AUSTIN (AP) — Strict enforcement of a previously obscure state regulation is threatening the no-kill movement across Texas and could result in animal shelters euthanizing tens of thousands of additional pets each year, advocates warn.
A “clarification” of state rules by the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners last August already has sparked a court case and caused widespread confusion among city officials and private groups.
The Houston Chronicle reports at issue is the veterinary care provided to animals in municipal shelters and privately operated animal rescue organizations.
Under its rules, the board requires the same level of medical care and attention for shelter dogs and cats as they would receive from a private veterinarian. That means volunteers and fosters cannot perform routine care, such as administering intake vaccinations, without a trained vet present. It also means shelter veterinarians must provide individual care to each shelter animal upon intake.
Shelters say requiring a veterinarian at all times would bust their budgets and reverse efforts to reach and maintain no-kill status of euthanasia rates at or below 10 percent. Without full-time vet staff, advocates say, shelters eventually would fall back on euthanizing more animals because state law allows trained staff to administer lethal injections.
“There’s no need for this policy,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, a leading animal advocate in the Legislature who has sponsored humane treatment bills. “We already have high-kill shelters, and this would just exacerbate that. They’re just going to turn into euthanasia centers.”
Nicole Oria, executive director of the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said the agency has interpreted the law in this way to protect public health and safety. Shelters, she said, will not be targeted by the agency because it only takes action when it gets a complaint.
But shelter veterinarians and their advocates worry that this could leave them open to investigations by disgruntled former employees, volunteers or rival groups. Some have found ways to circumvent the rule, at least in the short term.
San Antonio and Austin have passed ordinances that allow city shelter staff and volunteers to provide medical care by giving them caretaker status upon intake. Private groups have sought to be exempted from board oversight by taking ownership of animals. That excludes them from the rule because pets are classified as property under state law.
There is no such ordinance in Houston, where Greg Damianoff, director of BARC, the city’s animal shelter and adoption facility, said the rule could affect its low-cost wellness services.
“It basically would shut down my wellness altogether because I can’t afford to put a vet in there all the time,” he said.
The board said it clarified the vet rule after receiving several complaints. Last August, the agency said it “should not have any impact on legal veterinary practice in the shelters of Texas.” But the board has tried to discipline Dr. Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive! and San Antonio Pets Alive!, under the rule.
The Austin vet has helped that city become a model for no-kill municipal shelters. But the board attempted to fine her $2,000 and suspend her license after it received two complaints about care at her San Antonio facilities.
The first involved a volunteer who said a dog she was fostering died after Jefferson failed to treat it in person, administering medical advice over the phone. The second came from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which alleged animal cruelty at SAPA!’s kitten facility. A city investigation found no proof of wrongdoing.
Jefferson sued the board, saying she was exempted from its oversight because she owned all the animals at the shelter, including those being fostered. State and national organizations have come to her defense.
“This interpretation not only prevents quality shelter veterinary professionals from adhering to the community standard of care, but forces them to practice below the standard of care or risk violation of the TSBVME rules,” wrote the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.
Jefferson and the board are in settlement talks.
Larry Tucker, a member of the Austin Animal Advisory Commission who helped spearhead the no-kill movement in that city, said he is concerned that the disciplinary action against Jefferson is retaliatory or an attempt to protect private veterinarians over those who practice at shelters.
“There is debate that they’re overstepping their reach, and they don’t even have the authority to enforce it,” he said.
Oria, the board executive director, denied that the agency is favoring private vets. General counsel Kate Fite confirmed that the agency has taken action against two private vets for selling or donating medication to shelters.
Tucker chalked up at least some of the current fight to bad blood in the animal care community. Lisa Norwood of the city of San Antonio’s Animal Care Services agreed, calling the local animal-rights community “a rumor mill” that hurts shared animal welfare goals: “How can we do that if we are riddled with infighting?”
Internal politics aside, Oria puts the onus for a fix on legislators.
“When the (Veterinary Licensing) Act was passed, no one had conceived of no-kill shelters,” Oria said, adding the state law is vague. “It’s our statute. It’s our Legislature. Please go seek a legislative solution.”
Farrar said she would be interested in sponsoring legislation to ensure shelters, both city and private, have the freedom to practice a more flexible type of medical care.
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