As state policymakers propose tightening restrictions on the use of carbon monoxide gas to put homeless companion animals to death, opponents of the practice say it is inhumane under any circumstances—and note that North Carolina's main promoter of the method has an apparent conflict of interest.
Thirty-eight counties use the controversial yet legal method of euthanasia. The state's proposed new rules, now under consideration, would keep it legal, over the objections of many animal rights advocates.
That may mean more business for Pittsboro veterinarian Ralph Houser, who not only sells gas chambers to counties, including Chatham, but is hired by many animal control facilities across the state to train technicians on how to use them.
Houser says he doesn't profit from engineering and selling his $7,000 chambers because he sells them "at cost" to public shelters, and that he's filling a need.
"For 20 years I was the only person interested in teaching how to do euthanasia correctly," says Houser. "The state and people of North Carolina were not interested in knowing animals were being euthanized."
Pat Sanford, former director of the Orange County Animal Shelter, acknowledges that Houser has become the state's de facto euthanasia trainer because animal rights groups have failed to offer an alternative.
"Animal welfare and rights groups haven't provided humane euthanasia training," Sanford says. "Ralph filled that hole."
Kelly Hayward attended Houser's three-day euthanasia training seminar in Craven County in 1999. She was certified to euthanize animals in Texas and Colorado, where she had worked in animal shelters, but had to take the class to be certified in North Carolina.
"I was shocked," says Hayward, who no longer works in shelters. "It was like nothing I'd seen in other states. There was nothing compassionate about it."
Hayward says Houser disclosed that he sold chambers, and also trained students on lethal injection, but "it was like an infomercial for gas."
However, the sales pitch failed, at least for Hayward. To demonstrate the chamber, Hayward says, a half-dozen dogs due to be euthanized that day were brought into the room and placed into a 4-foot-by-2-foot chamber. A canister of gas was turned on, but something went wrong, and after a half-second, the canister was empty.
"It was long enough for the dogs to be aware," Hayward recalls. "Someone had to go into the next room and get another canister."
"That's not an ideal situation," acknowledges Dr. Lee Hunter, director of the agriculture department's Animal Welfare Division, who helped draft the euthanasia rules.
Hunter adds that if Houser discloses his chamber business, there is no conflict of interest.
Houser says he doesn't recall the 1999 incident, but adds that similar mishaps have occurred while administering lethal injection. "I've seen many times people miss the vein and the animal had to be restrained until they drew up another dose."
Michelle Whaley, Pitt County animal control manager, wrote to the agriculture department stating she attended Houser's course in 2005 and that "98 percent of it focused on euthanasia by injection. Never has Dr. Houser approached us on buying a chamber or tried to persuade us into using carbon monoxide as a form of euthanasia."
However, Whaley's view may be colored by her role as secretary of the N.C. Animal & Rabies Control Association, of which Houser is a board member. The group supports the use of gas if "administered by a trained, professional and caring staff."
The proposed rules require animals to be separated in the chamber and dictate that no pregnant, sick, injured or young animals may be killed by gas. Lethal injection must be used instead. Animals must stay in the chamber 20 minutes to ensure they're dead.
"The rules appear to be designed to make carbon monoxide as unwieldy as possible," Houser says. "It slows down the process. It makes no logical sense for animals to be separated. Most animals are overcrowded. If you put them in a chamber together, it's just another pen to them."
Thirteen states have outlawed euthanasia by gas, and the Humane Society of the United States and the American Veterinary Medical Association approve of it only under special conditions.
But Houser says it's preferable for vicious, rabid or uncontrollable animals, because animal control officers could be injured while attempting to euthanize them by injection.
"I care about the people," Houser says. "Maybe we care more about our people than those other states."
Orange County never used gas, says Sanford, who worked for 17 years in animal welfare and euthanized potentially dangerous animals.
"Bats, raccoons, aggressive dogs, feral cats," Sanford says. "You have to be trained how to euthanize them by injection."
And people have been injured by gas chambers—incidents that the proposed rules are written to avoid. In 2004, three workers at the Sampson County Animal Shelter were exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide from one of Houser's chambers, according to N.C. Labor Department documents. The shelter, Houser says, had improperly installed the exhaust system.
The issue of gas notwithstanding, Hunter says the proposed rules are still a step forward for North Carolina, where animals have been euthanized inhumanely—often shot or drowned. "I've received complaints from both sides," Hunter says. "I would love to make everyone happy but I recognize that's not possible."
The Agriculture Board will vote on the proposed rules; no date has been set. The Rules Review Commission will decide on the proposal's legality, and the legislature will likely take up the issue during the short session next year.
If public opinion influences policy, gas chambers could be phased out by 2015. Yet, by that time, counties may have invested in the machines and be reluctant to discontinue using them.
"Why wait [to stop using gas]?" Sanford says. She is asking that euthanasia rules be reviewed every two years.
Ultimately, the onus is on the pet owners who fail to spay or neuter their animals, abandon or abuse them. These animals—and their offspring—wind up in shelters, where on average, more than 80 percent of them will be killed.
"Often, the week the animals spend in the shelter is the best in their whole life," Sanford says. "They deserve a compassionate end."