Animal euthanasia: Gas chamber

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Outside the Clovis Animal Shelter I was greeted by Clovis police Capt. Ron Hutchison and Animal Control Officers Larry Rogers and Marty Martinez.

Clad in black coveralls and wearing blue latex gloves, Rogers and Martinez were starting their morning cleaning ritual, Hutchison said.

As we walked down the rows of kennels, a beagle stared out from his bed, a couple of puppies tussled with each other and other dogs ran to the gates of their cages to greet the visitors. Each cage held at least one dog. The sizes, colors and dispositions varied.

In the last cage on the right, a chocolate brown male pit bull sat quietly by the gate. As I reached my hand down to touch his snout, Hutchison assured me this one would bite. He had attacked city water employees unprovoked, he said.

•••

Passing through double metal doors, we entered a small room that opened to the outside by way of a garage door.

Immediately to the left, about waist high, stood a metal, oven-shaped box chamber with its metal framed acrylic glass door swung open. A few feet away stood another similar chamber, this one taller and wider than the first.

Atop each was a row of large, colored buttons. Between the chambers iron pipes meet in the center at a control valve.

Hutchison and I were joined by Clovis veterinarian Dr. Glenn Keim and Rogers and Martinez.

Keim, like myself, was there to observe the process.

•••

Rogers slipped through the double doors and returned shortly with the brown pit bull secured at the end of a pole.

His feet scrambling on the smooth concrete, the muscular pit bull curiously pulled toward us where we all stood facing the chambers. Stretching his nose out, he sniffed at Keim before he was guided toward the chamber opening by Rogers.

The dog entered the chamber with relative ease, released from the pole through a crack in the door before Rogers shut it tightly.

Someone pushed a button on top as I intently watched the dog through the Plexiglas window.

He investigated the chamber, sniffing the corners and looking through the window at us.

A sudden rushing, hissing sound started, almost like muffled jets at a car wash. Martinez explained what we heard was the gas entering.

Startled, the dog jumped a little, but calmed again as the hissing continued. He resumed his investigation of the chamber and started smacking his lips slightly and licking the outside of his muzzle.

The hissing stopped as abruptly as it began and all of a sudden the dog’s eyes looked startled.

As he began to swoon and sway on his feet, he cried out — a howl mixed with a barking sound, more out of confusion mixed with discontent than the shrieking associated with pain.

He toppled and fell. Trying to get a grip on the slick metal floor, he slid, tried to stand but fell again.

I was startled at the sound of his body crashing against the thin metal floor as it echoed through the room, but then there was silence.

“21 seconds,” Martinez’ voice cut through the quiet and I realized it had all happened so fast I forgot to watch the time.

Still watching, the dog’s feet twitched a little, then went still.

As conversation resumed in the room, I kept my eyes on the dog. The chamber stays closed 20 minutes, Martinez said.

“There’s still movement,” I said almost four minutes later when I noticed the dog’s head and front feet start to move in a rhythmic, reflexive pattern for a few seconds.

Keim said the movement was involuntary muscle contractions.

When the chamber was opened, Rogers pulled the body out and using a stethoscope, crouched over it, checking for signs of life.

Satisfied with his exam, Rogers said the final test would be to confirm rigor mortis had set in prior to disposing of the body.

The next dog placed in the chamber went faster and with less drama.

It was a large white mixed-breed, brought after showing aggression to a family’s young children.

The dog succumbed quickly and silently to the gas, falling to the floor of the chamber without any further movement.

“There’s nothing pretty about this, but these guys are doing a job nobody wants to do,” Hutchison said.