Police chief wants euthanasia policy for pets

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

The city is facing a dilemma since making the state-mandated switch to a new kind of animal disposal — to kill or not to kill pets at the request of their owners.

Police Chief Steve Sanders said almost as soon as the city animal shelter began lethal injection instead of the gas chamber in July, requests started coming in from residents who wanted their animals euthanized.

Local animal rights proponents say the city should continue providing the service free of charge.

But Sanders isn’t sure.

“There’s a lot of people, that whether they’re elderly or elderly and financially unable or just financially unable (that need the option),” said Darlene Ray, president of the Clovis Animal Welfare League.

“We’re dealing with people who for whatever reason can’t afford to take (their pet) to the vet, the animal shouldn’t have to suffer… I don’t know why they can’t provide it. (I think) it should be included with our taxes.”

But now, with high accountability and the labor intensive method of lethal injection, Sanders says he has concerns about providing a free, unchecked euthanasia service.

Sanders said the unwritten practice of euthanizing owned animals is a leftover from the past. He said has during the gas chamber days, euthanizing ill or injured animals for owners was done on a case-by-case basis.

But now Sanders said many who find lethal injection a more appealing option are hoping the city will do it for free.

Before, it was relatively easy and inexpensive to euthanize owned pets without creating strain on the system or incurring additional costs, Sanders said. The gas chamber was such a simplistic, cost-effective method, he said.

In the first six months of 2008, Sanders said an estimated 10 pets were euthanized and 21 in the same period this year.

He said he recognizes there are situations where an animal is suffering and their owner doesn’t have the resources to bring that suffering to an end.

“We’re looking at a policy to find a way to make it fair and equitable for everyone,” he said.

“(In the meantime), we’ve basically drawn a line in the sand… unless its a stray dog or cat, we’re not prepared to euthanize it. What we don’t want is to become the kill house.”

Sanders said he believes there must be a well-thought out policy in place before he accepts pets for lethal injection.

Concerns include:

• Unnecessarily exposing other animals at the shelter to sick or diseased animals.

• Verifying ownership of surrendered animals to avoid liability.

• Avoiding undercutting local veterinarians.

• And how to determine who qualifies for euthanasia services, under what circumstances and at what cost.

“How do I decide whose dog I put down and whose dog I don’t? I don’t have to rule with my emotions, I have to rule with logic,” he said.

“(But the real) problem is how do we get the message through to pet owners to take care of your pets, spay and neuter and vaccinate?”

Other communities in the state offer pet euthanasia services to residents. Santa Fe and Las Cruces charge $25 and Hobbs $15. Roswell and Albuquerque offer the service for free.

Sanders said the animal shelter is currently euthanizing under a temporary state license and under the guidance of a veterinarian.

He would like to have a decision and policy made on the issue by the time the license arrives in about four to six weeks.

In the two-and-a-half months since lethal injection became state mandated, Sanders said 526 dogs and cats have been euthanized.

Before, workers placed animals en mass into a chamber, pressed a button and waited.

Now, it now takes three technicians to euthanize one animal. Death can take anywhere from a few minutes to much longer if there are complications.

Lethal injection is also taking a toll on shelter workers, he said, as they retool themselves to complete a different task, hands-on than the one they were accustomed to performing.

Millie Lawson of Clovis said when her pet, Chiquita, a 3-month old Chihuahua puppy became critically ill last week, the shelter denied her request to euthanize.

Lawson said she had no other options and believes the shelter should euthanize animals to prevent their suffering when their owners don’t have the money to go to the vet.

Disabled and on a fixed income, the 47-year-old said she pulls together the money to have her dog vaccinated and checked by a vet. But the unexpected cost of euthanasia was more than she could muster.

At $30 to $80 depending on the vet, Lawson said she had no choice but to watch her animal suffer.

“She really suffered through all that because we didn’t have any choice. We just continued to hope,” she said.

After several days, Lawson said the Chiquita suddenly turned around and started improving.

Lawson said she still thinks the city should provide the service since they have the means.

Lawson isn’t alone, according to Dennis Arseneault, who does home care for elderly and disabled.

Many shut-ins, elderly and disabled people keep pets for companionship and comfort or had pets before their situation took a turn for the worst.

With fixed incomes, those people have little or no options when their animals become gravely ill or aged, she said.

“It could run into a situation of, ‘do I eat or do I have my dog put down,’” he said.