SALT LAKE CITY — The routine euthanasia of dogs and cats at Utah animal shelters by gassing them in carbon monoxide chambers would be extinguished under a proposal debated Thursday in a legislative committee.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring HB150, which would still allow the practice, but only when shelter workers' safety is at risk or an animal that isn't accustomed to being handled would be overly stressed by human contact.
Dr. Drew Allen, with the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, said when properly done, euthanasia via carbon monoxide chamber is medically acceptable, but the public has strong reactions.
"When you start using the term 'gas chamber,' it brings awful images," he told members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. "Recognizing it is a controversial form of euthanasia, many states have banned its use completely."
Allen, however, said it is important that the option remain available in those circumstances where it is merited.
"There are certainly cases where you have an aggressive animal, that handling them and the restraint of them becomes a definite danger to the employees," he said.
Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, said he's been dealing with the painful issue of euthanasia for 33 years as a veterinarian.
"The older I get, the harder it is," he said.
With his colleagues hushed and the others in the room quieted, Mathis said there are circumstances where people are placed at risk if some method other than intravenous injection isn't used.
"People's safety is of utmost importance, but if at all possible, you use the most humane method possible to to aid an animal on its journey home," he said.
Mathis said the bill allows flexibility and that Romero "has gone overboard to get this right, if you can."
At one point, Mathis had to pause, overcome from his own experiences with pet euthanasia.
"It is very tough to watch your own animal suffer and let it suffer far too long because you can't do it yourself," he said. "I really would encourage your support of this."
But Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, said animal control officers who are tasked with euthanizing animals can be traumatized by being forced into administering lethal injections.
"It is not easy to do this," Christofferson said. "An injection takes a couple of people. (The animal) struggles, and they feel it die in their arms. It is emotional for those who are performing the procedure."
Mike Morgan, director of the South Utah Valley Animal Shelter, echoed that sentiment, urging lawmakers to leave intact an option that he says is an acceptable, humane method of euthanasia.
While the in Spanish Fork shelter's kill rate is down to 9 percent and staff would like to eliminate it altogether, the practical reality is that 1,900 animals had to be euthanized there last year, he said.
"If they hold 1,900 animals and feel the life go out of them, I will lose those employees and those jobs won't stay," Morgan said.
He added that his shelter manager and other workers begged him to advocate for them.
"My staff are the ones who have to do this," Morgan said. "They are not responsible for those animals being there. … (One worker) told me, 'I don't want to have to go home and cry and have nightmares over what I have done.'"
But Jamie Usry, of the Humane Society of Utah, said the nonprofit organization euthanized 2,100 animals in 2012 at its shelter, all via intravenous injection.
"We individually inject every animal we euthanize. It is a really hard issue," Usry said. "And yes, it is hard for the staff to have to make that decision for these animals."
The measure passed 10-3 and now goes before the full House.