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Dead Dog Walking

[Texas State University - The University Star]

Daniel Scales considers himself an animal lover.

While volunteering at the San Marcos Animal Shelter one Saturday in October, he found himself peering into the "soulful eyes" of a 4-month-old shepherd mix named Kandy who was about to be led down the green mile.

THE FINAL WALK: 1,325 animals were euthanized last year in the San Marcos Animal Shelter, a number which will grow next year when the shelter begins accepting animals from Kyle and the rest of Hays County.

"I was petting the dogs that I knew were going to be killed," Scales said. "She (Kandy) knew in the depth of her heart that she was not going to be there much longer. Other dogs had been dragged out of the cage never to return in her presence."

Minutes before learning that Kandy’s charts had been flipped, an action that indicates an animals time at the shelter is up, Scales said a black lab had been led past the metal gates, letting out long drawn out moans and yelps that echoed through the hallway before being euthanized.

"The dog knows it’s instinctively going to be killed," he said.

Scales, who ran for Mayor of San Marcos in 1993, said the shelter was killing animals when it had six open kennels and he was prompted to take action to save Kandy’s life.

"I started crying in front of the two officers and the receptionist," he said. "They actually stopped the execution. (Kandy) was next in line."

Although Kandy’s life was spared that day, between five to eight million animals in the United States are put to death each year, according to the American Humane Association.

The San Marcos Animal Shelter euthanized 1,325 animals last year.

The number will double next year as the shelter recently signed a contract with Hays County and the City of Kyle to begin accepting their animals. The agreement will provide $1.7 million for expansion.

Of the thousands of unwanted animals that will be put to death in San Marcos in the next couple of years, approximately 80 percent will be euthanized by a controversial method that has been in use since World War II — carbon monoxide gas chambers.

"When an animal is euthanized through a gas chamber, it’s put in a crate or a box or just in the gas chamber itself," said Elaine Wood, AHA shelter services mananger. "The door is closed and the gas is turned on. The dog doesn’t understand what’s happening and can be frightened by that experience."

The AHA advocates euthanasia by sodium pentobarbital lethal injection. The process entails using a sedative prior to injecting the animal in a vein or the heart. Many experts in the field agree: Lethal injection is the sole acceptable method of euthanasia.

"It’s really about the animal," said Doug Fakkema, euthanasia expert and international training manager with Saving Animals Across Borders. "There’s all kinds of questions about whether or not carbon monoxide delivered in a commercial unit … is humane."

Fakkema said animals should be petted and held during the euthanasia process as opposed to being put inside a "smelly and uncomfortable chamber."

"My perspective as an animal care giver is that we need to treat animals gently and respectfully," Fakkema said.

Officials with the city and the San Marcos Animal Shelter disagree, saying the carbon monoxide chamber is a perfectly humane mode of euthanasia, which is approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"In my mind, it’s an acceptable method for humane destruction of animals," said Mark Brinkley, environment health director for the City of San Marcos. "It’s not the cruel, unusual punishment people try to perceive it as being."

Brinkely said the carbon monoxide chambers reduce the amount of stress for employees involved in the process.

"With the use of a machine, that person, even though they still have to load the animals up, some of the ones they’ve been taking care of for weeks, they put them in there, hit a button and walk away and the machine does the process," Brinkley said.

Bert Stratemann, San Marcos animal services manager, said the injection process requires the animal to go through a lot of stress.

"You have animals that have not had human contact, and you’re trying to hold that animal and give it an injection or stab it with a needle and give it a sedation first," Stratemann said. "I don’t see that as being humane. It’s much better to take that animal that’s already in a cage and place it into the euthanasia chamber."

P.A.W.S., a nonprofit, no-kill shelter in Kyle, is dedicated to preventing cruelty to all animals. Ramon Olvera, P.A.W.S. head veterinary technician and Aimme Duffy, P.A.W.S. operations manager, agreed that the gas chamber is not necessarily cruel. Both said they would be incapable of administering death by gassing.

"It’s a mental thing that you have to be able to grasp. I can’t ever imagine working in a situation where you have to use the gas chamber," Duffey said.

Fakkema said society should be concerned with treating animals in shelters as well as their own pets.

"I would never put my animal in a carbon monoxide chamber, and I suspect most people working in shelters probably wouldn’t either," he said.

Brinkley and Stratemann have both had to euthanize their own dogs. Neither chose to use a carbon monoxide chamber, opting instead to euthanize by injection.

"I haven’t used the gas chamber," Brinkley said. "I was closer to the vet where I lived so I took him to the vet and the vet euthanized him. I held him and he injected him."

Stratemann and Brinkley said the shelter will move toward euthanasia with injection when funds become available next year. Funding will come from the City of San Marcos, The City of Kyle and Hays County with expansion including 52 additional dog kennels and 42 cat kennels. Additional staff will also be hired.

"We don’t have the funding in place for the two people we need to do the actual injections," Brinkley said. "What that will do is give us two other people that would be primarily dedicated for that type of service."

Stratemann and Brinkley maintained that the carbon monoxide chambers are safer, cause less stress and are more cost effective.

Fakkema disagrees, saying none of those arguments are true.

"The safety issues is specious, the emotional issue likewise and the cost issue is simply wrong," Fakkema said.

Currently, 13 states require animal shelters to perform death by euthanasia injection, according to the AHA.

The 2000 report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia, which is regarded as the authoritative document and whose guidelines have been written into state and federal law, considers gassing an acceptable method when done properly.

Patt Nordyke, Texas Federation of Humane Societies executive director, who fought to have gas chambers removed from P.A.W.S. and the City of San Antonio, said specific chamber guidelines are not being followed in a lot of places in Texas.

"The best thing would be to get the chamber outlawed in the state of Texas," Nordyke said. "A lot of states have done it. The possibility of that going through is nil. At the present time we have to live with the chamber."

Bonnie Beaver, chair of AVMA Panel on Euthanasia 2000 report and professor in the college of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M, said the decision to condone gas chambers was made relative to humaneness based on the best science available at the time the panel meets.

"This is not a strict, end-all science," Beaver said. "We learn more all the time. As new studies provide new information about what does and does not work, we’re going to see changes in those guidelines over time."

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