It was a sunny morning in Florence, Ala., when the young animal control officer loaded five dogs into a steel box the size of a pickup-truck bed. After locking the box’s door, Cody Berry pushed the button to activate the computer-controlled pump that slowly feeds carbon monoxide into the sealed death chamber. When Berry opened the door 20 minutes later, a dazed and frightened 18-month-old Beagle mix lifted his head, stood up and walked toward him.
Startled, Berry scooped up the dog and carried him down a long corridor to Debbie Rappuhn, a volunteer on the adoption side of the shelter. “Cody handed him to me and said, ‘We have to save this dog.’ He thought we should name him Daniel, after the biblical figure who survived the lions’ den,” she said. “[The dog] was shaking uncontrollably. I wanted to wash off all traces of the chamber, so I gave him a bath and wrapped him in a blanket.”
A few hours later, dog rescuer Karen Rudolph of Bethel Springs, Tenn., saw a photo of Daniel on her Facebook page. “There was a note from Debbie that said, ‘He just survived the gas chamber. We’ve got to get him out of here!’” At the same time, Rudolph received a text from Scott Messinger in Philadelphia. A Pilots N Paws pilot, Messinger flies dogs from death rows in the South to safety in the North. “Scott fell in love with Daniel and wanted me to get him,” she said.
In early November, Messinger flew the little Beagle from Tennessee to New Jersey, where he was adopted by Joe and Geralyn Dwyer. In no time, Daniel was transformed from a near-statistic—one of the three to four million animals euthanized in shelters every year—to an ambassador for ending the use of gas-chamber killings. Appearances on television, radio and the internet have spread his message.
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No one knows how Daniel survived. Some believe he had a respiratory problem that prevented him from inhaling the noxious fumes. Others, like Joe Dwyer, think it was fate. “Daniel shows unconditional love and forgiveness. It doesn’t make any sense that he could have died in a gas chamber. Gas chambers are banned as capital punishment for the worst criminals, yet they’re still used for dogs whose only crime is that they’re unloved and unwanted. Maybe Daniel can change that,” he says.
Ironically, at the time Daniel was supposed to be taking his last breath, Alabama became the 19th state to outlaw gas-chamber killings. (The ban didn’t go into effect until this month.) That’s 31 too few for Linda Schiller, founder of Eleventh Hour Rescue in Rockaway, N.J. Schiller, who coordinated Daniel’s adoption, says that some states use gas chambers because they’re easier and cheaper than euthanasia by injection.
“Ideally, we want what’s most humane for the animals,” says Inga Frick, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “We believe that, with proper [staff] training, intravenous euthanasia is the most humane alternative.” However, some states don’t allow shelters access to euthanasia drugs, so they’ll have to continue using the chambers.
“Euthanasia literally means a good death. It means the elimination of pain and stress,” explains Frick. “That means gas chambers can only be considered humane if one animal is euthanized at a time, and if that animal has no circulation problems, and isn’t pregnant or very young, old or sick. If shelters are using the chambers inappropriately, it cannot be considered humane.”
While it might seem like an easy call to ban gas chambers, animal welfare scientist Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD, of the American Veterinary Medical Association—the organization that sets guidelines for euthanasia—says it’s not so clear cut. “The AVMA hasn’t banned the use of gas chambers because when used properly, they can be humane. Our goal is to make sure that animals suffer as little as possible; so while we would like to see intravenous euthanasia used, we don’t want to eliminate a method until a more acceptable one is in place. We don’t want animals to be killed in a worse way.”
That’s exactly what worries Debbie Rappuhn. “My mission is to save dogs, but what’s going to happen after they dismantle the chamber? People think it’s kinder to use injectable drugs. They’ve got an image of a sweet old lady cuddling a dog before putting it to sleep, but that’s not going to happen. Some days they put down 30 or 40 dogs. Sometimes more. Do you think the dogs are going to be calmly euthanized? How is it going to be better for the dogs? Instead of trying to figure out what’s the best way to kill these dogs, shouldn’t the question be, ‘How do we prevent them from being euthanized in the first place?’”
Pilots N Paws
Debi Boies came up with a unique alternative to euthanasia. Instead of killing dogs, why not fly them to safety? So, four years ago, she co-founded Pilots N Paws, a group of 2,130 registered pilots who volunteer their time and planes—mostly to rescue dogs from kill shelters in the South. Since the pilots pay for everything themselves, there’s no cost to shelters. So far, PNP has rescued about 10,000 dogs.