Animal activists are pressuring West Valley City to stop using a gas chamber to kill pets

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Color and artwork cover the walls at Sandy City Animal Services on Monday April 22, 2019.

Residents and animal rights activists are urging Taylorsville to reconsider its partnership with the West Valley City Animal Shelter — a move intended to put pressure on the government-operated facility to stop using a gas chamber to euthanize animals.

Utah is one of only four states where any animal shelters are still using this method of euthanasia, as the vast majority have moved toward injections, which experts say are cheaper, less painful for the animals and safer for employees.

More than a dozen advocates spoke at the Taylorsville City Council meeting Wednesday, urging the council to take a stand against a method they called “barbaric" and “outdated” by contracting with Salt Lake County Animal Services instead of West Valley.

“Animals have no voice and they rely on human beings to speak for them, which is why I’m here as well as the rest of the people we’ve heard from today,” Michelle Thornell, a Taylorsville resident, told the council. “No living being should be exposed to this cruel, inhuman and brutal torture.”

Conversations about gas chamber euthanasia were a hot topic in West Valley City more than five years ago, when a cat named Andrea survived two attempts by shelter workers to gas her to death. She was later adopted, and the controversy led the West Valley City Council to adopt a plan to turn its shelter into a no-kill facility, which happened in 2014.

Both West Valley City and Salt Lake County operate what are considered no-kill shelters — a term that actually means ‘low-kill’ because just about all shelters put down animals that are dangerous, gravely injured or too sick to recover. However, Salt Lake County conducts its euthanasia by injection only.

Despite the controversy, West Valley’s gas chamber remains, and the efforts to push for its removal were reignited after Salt Lake County Animal Services came to the Taylorsville City Council on Feb. 20 with a presentation on why the city should switch facilities.

A final decision is likely weeks or even months down the road, according to city spokeswoman Kim Horiuchi. She said council members want to do a poll of residents to gauge their satisfaction with the West Valley shelter.

One of the considerations with a move is that it’s more expensive to partner with Salt Lake County, she said, with a cost of $510,000 each year compared to $437,000 in West Valley City.

But Callista Pearson, a spokeswoman with Salt Lake County Animal Services, argued Taylorsville residents would receive a higher level of service for that higher price, including more consistent office hours and 24/7 on-call animal control officers.

Layne Morris, director of West Valley City’s community preservation department, said the city has one gas chamber that it uses and only when needed, in conjunction with euthanasia by injection, and has no plan to get rid of it anytime soon.

“We’ve been pretty staunch in our defense and use of the chamber, [so] I think they probably think that putting pressure on Taylorsville because of the contract that’s a way to put pressure on us,” he said. "And that’s a mistake. We’re more than happy for Taylorsville to go a separate direction if that’s their choice.”

Morris said there are misunderstandings about gas chamber euthanasia and that the city sees it as a “viable and valuable tool” for both the animal and the shelter staff in some circumstances.

“We don’t use it often,” he said. “It’s a minority of the euthanasia that we have to perform here.”

Only shelters in Utah, Wyoming, Ohio, and Missouri still use gas chamber euthanasia, and there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts in recent years to outlaw the method here. In this year’s session, Kearns Republican Rep. Eric Hutching’s HB365 didn’t receive a committee hearing.

“When somebody asks, ‘Well why hasn’t it passed?’ it’s like ‘Well, I don’t know because to me the logic is there, the facts are there, and the only thing that we’ve heard is we don’t want to take options away,’” said Deann Shepherd, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of Utah, though she noted that euthanasia by injection is the only method preferred by all veterinary and animal welfare organizations.

While no law has forced the gas chambers in Utah to close, Shepherd said few shelters still operate one. Some have removed or dismantled theirs in part thanks to grants from the Humane Society of the United States, which has offered that opportunity to each of Utah’s shelters with gas chambers.

Gas chamber euthanasia makes use of a box filled with carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, hazardous gases that can take up to 30 minutes to kill an animal. The Utah Humane Society argues that it’s difficult to accurately measure the uptake of carbon monoxide in a shelter setting if more than one animal is inside or depending on the animal’s condition — if it is too young or old, ill, injured or has mental stress.

Animal advocates say euthanasia by injection is faster, with an animal losing consciousness within seconds, and is also less expensive.

Weber County and Draper have in recent months committed to closing their gas chambers. The devices are also still in place in West Valley City, the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter, the South Utah Valley Animal Shelter, the Carbon County Animal Shelter and the Summit County Animal Shelter, according to information from the Utah Humane Society.

Some of those shelters contend they use the chambers infrequently or only for wildlife, Shepherd says, but her organization still views it as a problem.

“What we’ve heard from employees is if it’s there, they’re going to use it — even if they don’t tell the public that,” she said.

The Sandy City Council in 2015 voted to get rid of its gas chamber with a grant from the United States Humane Society, despite fears that services would decrease and that it would put personnel at risk. But Sandy Councilwoman Kris Nicholl, who spoke at Taylorsville’s meeting on Wednesday, assured the council that none of those concerns have come to fruition.

“Most of all, it gave the residents a sense of security and comfort that if their animal were by chance in the shelter, it would absolutely not be euthanized by the gas chamber,” Nicholl told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And that was an easy thing for us to do and it really boosted Sandy City’s confidence in our animal services.”

As the Taylorsville council considers its next moves, Shepherd said she hopes the negotiations will help push West Valley toward removing its gas chamber. But she doesn’t want to paint West Valley’s shelter as a villain.

“So many municipal shelters are underfunded,” she said. “They love the animals, they want to do good by the animals but they need the support and funding. And that’s where the City Council and the constituents need to kind of step up and say, ‘Let’s help them out; let’s help them do a better job.’”