Originally created 09/06/98

Death in gas chamber common fate for unwanted animals



The black-and-white mixed cocker spaniel waited patiently in a cage at the Richmond County Animal Control Shelter.

He was one of about 11,000 unwanted, neglected, sick, injured, abused or vicious animals that will die in the center's gas chamber this year.

He had no name, only a tag identifying him as R-159. He had been picked up on Milledge Road a few days earlier.

In the same cage was 007, a short-haired, spotted pointer puppy, a red chow chow and a mixed shepherd dog that animal control officers had picked up running loose on U.S. Highway 25.

Kennel master John White caught them with a catch pole, a stick with a wire noose on the end, and led them into the death room, where he loaded them into a round cage on wheels.

He rolled the cage into a round metal cylinder that resembles a large barbecue grill. The dogs' tails were still wagging.

Mr. White closed the door, locked it and turned the handle on one of the nearby tanks of carbon monoxide. For a minute, there was no sound at all but the barking of dogs in other cages.

Then it started.

One high, mournful wail and then a deeper howl that rose in a crescendo of desperation that went on for about 45 seconds.

And then it stopped.

"This is one of the thankless jobs we have to do because people won't take care of their animals and have them spayed and neutered and take care of them," said the center's director, Jim Larmer. "We have to be the ones who have to end up putting them to sleep to dispose of them."

Last year, the center killed 10,788 of the 13,913 animals it picked up, trapped or received from the public. Columbia County Animal Control put 2,495 to death.

"Ready to unload, John?" Mr. Larmer said after the dogs stopped howling.

Mr. White left the dogs in the chamber a few more minutes to make sure they were dead. Some have revived at the landfill, only to be returned for a repeat gassing.

Mr. White unlocked the door, opened it and rolled out the cage.

All were dead.

Mr. White donned a pair of thick green gloves. He pulled the chow out and threw it onto the back of a pickup truck already loaded with dead dogs and garbage. Next came a dog with cancer and then the pointer puppy and the little spaniel mix.

A worker hosed the feces out of the cage, making it ready for the next load of dogs and cats.

It had been a busy morning at animal control, where an average of 43 animals are killed each workday. Most die in the gas chamber -- a method of euthanasia now outlawed in Georgia in all new facilities.

Richmond County was grandfathered in under the law and still uses the gas chamber. It's cheaper and less troublesome for workers. More animals can be killed in less time. And it takes only one attendant, compared with lethal injection, which requires two people.

Efficiency is important because 26 more animals had been dropped off at the facility or picked up by officers in the past 18 hours that day.

Columbia County Animal Control uses the more humane and less painful injection recommended by the state and humane societies.

All new animal shelters are required to use lethal injections, and Richmond County is planning to build a new center next year. Meanwhile, an additional 11,000 animals are expected to meet their end in the round cage of death unless Augusta officials decide to shut it down.

Back in his office in the outdated, overcrowded facility by the old landfill on Mack Lane off Tobacco Road, Mr. Larmer and animal health technician Rosemary Reynolds showed their "cruelty books," photograph albums that document for court purposes neglected, abused and injured animals.

There are three books. The Polaroid pictures, dating back to 1991, give evidence of dogs eaten up with mange or starved. Dozens had been tied with ropes or chains that have cut deep gashes in their necks.

Some people put collars on puppies and never take them off, Mrs. Reynolds said. The collars eventually grow into an animal's neck.

"You'll be surprised how bad some people will treat an animal," she said.

People who abuse their pets often try to heap abuse on animal control officers, said Edward Jefferson, a five-year veteran of the department.

"Some of the public you can talk to," he said. "But most of the time, the public thinks we are cruel to animals and they don't like us because we are animal control. They figure animals can run loose and do whatever they want to do."

But to animal activist Ruth Tracy-Blackburn, animal control officers are unsung heroes.

"Richmond and Columbia counties are so fortunate to have animal control facilities. People can sit there and criticize them all day long, but it's the people's fault the animals are out there," said Ms. Blackburn, vice president of McDuffie County Friends of Animals.

Columbia County Animal Control uses lethal injection, a much more humane way to destroy unwanted dogs and cats.

Friday, the day this is usually done, technicians already had put 25 animals to death by noon and were about to do No. 26.

He was a black male Labrador-bulldog mix whose owner just didn't want him anymore. Except for the scars on his head and ears that bore testimony to fights with other dogs -- probably over females in heat, since he had not been neutered -- he appeared perfectly healthy.

The employees led him into a small room, known as the O.R. He offered no resistance when they lifted him onto the stainless steel table. He sat placidly while one tied a tourniquet around his foreleg. Then senior animal control officer Mary Grant injected a vial of a narcotic, Socumb, into a vein and untied the tourniquet.

Almost instantly, he began to go limp and the technicians lifted him from the table and laid him on the floor in the next room. His tongue lolled out of his mouth, and he was dead.

It took 25 seconds from start to finish.

His eyes stared lifelessly at the pickup truck that held the bodies of the 25 other animals that had been killed that morning, most because nobody wanted them.

They would be buried in the Columbia County landfill.