethal injection a more-humane method of putting down animals. If an animal can be sedated before being given the lethal drugs, that is less stressful than being confined.
“To me that is one of the least stressful things animals can go through during their last ... minutes of their life,” she said.
But Stevens thinks the gas chamber has its place. When an animal is violent and has to be subdued, it is clearly the safest method. And Stevens said the chamber is not painful for most animals – they are usually unconscious inside the first minute, she said.
“In my understanding, it’s painless,” Stevens said. “There’s some vocalization, but it’s not painful vocalization.”
Wilkinson said he doesn’t understand the public’s fixation on euthanasia methods. He wishes people would focus instead on helping shelters fight pet overpopulation through spaying and neutering education.
Stevens agreed: “If we got over the pet overpopulation (problem), you and I wouldn’t be having this discussion,” she said.