By Jana Cone
TIFTON — For 17 years, it has been illegal in Georgia to euthanize dogs and cats in a gas chamber. The Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter was using a carbon-monoxide gas chamber until just a few weeks ago.
“I did what I was told to do,” Regenia Wells, director of the shelter, said Wednesday. “All I know now is I can’t use it anymore.”
Wells said she was told by State Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin that she could use the gas chamber to euthanize animals at the shelter in a face-to-face meeting she had with him a year ago in his office.
Wells explained to The Gazette Wednesday that the shelter formerly euthanized animals by lethal injection. She said an inspector with the Department of Agriculture, when she came to the shelter, told her that if there were less than 25,000 people in the county, she could use the gas chamber. Wells said she told the inspector there were 23,000 people living in the county and 15,000 living in the city for a total of 38,000. Wells said the inspector told her she could use the gas chamber.
Wells said she did not act on the advice of the state inspector right away.
“We went to Atlanta for Tifton Day last year in May,” Wells said. “Commissioner Charlotte Bedell and I met with Tommy Irvin that day in his office.”
Bedell was serving as a county commissioner at the time, but is no longer in office.
Wells said that while she was there she asked Irvin if she could use the gas chamber.
“He told me I could,” she said. “So I got the gas chamber.”
Wells said that at this point, “I don’t know what I can say and what I can’t say.”
This week the Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter has been named in local and national news articles for illegally using gas to euthanize animals. WALB carried the information earlier this week and the Associated Press released the information Wednesday.
The AP article, written by Errin Haines, quoted State Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin as saying he does not have the authority to tell animal shelters what method they can use to euthanize animals.
The practice of putting dogs and cats to death in carbon-monoxide gas chambers was outlawed in Georgia in 1990. The only legal method of euthanasia is lethal injection. The Georgia Animal Protection Act states that the use of sodium pentobarbital, or a derivative of it, is the exclusive method of euthanasia of dogs and cats by animal shelters. It has to be administered by a licensed veterinarian or under his supervision. The state laws for animal protection fall under the Department of Agriculture.
Irvin was named in a lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court on Monday. The lawsuit accuses Irvin and the Department of Agriculture of illegally allowing dogs and cats to be gassed.
Haines said in his article: “The lawsuit claims that the department (of agriculture) approved the illegal gassing practice as recently as May, when a department inspector allegedly observed a gassing at the Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter.”
Brent Hyde, with the county attorney’s office, said, “They (the animal shelter) are not using the gas chamber now. I don’t know the exact date they stopped using the gas.”
Hyde said it was his office that informed animal-shelter staff members it was illegal to use the gas chamber.
Hyde explained that the euthanasia issue came to light when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made an open records request from the animal shelter. Hyde said PETA was given the records they requested.
“They (PETA) found out about it,” Hyde said. Wells said PETA filed a complaint.
Hyde said it was at that point — in early February — that the animal-shelter staff members were given a copy of the Georgia law by his office.
“We are currently complying with the law,” Hyde said. He said animals are now taken to a veterinarian and given lethal injection. “They go to Curtis Branch or Quailwood,” Hyde said.
Wells said the shelter quit using the gas chamber Feb. 1 when she was notified by the county attorney’s office that it was illegal.
Larry Branch, doctor of vetininary medicine and owner of Quailwood Animal Hospital, said the animal shelter, some time ago, had been bringing animals to his hospital for euthanasia on a regular basis, then started bringing them just on “special” occasions and now has gone back to routinely bringing the animals for euthanasia.
Branch said he does the euthanasia on a per-animal basis. “It’s not a profitable situation,” Branch said. “It really is more of a service to the community.”
Branch said the larger issue is that people are irresponsible and let animals be born that can’t be taken care of. “Then the animal shelter staff gets this heartbreaking task,” he said. “They are as professional and kind as any I have ever known.”
Curtis Branch, whose animal clinic is on Belmont Avenue, said, “We just made a trip out there (to the animal shelter). They had a large number of animals to be euthanized.” Branch said that a smaller number of animals would have been brought into the clinic.
“We had been doing it for years until they purchased the incinerator,” Branch said. He said the incinerator was for cremating the remains.
PETA has also included Tift County in an “Action Alert” on their Web site. They are encouraging their members to support prosecution of Marcus Bryant Webb and 20 of his codefendants who reportedly face felony charges from an alleged cockfight that took place April 16. According to PETA, nine birds were found dead, two were euthanized due to injuries and 41 were seized by the authorities.
Attempts to reach State Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin and former Tift County Commissioner Charlotte Bedell by press time were unsuccessful.
To contact reporter Jana Cone, call 382-4321, ext. 208