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The gas chamber at Heber Valley Animal Shelter in Utah was once the bane of Justin Hatch’s existence.
The shelter’s executive director inherited the task of euthanizing animals after being hired in 2000. The gas chamber was a constant reminder of the black lab he’d lost as a kid after the dog had been picked up and possibly euthanized by animal control. “It was devastating,” he remembers, “and I told my mom that I wanted to change how animal control did things.”
On June 12, he did just that: Shelter staff removed the gas chamber and drove it to Heber City Park for a “Bash the Gas” event sponsored by The HSUS and Paws for Life Utah. Dozens of community members took turns with the sledgehammer that day: police officers, city officials, children, even a pregnant woman. For Hatch, the moment was cathartic, even though the chamber hadn’t been used in years. “Every time I hit that thing was like hitting a home run,” he says.
The moment marked another stride in The HSUS’s push to eliminate gas chambers. Of the 27 states where they’re still legal, 10 have chambers in active use.
“The animals are placed in a box that’s dark, small and completely unfamiliar to them,” says Inga Fricke, HSUS director of shelter and rescue group services. “Animals that are very old, very young or ill may experience pain and distress trying to process the gas. To be humane, death must be pain-free and stress-free—the gas chamber simply can’t meet this standard.”
When animals are euthanized, euthanasia drugs make the process quick, painless and virtually stress free. To that end, The HSUS has given grants to 17 shelters since 2013 to help them transition to euthanasia by injection. Several more have voluntarily eliminated their chambers over that time. In North Carolina alone, HSUS state director Kim Alboum has helped nearly a dozen shelters close their chambers. The HSUS has also successfully helped push for gas chamber bans in several states.
The grant money works to enrich the lives of shelter animals, as well. Heber Valley, for example, is using its grant to transform the gassing room into a kitty quarantine or feral cat room. There are other benefits too, Alboum says: “When you have a shelter that’s gassing, the community doesn’t want to go there. Once it’s gone, there’s a higher level of trust.”
That’s what happened in Brunswick County, N.C. Since removing its gas chamber, the shelter went from having virtually no volunteers to a database of more than 300. It has behavior training programs and an agility yard. It works with rescues to find homes for hard-to-adopt animals. “The community supported getting rid of the [gas] chamber,” says Tommy Tolley, division supervisor of Brunswick County Animal Services, “and that opened doors and opportunities. It made it easier for the community to come in knowing the gas chamber is not here.”