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Sen. McKell, actress seek to end gas chamber euthanasia in animal shelters

By Harrison Epstein - | Jan 18, 2023
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Actress and animal rights activist Katherine Heigl speaks during a press conference discussing proposed legislation to ban gas chamber euthanasia by Utah animal shelters on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. At right is Utah Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsor of the bill.
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Utah Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, speaks during a press conference discussing proposed legislation to ban gas chamber euthanasia by Utah animal shelters on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. At left is actress and animal rights activist Katherine Heigl.
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Actress Katherine Heigl and Utah Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, listen to questions during a press conference discussing proposed legislation to ban gas chamber euthanasia by Utah animal shelters on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
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The Utah State Capitol is shown on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

For the third straight year, a bill pushing to end the use of gas chamber euthanasia at animal shelters has reached the Utah Legislature.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, announced the introduction of Senate Bill 108, “Animal Shelter Revisions,” at a press conference Wednesday in the Utah Senate building alongside animal rights activist and actress Katherine Heigl.

Heigl spoke in support of the legislation because of the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, a nonprofit organization which seeks to “address the pet population crisis and eliminate the needless suffering of companion animals,” according to its website.

“There are really no good reasons for them to be continued to be used,” Heigl said. “Three thousand, five hundred shelters across this country do not use them. And I am a proud Utah resident; I love it here and I’m grateful to call this my home. And in my opinion, this is just a bit of a black mark on this incredibly sacred place. And I believe our animals and our voiceless and our innocents, you know, deserve our consideration in our care”

According to McKell, the issue is not widespread, saying there are “less than three” shelters euthanizing animals with gas shelters while adding that he “could be wrong” on the numbers.

While a list of said shelters was not provided, it was reported in 2022 that only two shelters in Utah still used the chambers — North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon and South Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Spanish Fork.

“I think one is too many. I think it’s still worth it,” McKell said. He added that it’s “not the Utah way” to be one of the last states in the country, or potentially the last state, to use the chambers.

In April 2022, amid protests over a stray husky-mix deemed “extremely aggressive” that was euthanized, NUVAS Director Tug Gettling said he expected to fully switch to euthanasia by injection that year.

“In August of 2021, I made a recommendation to the board that we switch to euthanasia by injection. The board supported that, and then we started down that road to get that done,” Gettling told the Daily Herald at the time. “It takes a while. You have to get state certifications, federal certifications, training … you have to be able to acquire supplies and drugs — which these supplies are controlled substances, so there are certain things you have to abide by, certain vendors you have to go through.”

SUVAS announced in July 2022 that it, too, would transition to euthanasia by injection as its primary method. Neither shelter immediately responded to new requests for additional comment and information.

Only three states have no ban on gas chamber euthanasia — Utah, Wyoming and Missouri — after Ohio passed a ban in 2022.

Heigl said she was drawn to the issue after watching a video online of euthanasia using carbon monoxide, calling the practice “torture” and adding that it is a remnant of a time when there weren’t other methods available.

She did acknowledge, though, that shelters still using carbon monoxide are using them for animals that may carry rabies, including raccoons and skunks.

“Now, I don’t love that. I still feel there are other ways,” Heigl said. “So I’d like to have that conversation with some of these shelters and talk to them about their safety, and how to maintain their safety without using the gas chamber.”

After unsuccessful introductions in 2021 and 2022, both by Sen. David Hinkins, supporters hope to pass a bill soon.

McKell was also upfront about opposition to the bill, noting that the Utah Sheriffs Association president, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, spoke out against the legislation in 2022.

Smith on Wednesday said he will not comment on the bill until the association examines it and decides whether or not to take a position.

“I talked to him and … I don’t want to put words in Sheriff Smith’s mouth. I wouldn’t say he’s supportive, but I know the opposition is less in this session than it has been in the past. We had a great conversation,” McKell said.

As for whether or not there will be others in the Legislature or outside it who speak against the bill, McKell believes the best way forward is by educating people.

“I think people don’t understand that it’s still happening in Utah,” he said. “We’ll work with the Senate and then we’re going to try to educate the House.”

McKell told reporters the bill now moves to the Rules Committee and he would like to have a hearing “within the next few weeks for sure.”

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