Animal gas chambers banned in Berrien County

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Berrien County will stop the use of carbon monoxide gas chambers as a method of animal euthanasia at its animal control facility in the near future.

Thursday, August 27, the county board of commissioners unanimously passed a resolution that mandates lethal injection be the only acceptable form of euthanasia at the facility.

"When you think about the dogs or cats at this facility and they are scared, and they are alone, and if it has to happen, you want it to happen in the most humane way that it can be. And this is the best way," said Mac Elliott, Berrien County Commissioner from the tenth district.

Right now, Berrien County is one of two counties in the entire state of Michigan that still use gas chambers as a means of euthanasia. With the passing of the resolution, the gas chamber will be phased out over the next 90 days in favor of lethal injection.

Fellow commissioner, Jeanette Leahey, stated at the meeting that the board finally reached a "consensus" that eliminating gas chambers was the right thing to do. Afterwards she said the county needed to move into the 21st Century and adopt new ways and techniques to use for domestic and wild animals.

It was a packed meeting. Dozens from Berrien County, even individuals from Indiana and Lansing made their way to speak during a public comment session. While they came to advocate against gas chambers, they ended up taking the podium and thanking the board for passing the resolution.

"It has been one concern to our community and I would like to thank our community which really stepped up and made this effort possible," said Berrien Springs resident Virginia Holden.

Similar gratitude expressed from Ruth Szyarto, President of the St. Joseph Animal Welfare League of Indiana who addressed the commissioners and said: "thank you so much for your progressive take on this issue, and thank you for all the effort you are making on behalf of the animals here in Berrien County."

In September, NewsCenter 16 spoke with shelter director Val Grimes who said the gas chamber is 99-percent proof. The perception of the somewhat archaic machine is its perception.

There are concerns regarding administrators of both lethal injection and gas chambers. Some fear carbon monoxide could be hazardous to staff at the shelter, while others voiced their concerns that lethal injection could also be dangerous if an animal is reluctant or potentially dangerous.

According to the 2014 Animal Shelter Annual Report compiled by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the Berrien County Animal Shelter took in 1,286 dogs during 2014. Of those dogs, 558 were euthanized. Looking at the 2014 figures for cats, about 87-percent of the 1,641 cats accepted into the shelter were put down.

Some animal rights groups categorize the shelter as a "very high kill" shelter.

The topic of pet euthanasia is an emotional one.

A high school senior at Watervliet addressed the board of commissioners and thanked them for passing the resolution. With tears in her eyes she said, "Animals sit for us, it's time we stand for them."

But not all voices in the crowd were of resounding praise.

One man spoke in favor of the gas chambers, calling them a necessary "tool" that shelters should have the option of utilizing under certain situations.

Another man, Gordon Lux of Buchanan, first thanked the board for passing the resolution but then criticized the delay in adopting the measure.

"Second in the state is nothing to pat your back about," said Lux.

But the overwhelming sentiment at Thursday's meeting was positive. With plans for a new shelter underway and construction expected to start this fall, both commissioners and residents hope a larger, up-to-date facility will improve the county's animal control.

The resolution could be the first of several discussions about animal policies within the county. Commissioner Elliott expressed his interest in discussing the county's procedures for trapping and managing wild life.