The stainless steel table where dogs and cats are injected with deadly chemicals is cleared for now. The small box with the picture window that fills with carbon monoxide is empty.
But the instruments of death at the Wake County animal shelter will be busy again, as they will be across the state. So many cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters in North Carolina that pet owners could soon pay more to stop -- or at least slow down -- the killing.
A legislative panel recommended Thursday that taxes on pet food should increase to reduce the number of animals euthanized in North Carolina shelters. If adopted, the tax would cost pet owners less than $2 a year if they own one large, hungry dog, supporters said.
The committee -- composed of legislators, veterinarians, animal control officials and animal rights advocates -- urged the legislature to raise taxes by $10 a ton on dry pet food and $1 a case of canned food to pay for a program aimed at controlling and reducing the overpopulation of pets. Currently, manufacturers are assessed 12 cents per ton on dry food and 3 cents per 48-can case of canned food. The increases would raise an estimated $8 million annually, with manufacturers likely passing on the costs to consumers.
Residents also could check a box on their state income tax forms to provide $3 of their tax payment to the initiative.
The bill is expected to go before the legislature in May.
In 2002, North Carolina shelters killed 265,289 cats and dogs, nearly 40,000 more than the previous year. About 10,000 die each year at the Wake County animal shelter and the now-closed shelter run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Wake County. A new SPCA shelter that opened last month will not kill, shifting all euthanasia to the county.
The numbers are smaller elsewhere in the Triangle. For 2001, the Animal Protection Society of Durham killed 4,300 animals, the society's Orange County shelter 2,200 and the Johnston County SPCA, 670.
On the whole, the state's euthanasia rate is much higher than the national average.
"This is a real problem in this state," said Rep. Dewey Hill, a Democrat from Columbus County who co-chaired the committee. "This needs attention now. It needed attention yesterday."
If approved, the money would be used to increase spaying and neutering. The legislation would require that animals could only leave a shelter if they are spayed or neutered. It also would give new powers to the state Department of Agriculture to investigate complaints at shelters. No standard complaint procedure exists.
The 28-member committee was appointed in the fall by the House co-speakers in response to a series of articles in The Charlotte Observer. At one of the committee's meetings in November, a video of the gas chamber in Yadkin County was shown, prompting strong reactions among members. The tape showed animals piled atop one another, live dogs mixing with the already dead.
"Conditions there are very, very poor," said Alice Singh, president of the county's Humane Society.
The tax increases would cost consumers about 10 cents more on a 20-pound bag of food or 2 cents on a can. Dr. Lee Hunter, a veterinarian with the state Department of Health and Human Services, estimated the added cost for pet owners at no more than $1.86 per year for a 50- to 75-pound dog.
Opponents of the bill disputed Hunter's numbers but didn't supply their own. Many of the state's hunting clubs, as well as the pet food industry, came out against the increase.
In a statement Thursday, the Pet Food Institute said the hike would do nothing to decrease the number of unwanted pets, and would punish responsible pet owners. The group, which represents companies that make 95 percent of the pet food in the United States, vowed to fight the bill.
Hunters, many owning scores of dogs, said the tax increase itself isn't the only reason they oppose the bill. Keith Loudermilt, president of the N.C. Sporting Dogs Association, said hunters were left out of the process of drafting the changes.
"This is a cultural and heritage issue for us," Loudermilt said. "There are agendas behind this committee that are detrimental to our future."
Tensions ran high at times on Thursday. When Mary Jo Morris, an animal advocate from Moore County, said that if hunters loved their dogs they would support the bill, Rep. Cary Allred, an Alamance Republican, strongly objected.
"I've heard the problem is the stupid, ignorant people who may be low-income," he said.
When Rep. Julia Howard, a Davie County Republican who co-chaired the committee, said she hadn't heard anyone say that, Allred replied: "I certainly heard it in the hallways. I heard that many times."
At the Wake shelter, off U.S. 64 in east Raleigh, the bill is not expected to have a major impact. The county is already working with the SPCA to increase adoptions and spay and neuter all pets that go through the system. Students from the N.C. State University veterinary school will soon help spay and neuter animals. In 2002, 59 percent of animals there were killed, with 28 percent eventually adopted. In 2001, more than a dozen were killed each day, on average.
Killing thousands of animals each year takes its toll on employees and volunteers, they say. They're the ones who get to experience the overpopulation problem every day.
"It's hard on any human being to be around death," said Marshall Botvinick, a volunteer and Duke University student. "It's emotionally taxing to work here."
Staff writer John Zebrowski can be reached at 829-4841 or email@example.com.