The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

SA Pound

Today's Express-News has Phil Hardberger wanting to speed up the process in which the city's animal shelter will change the way they euthanize animals. For those who may have missed this issue here in San Antonio, here are several articles to catch you up. Currently the city shelter uses three carbon monoxide chambers to euthanize the city's homeless animals. A change is in the works (in large part because of grassroots organizations and the Express-News' articles) to switch from the gas chambers to lethal injections by early 2006, but Hardberger would like to move that date up to Oct. 15:

Mayor Phil Hardberger wants to speed up the timetable on providing a more humane way of euthanizing the city's homeless animal population, but budget realities and a lack of personnel are standing in the way.

San Antonio euthanizes stray dogs and cats in carbon monoxide chambers at the municipal animal shelter in Brackenridge Park. The mayor wants to end the gassing of the animals and switch to lethal injections by Oct. 15, almost three months earlier than pound officials had hoped.

"If I could change it tomorrow, I would change it tomorrow," Hardberger said Tuesday. "(Ninety days) is the quickest they say they can do it."

But city officials acknowledge that making the change by Oct. 15 will be difficult.

"We're developing a program to accomplish that," said Animal Care and Control Services Director Sam Sanchez. "But it's going to require some dollars, staff, equipment and things of that nature."

Hardberger said that although he has not seen a dollar amount for moving to lethal injections, which use sodium pentobarbital, he understands from city staff that the transition would require more money initially.

Sanchez said the switch would require more qualified and properly trained staff, as well as money that would have to come out of the current budget.

"Whether you switch in 90, 30 or 40 days depends on resources," he said. "What he's talking about is doing it now, so we're talking about the current budget, and I would have to find the money to do that."

Sanchez could not provide an estimate of what it would cost to change to lethal injections, saying it would be purely speculative.

Laura Stanford, a member of the steering committee of Citizens for Pound Reform, acknowledged that "there might be budgetary obstacles" to switching to lethal injections, but added, "I think it's feasible."

Sanchez said there are a number of things outside of cost that would influence how quickly the shelter could make the change. The staff would have to be trained in how to administer lethal injections, and rotating teams would have to be formed so that just one or two staffers weren't injecting animals all day, every day.

"If I pull someone from kennel duty to do euthanasia all day, then the kennel duties are suffering," he said, adding that all supervisors and kennel attendants will be trained.

"It's not something we're assigning (just) to the bottom-rung individuals," Sanchez said. "There's no denying I'll need additional staff so I can fill in the gaps where the staff vacates by doing euthanasia by injection."

Stanford said her main concern with the switch would be proper training of staff, because euthanasia by injection is only humane if done properly.

Another problem is the time frame picked by Hardberger. It's the busiest time of the year, when litters of puppies and kittens are born and either picked up by animal control officers or surrendered by residents, swelling the shelter's population.

"Impoundments also need to come to the fore in public discussions," Sanchez said. "This is also part of the discussion, and we need to not lose sight of that."

Lethal injections would also require making space at the existing 60-year-old shelter because the gas chambers could not be suitably converted into a euthanasia room, Sanchez said.

In December, the San Antonio Express-News used a formula accepted by animal control departments across the nation to figure the cost of lethal injections for nearly 50,000 cats and dogs — the number put to sleep last year at the city's shelter. It would cost $74,000, including startup and staffing expenses.

Hardberger said he is committed to making any budget adjustments that would be needed to make the change.

"Whatever we need to do we will find the money to do it and we will get it done," he said.

Sanchez shares Hardberger's optimism while remaining cautiously realistic.

"You can do almost anything, but it ultimately comes down to resources," he said. "It requires a complete makeover, and those aren't done immediately."

Knowing very little about this issue, I shot an e-mail late last night to a reader who had asked me to write about pound reform earlier in the year. Here's what the reader had to say:

It's tremendously good news, but the potential for train-wreckage is very high if they don't get staff trained properly and devote the time it takes to do it right. (For the record, they're not euthanizing by gas "right" either due to budget shortages. Per state law, the carbon monoxide concentration must be continuously monitored in each chamber to prevent hypoxia; once we viewed the chamber and noticed how long the animals suffered, they checked it out and discovered that the main feeding CO into the three chambers had a leak, so the gas was too dilute. Also, the entire process is supposed to be monitored - the gas chambers have a glass front - but staff leave as soon as it's clear the gas is running to go get the next load of animals. Sandberg's original Express-News article quoted one of the staff as saying it's too hard to watch.) A couple of examples of how euthanasia by injection could be done wrong: animals that aren't docile are going to resist being plunked down and injected. These animals need a sedative first if they and staff aren't going to get hurt, not to mention terrified. Same thing for puppies and kittens who are so young that they must be injected intracardially. These babies have GOT to be sedated prior to going through something like that. (I personally would like to see every animal sedated first.) So the bottom line on that point is that good training and monitoring is key, as is sufficient staffing. Of course we have yet to see what will happen with the budget.

The reader then goes on to give, in my opinion, a better solution:

And of course another issue is that due to the power of reproductive compounding, San Antonio can simply never get on top of the animal overpopulation problem with a catch-and-kill approach. We can reasonably trace 2004's 50K gassed back to 28 unsterilized animals in 2001. Sterilizing these animals would've cost around $1700, as compared to the $3.2M it took to catch and kill their descendents four years later. Spay/neuter is the win-win scenario for everyone: it's the most - hell, ONLY - effective approach as well as the cheapest and most humane. Animals realize health and behavior benefits and fewer unwanted animals are born. The biggest barrier right now is lack of capacity for free and low-cost spay/neuter. At a private vet you might be looking at a $150 bill. It's sure not just people living under the federal poverty level who aren't going to prioritize spay/neuter at that price.

On top of that, said reader points us to a very good website dedicated solely to SA pound reform, they even have a blog! Check the website out, and I'm putting up a link to them on the sidebar underneath "Other SA Blogs".