By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
SHENANGO VALLEY —
A Shenango Valley Animal Shelter spokesman said “nothing inhumane or unusual” occurred during recent dog euthanizations by a local veterinarian, but a Hermitage official and the shelter volunteer who complained to city commissioners said that conclusion should not be the final word on the matter.
A state law that took effect this year made it illegal to use carbon monoxide gas to euthanize unwanted animals, in favor of lethal injection. The shelter, which had used carbon monoxide for years, decided to hire local vets to put down animals when the need arises instead of taking on the cost and complexities of having employees perform the unpleasant task.
Jean English, a shelter rescue volunteer, complained to Hermitage commissioners June 26 that she had heard that local vet Dr. Larry Stefanick put down two dogs inhumanely. She also said she heard that he did not follow rules.
English said she was told two dogs were put down in a shelter van, without sedation, and that they “cried and carried on for more than 10 minutes.”
City commissioners asked Thomas R. Tulip, executive director of the agency that runs the shelter, Mercer County Regional Council of Governments, to investigate the complaint, and he provided a report to city officials, which city commissioners received Thursday.
In his report, Tulip said the lethal injection drug contains a sedative.
“Due to the large size of the animals, euthanizing these animals in the truck was deemed the safest for all personnel involved, as has been done before and is not in violation of any rules or regulations,” Tulip said.
The report includes a statement from Chief Animal Control Officer Tim Miller that said Stefanick was “very businesslike and professional” during the process. The dogs were muzzled and the injections were given without problems, he said.
“The whole process only took a few minutes,” Miller said. “The animals did not suffer needlessly.”
Stefanick will be out of town for some time, his wife said Saturday, and City Manager Gary P. Hinkson said he was not interviewed as part of Tulip’s investigation, although his office was contacted.
Tulip also included a memo in his report that he said was based on a conversation with Paul Robbins, another shelter employee and witness to the euthanizations. In the memo, Robbins is said to have agreed with Miller’s characterization of events, disputed English’s comments and called her allegations “unfounded.”
He also said he resented English “putting words in (his) mouth.”
Robbins said he told English that he generally is not comfortable witnessing the procedure, and Tulip said the death of an animal is unpleasant to watch no matter how it’s done.
Robbins also told Tulip that he believes English might have “personal issues with Dr. Stefanick based on her own private veterinary care experiences with him.”
English responded Friday in an e-mail that her recollection of conversations with Miller and Robbins “is contrary to statements contained in Tom Tulip’s letter.”
She disputed that the lethal injection drug contained a sedative, saying she talked to another vet who told her the lethal injection drug is intended to stop the animal’s heart “and is not a sedative in that application.”
From having personally witnessed the euthanization of older and terminally ill pets, “a sedative is used separately and prior to the lethal injection to gently put the animal to sleep prior to the lethal injection to eliminate stress and discomfort to the animal.,” English said.
“This is not a personal matter,” she said. “It is a matter of doing what is right and speaking for those who cannot speak.”
She added that she “(doesn’t) care which vet is selected by COG. My concern is that euthanizing is done humanely and by the rules set forth by the State Board of Veterinary Medicine.”
English recommended the shelter consult with the veterinary board to review its procedures and “ensure that future euthanizations for the shelter will be done correctly.”
Tulip stated previously that vets need to be licensed to administer lethal drugs and are subject to different regulations than the shelter.
City Commissioner Duane J. Piccirilli said he was happy that COG called together an advisory committee to discuss the allegations, but he said he wished the committee had made a recommendation or Tulip’s findings would have been reviewed “by someone with a good understanding of the process, and what is acceptable treatment, and that was not directly involved in the situation.”
“I am not saying anyone did anything wrong,” Piccirilli said. “From what I am being told it is difficult to find professionals to assist with euthanasia. It also takes a very compassionate person to work with animals in this setting. I just feel we owe it to everyone involved to make sure this matter is resolved so we can move forward. I just don’t think an internal review is going to put closure on the issue.”
Tulip said he is satisfied with the findings outlined in his report.
“It’s been thoroughly investigated,” he said.
At the commissioners’ meeting, Piccirilli asked where the issue goes from here. Commissioner William J. Moder III, the board’s representative to COG, said the subject would come up at the next COG board meeting in September.
Mercer County Humane Society Executive Director Sandi Drabick said if English’s portrayal of events is accurate, then it was “unacceptable.”
“That’s just inexcusable and inhumane, if it happened,” she said.
She added that the vets who euthanize animals for the society use a catheter to administer a sedative first, and then the lethal drug.
The shelter does not use Stefanick, she said.
While English feared that her complaint would jeopardize her volunteer efforts at the shelter, Tulip said it did not.
“This really has nothing to do with the shelter,” he said. “This is someone we contract with for services.”