Animal euthanization can be a controversial subject, and it's a divisive issue in McLean County. Animal control facilities use gas chambers to euthanize animals, and some advocates have had it with that method. WGLT's Haley BeMiller has more on the issue and its impact on the pet loving community.
Warning: this story contains graphic depictions of euthanization.
These dogs can hardly contain themselves every time they see a human walk in the room. They spend their days in a kennel or playing in the yard, waiting for the day someone takes them home. Wishbone Canine Rescue, a pet foster care facility in Bloomington, rescues them from the street or Animal Control to give them a new start. But, not all of them get that chance.
Dogs, cats, and other animals that don't make it to an adoption facility or new home can be euthanized as a last resort. Animal rights activists in general aren't are happy with euthanization, but they're even more unhappy with how it's conducted in McLean County: with gas chambers. When an animal is put down this way, the veterinarian or other authorized official places the pet in a small box that is then filled with carbon monoxide. It causes asphyxiation, or the inability to breathe normally because of poor oxygen supply. At a recent McLean County Board meeting, Marion Willetts of the Kickapoo Animal Rescue Alliance told board members that the gas chamber is an unacceptable way to end an animal's life.
"It's a sad commentary on our county that we continue to use the gas chamber to kill our animals when numerous professional associations, including those of shelter, veterinarians, and animal control facilities themselves, have condemned their use."
Willetts says McLean County is one of two in Illinois, along with Vermilion, that still uses the chamber. She says twenty states nationwide have also banned it. Willetts says some question if the gas chamber is painful for animals, but believes there is no doubt that it's a frightening way for them to die. She says they are forced to spend their last moments in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by strange noises. Plus, she says it doesn't always work the first time, so animals have to undergo the gassing more than once.
Willetts says animals aren't the only ones in danger. She says gas chambers also pose a threat to staff members who operate them. She says gas leaks or explosion can occur, adding that an Illinois veterinarian was seriously injured by one in 1997. She says she believes Mclean County's unchanging policy reflects a willingness to stay in the "dark ages." She also says the gas chamber is a waste of taxpayers' money.
"A study by the American Humane Association found that carbon monoxide poisoning costs on average $4.98 per animal, whereas euthanasia by injection, which is considered to be a much more humane method, costs $2.29 per animal."
The McLean County Health Department doesn't deny using the gas chamber, but only uses it in certain situations. Director Walt Howe says they reserve them for dangerous animals that would threaten staff members. He says if the dog or other pet is too vicious, it's difficult to get close enough to them with a needle.
"In all animals that are not ruled to be aggressive, we use the traditional method of euthanization."
The Health Department only euthanizes around 60-65 animals with the gas chamber per year, and Howe says they don't often euthanize animals in general. He says one-half of the dogs they find are returned to their rightful owners, and one-fourth are put up for adoption. It's only the last 25 percent that they have to put down.
"If you have good, adoptable pets, we certainly want to make those available for adoption. But again, we often encounter a number of animals that we would not release or wouldn't feel comfortable for liability reasons releasing back to the community."
Even so, Howe believes the nature of animals has changed over the last 20 years. More and more, he says the Health Department is encountering animals that need to be put down, while adoptable pets are more of a rarity. He says many dogs are bred to protect homes, and that changes their personalities.
Wishbone Vice President Valerie Wellin says she is skeptical of the Health Department's methodology. She understands that some animals are irreversibly ill or truly vicious, but believes those account for about only 10 percent of the population. She says putting down 25 percent of the animals is an error in judgment. She says Wishbone works with behavior experts, and the organization would be willing to review Animal Control's dogs to determine their condition. If they are treatable, she says Wishbone is happy to take them in.
"There are behavioral problems, and there are true viciousness. If a dog is resource-guarding, that's not vicious. If they're scared, that's not vicious."
Eventually, Wellin wants McLean County to follow the example of the 80 or so other communities nationwide and implement a no-kill policy. Opponents of no-kill believe it costs more money, but Wellin says any extra funding is offset by the benefits of adoption. According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, a national thinktank promoting the no-kill ideology, it costs $106 to impound and eventually put down an animal. Adoption and foster care also come with a price tag, but unlike euthanasia, these programs generate revenue through adoption fees. In addition, pet owners spend up to $1600 on food, medical care, and other needs for their animals, which in turn helps local businesses grow.
"When you do adopt dogs and cats, you bring in revenue."
Willetts, Wellin, and the Health Department plan to meet and discuss future options for animals in McLean County. Howe says he is open to the advocates' ideas on funding and how to handle dangerous dogs. Wellin believes they will be able to help shift the community away from the current practice. I'm Haley BeMiller, WGLT News.
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