When it comes to the law, words like "humanely" and "geriatric" are loaded—so loaded that North Carolina's proposed euthanasia rules have become snagged in semantics, languishing for more than a year.
Meanwhile, a recent accident involving a gas chamber in Iredell County is further emboldening animal rights groups to pressure policymakers to outlaw euthanasia by gas, which under one draft of the proposed rules would have become illegal in 2012.
However, last February, the Board of Agriculture voted to adopt a second set of rules that deleted the gas provision. Over objections from animal rights groups and veterinarians who wrote thousands of letters to the board, that version was sent to the state Rules Review Commission, which determines whether proposed rules meet legal muster.
The Commission staff requested technical changes to the wording that critics say are so vital they should trigger a new public comment period and republishing of the rules. Commission lawyers disagree that the changes are significant.
Changes include removing the word "humanely" from the phrase "humanely euthanizing" and "properly" from "properly anesthetized."
As for geriatric, "The staff believed that the average person would not know what 'geriatric' meant," said Dr. Lee Hunter, director of the agriculture department's Animal Welfare Division, "that those words were not descriptive or understandable."
Geriatric, according to Merriam-Webster, means old or aging; it is widely accepted by veterinarians that age 7 marks the onset of advancing age in companion animals such as cats and dogs.
"Humane" means "marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration."
Michele King, board member of N.C. Coalition for Humane Euthanasia, views the changes differently: "They took out what was enforceable."
Current state law isn't being enforced, either. It appears several violations led to a fire and small explosion at the Iredell County Shelter in late July. The used chamber was manufactured by Cutting Edge Fabrication. The chamber was not explosion-proof, as outlined by the 2007 American Veterinary Medical Association euthanasia guidelines; nor were the animals separated, which is also required.
Iredell County is temporarily using lethal injection until a new chamber arrives.
Without formal euthanasia rules, the practice is regulated under the state health statute governing rabies, which is enforced by counties and cities. In reference to euthanasia, that statute uses guidance from the Humane Society of the United States, the AVMA and the American Humane Association.
Although the AVMA and HSUS approve of euthanasia by carbon monoxide under limited circumstances, the method is widely considered inhumane because of the time it takes for animals to lose consciousness and die. The AHA does not approve of gassing; AVMA and HSUS guidelines require separation of animals in the chamber and specify safety measures for gas chambers.
Those safety measures are also designed to protect the workers. In the past, animal control officers in several counties, including Columbus, have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide due to faulty chambers.
Kathy Kramer, a veterinarian in Mecklenberg County, has worked with the Friends of the Animals in Iredell County. She says lethal injection is safer for employees to administer and more humane for the animals. "If the employees knew the risks they're setting themselves up for, they would not want to use gas."
The Rules Review Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposed euthanasia rules at its Aug. 21 meeting. If the Commission determines the changes are "substantive," the Agriculture Board would have to republish the rules, reopening them to public comment.
In an e-mail, Judge Clarence Horton, who sits on the Commission, wrote that at last month's meeting he "did state there was a serious question about whether the changes ... dealing with euthanasia by carbon monoxide were substantive under the Administrative Procedures Act."
Legally, after the Commission's decision, if there are 10 objections from the public, the rule must go to the legislature, which would take up the issue in the long session beginning next January.
"I would like to straighten out the language," Hunter said, "and find some good definitions that would satisfy the lawyers."