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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ill. lawmaker gets help in banning gas chambers to kill pets

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A state lawmaker's push to outlaw gas chambers to euthanize animals across the state has the backing of about a dozen Illinois animal-rescue shelters that consider the method cruel.

The measure sponsored by state Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, would bar the use of carbon monoxide and tighten restrictions on who is allowed to do the killing.

Chicago Bulldog Rescue Inc., the bill's lead supporter, says Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico already ban gas chambers. Illinois and Missouri allow that euthanasia method but have stipulations on the type of gas and chamber used.

"We don't put criminals in gas chambers because it's inhumane," said Randy Grim from Stray Rescue of St. Louis, hoping the ban passes in Illinois and catches on in Missouri. "It's not the animal's fault that it was abandoned."

Animal rights advocates and public officials across the region say it's impossible to know how many animals are gassed because county shelters are only required to report the number of deaths, not the manner in which the animal was destroyed.

Another issue is so-called "puppy mills," high-volume but substandard dog breeders that often produce more animals than they can sell. Commercial operations don't have to follow the same gas chamber restrictions imposed on shelters, nor are they held to the same reporting standards.

The proposed Illinois ban on gas chambers would apply to commercial breeders and shelters.

Some shelters in the region have already switched to lethal injection from gas after coming under fire from animal rights groups.

"(With gas), they don't die immediately, and being in an enclosure like that causes them stress and panic," said Jackie Spiker, co-founder of Hope Rescues, a "no-kill" shelter in Edwardsville.

But at some shelters, using the gas chamber is a matter of convenience.

In Mount Vernon, most cats and dogs that are not adopted at Jefferson County's animal control agency are put down by lethal injection, a standard practice at government-operated shelters across the region. But when a dog is deemed aggressive or when the site gets too crowded and must destroy large groups of animals, the gas chamber gets put to use.

"We get a great deal of animals," said Ruth Hughes, the site's supervisor. "Sometimes it's easier to use gas. It doesn't tie up my people."

St. Clair County, just east of St. Louis, stopped gassing stray cats and dogs in 1997 after the public learned that cats used to be placed in a 55-gallon drum and dogs in a cement block structure before a tractor's engine exhaust was pumped into the chambers.

Some animal advocates say it would be harder to ban the gas chamber in Missouri because lethal injections cost more than in Illinois. A veterinarian must administer or supervise the shot in Missouri; a trained euthanasia technician is permitted to do so in Illinois.

Fritchey's bill also would bar anyone convicted of animal abuse felonies, bestiality or drug crimes from administering lethal injections.

It would mandate a euthanasia technician get continuing education every five years, instead of the existing once-in-a-lifetime requirement. Any violations would be referred to local law enforcement or the Illinois State Police, as well as the local prosecutor or Illinois attorney general's office.

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