Mecklenburg uses lethal injection to euthanize animals

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
CHARLOTTE ó Dr. Mary Blinn checks a daily report of animals up for lethal injection at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control.
“Just because they’re on the report doesn’t mean they’re actually going to be euthanized,” she says.
What it does mean is that those picked up as strays have been at the shelter for at least 72 hours, the time state law requires shelters to wait for owners to reclaim them.
Blinn says most of the 25 dogs on today’s report are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, the only breed the animal shelter does not adopt out. “Back in 1984, there was a child killed by a pit bull mix, and so the policy was put in place not to adopt them out,” she says.
The shelter does work with pit bull rescue groups, which Blinn says “are in a much better position to screen adopters who want pit bulls and make sure they are going to the right homes.”
After reviewing the report, Blinn asks Animal Health Technician Jeremy Helms to bring in the first dog while she opens the box of drugs assigned to her. She and her technicians each have a box assigned to them.
The drugs, all controlled substances, must be locked when not in use, and Blinn says she and the technicians are accountable if any are missing.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg uses the Fatal-Plus brand of sodium pentobarbital in its lethal injections.

Helms arrives with the first dog on a leash, a black pit bull mix found running loose in a neighborhood. The dog seems timid, but not fearful.
Helms picks the dog up and places him on a metal examination table. The euthanasia tech holds the dog firmly, but gently while Blinn checks to make sure his identification number matches the number on the report.
She then uses a wand detector to check for a microchip and looks for an identifying tattoo on his body. Finding none, Blinn places the needle of a syringe into the Fatal-Plus vial and draws in a lethal dosage based on the dog’s weight, then injects it into the dog’s forearm.
Almost immediately, the dog dies in Helms’ arms.
He lowers it to the table so Blinn can verify death with a stethoscope. She nods to Helms when she is done, and he picks up the dog and places it in a plastic cart in the next room.

Helms leaves to get the second dog, returning a few minutes later with a dark-brown pit bull mix. This dog is thinner and afraid.
“It’s OK,” says Director Mark Balestra, who is present for part of the viewing.
Melissa Knicely, public information specialist/special events and promotions coordinator for Animal Care and Control, says, “It’s OK, sweet pea.”
Blinn also tries to reassure the dog.
Balestra says the dog is a result of irresponsible pet ownership. “This dog looks like a rack of bones because of poor nutrition, poor care …” he says, pointing out numerous scars that appear to have come from fighting.
Blinn is unable to find a vein on her first try. She removes the needle gently and quickly before trying two more times to find a vein.
If she had not been able to find a vein the third time, she says she would have tranquilized the dog before trying again.
Aggressive dogs are also tranquilized so staff members do not have to handle them until they’re unconscious. Feral cats are restrained in a netted carrier to protect staff.
The third dog to be euthanized today is a larger, lighter-brown pit bull mix. He is friendly and wags his tail as Helms guides him into the euthanasia room on a leash.
“Hello, handsome,” Blinn says.
Helms has difficulty holding the dog because he’s so playful.
“OK, it’s all right,” Blinn says. “What a good man you are.”
She pets the dog before administering the lethal dose, then verifies death and scratches his ear.
Helms adds his body to the cart.

Though there are 22 more dogs on the report ó there are sometimes twice that many in the summer ó Blinn turns the task over to Helms so she can answer questions about the method.
Inside of her office, a one-eyed cat named Willie occupies one of the two chairs for visitors. He’s one of the rescued animals that live at the Animal Shelter.
A bookshelf behind Blinn’s desk displays photos of her six pets: three cats and three dogs.
Blinn has been the veterinarian at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control for almost 23 years.
“I worked for a short time in a small animal practice and was less than fulfilled even though that is what I thought I would do when I first went to vet school,” she says. “I then went to work for the Humane Society of Charlotte’s spay/neuter clinic, which was right next to the animal shelter.”
Blinn says the shelter director at that time was “a forward-thinking woman” who felt the shelter needed a veterinarian on staff, “and so she recruited me.”
That was back in 1986 when, Blinn says, it was rare to find a veterinarian working in an animal shelter. “But now it is a rapidly growing field,” she says.
“I am here for the animals, and they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion,” she says. “Once you lose that, you don’t need to be in the job anymore.”
Blinn is reluctant to compare the lethal injection and carbon monoxide gas chamber methods of euthanasia because she has only administered lethal injection, but says she believes it is more humane for kittens and puppies.
Because the pediatric animals are more resistant to hypoxia (low oxygen concentration in the blood stream) caused by the deadly gas, she says, it may take longer for the carbon monoxide concentration to build up enough to cause death. “They could still be alive after the cycle has run its course.”
From July 1 of last year through March 31 of this year, the shelter has euthanized 9,408 animals, including 3,969 dogs and 4,681 cats. During the fiscal year 2007-2008, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Care and Control euthanized 12,474 animals, including 4,987 dogs and 5,921 cats.
This was down slightly from the previous year, when 12,520 animals were euthanized, including 5,225 dogs and 5,944 cats.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control has euthanized unwanted animals by lethal injection for at least 25 years.
Rowan County Animal Control Supervisor Clai Martin, Rowan Director of Administration Ken Deal and N.C. Rep Fred Steen visited the Charlotte-Mecklenburg shelter to see the lethal injection procedure.
Director Mark Balestra says he was disappointed to see the method described as “gruesome” in a Feb. 24 Salisbury Post article quoting Deal at a Rowan County Board of Commissioners retreat.
Balestra says he and his staff make it a policy not to criticize methods being used by colleagues even if they are different from lethal injection. The bottom line, he says, is that whatever method is being used, “no one leaves with a happy feeling at the end of the day.”
Blinn says she felt Deal’s description of lethal injection was a mischaracterization of the process.
“As you saw, I don’t think it is anywhere near being gruesome,” she says. “I don’t know if he said that just to support the gas chamber, but what is not realized sometimes is that people don’t always pay close attention to what is said in the paper.”
Blinn says readers may not have realized that was only an opinion of the process. “They hear that Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s euthanasia process is gruesome,” she says.
“We gladly open our doors to other agencies and don’t want our reputation harmed in the process.”
nnnComing Thursday: Read what two animal control officials at nearby shelters have to say about offering both carbon monoxide gas chamber and lethal injection methods of euthanasia.
On Saturday, read about how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control is working with volunteers to offer spay/neuter clinics, help struggling owners feed their dogs and increase the number of animal adoptions.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.