Utah Senate approves bill to end gas chamber euthanasia for animals in the state

A second animal welfare bill that would ban puppy mills stalled in committee.

The Utah Senate voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of a bill that would end gas chamber euthanasia for animals in the state, while a second proposal relating to animal welfare — this one to ban “puppy mills” that opponents say sell poorly-treated pets — stalled in a House committee.

Utah is one of only four states where some animal shelters are still using gas chamber euthanasia, while the vast majority have moved toward injections that experts say are cheaper, less painful for animals and safer for employees.

SB237, sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, would “abolish the gas chambers” in the state by July 2022, and would require animal shelters to instead use injections as the sole method of euthanasia for both wild and domestic animals.

That mandate would apply in cases except where an animal needs to be euthanized in an “emergency situation” that occurs outside of a shelter’s walls. In those instances, the bill would direct an animal control officer to euthanize an animal in the “most humane method available.”

The bill’s passage in the Senate on Tuesday represents a win for animal advocates, who have long been working to enact a ban on the practice in the state.

While legislation to end gas chamber euthanasia has been pushed in several recent years, none has made it far through the legislative process. A proposal on the issue from Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, didn’t receive a hearing last year; neither did a 2019 bill from former Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

Hinkins noted during a Monday committee hearing on the bill that the concept had been heard “for several years and it usually doesn’t seem to make it through the system.” And as the last days of the session draw near, he urged his colleagues to “hurry it up as much as possible.”

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.

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

Katie Gray, a veterinarian and representative for the national Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, spoke in support of the bill during its committee hearing Monday, arguing that gas chambers “do not provide a good death to animals” and that euthanasia by injection is the organization’s preferred method.

But Summit County District Attorney Jami Brackin, who said she was testifying on behalf of the elected county attorneys and district attorneys in the state, said several counties were concerned that the bill would apply equally to domestic and wild animals.

“There are a lot of the rural communities and rural counties that provide services that they will take in the raccoons and the skunks and the wild animals,” she said. “They cannot euthanize those by an injection. If you want to get that close to a wild raccoon, it’s not a good thing.”

If the bill were amended to apply only to domestic animals, Brackin said the groups she spoke on behalf of would be fine with the bill. But as it’s currently drafted, she said it would have “unintended consequences” and pose problems for animal control agencies.

Hinkins said that, ideally, wild animals would not be euthanized but would be relocated “into the wild.”

“I’ve been actually against this bill for the last couple of years but they’ve convinced me now that there’s other ways,” he said. “I’ve talked to the animal control officers that they can actually euthanize them other ways besides the gas chambers.”

The Summit County Animal Shelter is one of several facilities that has a gas chamber, along with West Valley City, the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter, the South Utah Valley Animal Shelter and the Carbon County Animal Shelter, according to 2019 information from the Utah Humane Society.

Rachel Heatley, advocacy director with the Humane Society of Utah, said the North Utah Valley and South Utah Valley shelters are the only ones that are still actively using the shelters for dogs and cats, while the others are using them rarely for wildlife or not at all.

The bill now moves to the House for further consideration.

Puppy mill ban stalls in committee

While the proposal to ban gas chamber euthanasia appears to have some momentum this session, a separate bill relating to animal welfare seems unlikely to receive further consideration after a House committee voted to adjourn without voting on it Tuesday.

The proposal from House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, sought to prohibit pet stores in the state from selling a “companion animal,” like a dog or a cat, as part of an effort to end so-called puppy mills.

“The purpose of the bill is just to sever the link between large scale, mostly out-of-state breeders, which are closely connected to inhumane practices of how animals, dogs and cats are bred and kept in captivity and pet stores,” King told the House Business and Labor Committee. “If we do this, the demand for out-of-state puppy mill puppies will decrease and it’ll be correcting an inhumane practice.”

The rules, which were proposed under HB420 to take effect in August, would not have affected responsible breeders selling from their homes, King said.

Animal advocates note that pet stores often obtain their animals from disreputable breeders, because reputable ones generally do not sell to pet stores. Many breeder clubs have adopted ethics codes that specifically state they should not sell their puppies to pet stores, and pet store chains like Petco and PetSmart endorse selling only shelter pets.

At the same time, several local governments in the state — including Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and Sandy — have adopted measures to keep the puppy stores out of their boundaries. But without a statewide mandate, the businesses can always just move to a city that doesn’t have any rules prohibiting them.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A male Australian Shepherd gets a treat from an employee at The Puppy Store in West Jordan, May 10, 2019, as West Jordan animal activists encouraged the City Council to adopt an ordinance that would prohibit pet stores from selling puppies, kittens and rabbits not sourced directly from a shelter or rescue.

Sundays Hunt, Utah state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said puppy stores are “inherently linked to the puppy mill industry because of the conditions these puppies are raised in and how they are transported across the country when they still have immature immune systems.”

“They are often very sick, and unsuspecting families often end up picking up an expensive vet bill,” she said, noting that puppy mills are allowed to keep dogs in cages that are only 6 inches longer than their bodies.

This bill, she said, would help “not only prevent this inhumane treatment of these animals but it will also protect unknowing, unsuspecting consumers,” she said.

Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, said she was worried the practice would not stop under the bill but would just change forms, with people buying dogs from auctions and puppy mills, bringing them home to sell and calling them a rescue.

“There’s no mechanisms for preventing that practice, so I don’t see how we would be stopping this behavior,” she said. “We would just be changing hands for who would be handing off these puppies and receiving this money, but not actually stopping it from happening.”

Hunt said there will likely be people who manipulate the system but argued the bill would ensure that those with ill intent “will have to really, really work the system.”

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, also spoke against the bill, noting that he was concerned it started with the assumption that only animal rescue organizations and public shelters were operating correctly.

“My concern is, you’re saying that no commercial volume retail seller could do it in a humane way is kind of the assumption that’s going on,” he said. “There may be bad actors that need some regulation, but I’m not sure we can say this entire space is per se doing it wrong. And that’s the concern I have because that’s what it functionally does.”

The committee voted to adjourn without hearing from the public and without taking a vote on the bill, rendering it effectively dead at this point in the session, which ends Friday.