Animal Gas Chambers Draw Fire in U.S.

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
April 11, 2005

When animal-shelter employee Rosemary Ficken opened the door to the St. Louis pound's gas chamber one August day in 2003, she couldn't believe her eyes: A reddish brown mutt, standing on top of six dead dogs, was still alive.

In the shelter's 64 year history, no dog had ever survived the chamber's noxious fumes.

Unwilling to close the door and re-gas the dog, Ficken called Randy Grim, the founder of Stray Rescue of St. Louis. The Missouri organization rescues abused and neglected animals, restores them to health, and places them in new homes.

Grim retrieved the big-eared Basenji mix and named him Quentin after California's San Quentin prison.

Quentin's life was spared that day, but many others are not so lucky. Nearly four million dogs and cats in the United States are put to death in shelters each year.

Carbon monoxide gas chambers—a euthanasia method used since World War II—are routinely used in animal shelters throughout the country, including Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.

The American Veterinary Medical Association—whose euthanasia guidelines are widely followed—considers carbon monoxide gassing an acceptable method when done in a properly manufactured and equipped chamber. Many animal-welfare advocates, though, say the method is inhumane.

"It's America's dirty little secret," said Grim, who has written the book Miracle Dog: How Quentin Survived the Gas Chamber to Speak for Animals on Death Row (Alpine Publishing). "If people actually saw the gas chamber working, they would sign a petition tomorrow to ban it."

Due to Grim's fundraising and lobbying efforts, the St. Louis gas chamber shut down in January of this year.

The Euthanasia Process

From start to finish, the process of gassing an animal takes about 25 minutes. One or more animals are placed in an airtight chamber, and a high concentration of bottled carbon monoxide gas is released.

Cats and dogs are rendered unconscious within a minute, then eventually die from lack of oxygen.

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