Ravell Call, Ravell Call, Deseret News
The gas chamber at the West Valley City/Taylorsville Animal Shelter, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012.

WEST VALLEY CITY — Recent problems with the carbon monoxide gas chamber at the West Valley City animal shelter were caused by employee error, not equipment malfunction, according to a city investigation.

City officials have released an official response to allegations that there have been problems with the gas chamber or its operation on at least nine occasions since the shelter's opening in September 2009.

Janita Coombs, director of the nonprofit Community Animal Welfare Society, brought the alleged malfunctions to the attention of the West Valley City Council during a public meeting earlier this month.

Coombs said she became concerned about euthanasia practices at the shelter in October, when a cat named Andrea survived two cycles in the gas chamber. She was able to take Andrea home, nurse her back to health and then place her with a new owner.

Through a public records request, Coombs obtained emails and a few written notes that indicated additional problems with the gas chamber.

"I was concerned because there appeared to be a problem," she said.

A city report released Tuesday addresses each of the issues raised by Coombs and explains what happened, why they happened and, when necessary, what the shelter has done to prevent future problems.

The earliest problem occurred in the first six months of the shelter's operation, the report states. Two feral cats placed in the chamber were alive but unconscious after being gassed. The contractor who installed the chamber was called in to recalibrate the machine, "resolving the issue," according to the report.

Later issues with animals surviving gassings, the report states, resulted from a lack of training or mistakes made by employees — including not completely shutting the chamber door.

The attempted euthanasia of Andrea was an exception, the report states. Shelter officials have concluded that the cat was either able to absorb more CO than animals of her size, or that the carbon monoxide tank was running low and didn't contain enough pressure to deliver the gas in sufficient quantity.

Shelter officials say they've addressed that potential problem with changes to policy that will require any animal that survives the gas chamber to be given a lethal injection.

Coombs said the city's investigation adequately addressed her concerns.

"I appreciate the fact that they looked into that," she said, "and hopefully they've resolved the training issues that were present."

Others say they won't be satisfied until the shelter stops using the gas chamber or limits its use only for very aggressive animals or when lethal injection doesn't make sense.

"I implore you to be the parents, be the grandparents that your children and your grandchildren deserve. Don't teach them to be unmerciful and discard life if it does not hold value to them," Mara Nixon told the City Council on Tuesday.

Nixon also called use of the gas chamber "torture."

Layne Morris, director of the city's Community Preservation Department, said the city has no plans to stop using the gas chamber, calling it "a valuable asset in our efforts to perform humane euthanasia."

"Our employees regularly express appreciation for it and its ability to humanely assist them in the very difficult task of ending a life," he said.

An open house with Morris and other city officials has been scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at the animal shelter, 4522 W. 3500 South.

City and shelter management will be on hand to answer questions and discuss ideas for increasing animal adoptions and reducing euthanasia that have been presented during recent City Council.

"The comment period during council meetings is not an ideal venue for an open dialog, as it doesn't permit a two-way conversation," said Wayne Pyle, city manager. "We welcome anyone interested to attend this meeting where we will be available to answer questions, address concerns and have productive discussions."

West Valley City has posted online an informational packet regarding the shelter's euthanasia policies, including its responses to allegations of gas chamber malfunctions, at www.wvc-ut.gov/euthanasia.

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