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Animal Commissioners skeptical of vet legislation

Friday, March 20, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin’s Animal Advisory Commission decided Wednesday that City Council should investigate whether two bills filed in the Texas Legislature would affect the city’s no-kill agenda.

The bills, one of which opponents say threatens the ability of city shelters to care for animals, will be placed on Council’s legislative agenda with recommendations neither for nor against them.

This was the commission’s second formal consideration of these bills. At its regular meeting last week, the six-person commission heard from Austin lawyer Ryan Clinton, who said it should recommend Council oppose HB 1274.

Clinton argued that this bill, which was filed by Rep. Lyle Larson (D-San Antonio), would overturn a loophole in state law popular among animal shelters. It allows shelters to assume “ownership” of the animal, exempting their staff from veterinary practices regulations and permitting nonlicensed staff to perform medical procedures.

The exemption is attractive to shelters because many are unable to hire enough veterinarians to meet their needs — especially if the shelter has a no-kill policy, like those in Austin. Saving animals requires more veterinary work than does simply euthanizing them. Last week, Clinton said that passing HB 1274 would “kill the practice of lifesaving.”

Wednesday night, the Animal Commission heard from the state association that conceived the bill. Elizabeth Choate, director of government relations at the Texas Veterinarian Medical Association, said her organization believes the state should hold all veterinarians to a professional standard of care.

“I’m an attorney,” said Choate. “It would be like saying because I’m doing pro bono work, none of the board of law standards should apply to me.”

She said HB 1274 lays out a way for shelters to function without exempting their veterinarians from the law, but keeping shelters’ financial restraints in mind.

Choate said the bill permits shelter staff to follow a set of guidelines written by a veterinarian. Under those circumstances, veterinarians are not required to care for the animal in person. Instead, as long as they have left behind written protocols that follow the state’s standard of care, nonlicensed staff can give medicine to animals without facing legal action.

“There cannot always be a veterinarian in a shelter,” said Choate. “We wish that there would be. We think that a full veterinarian exam is an ideal situation. But that’s not realistic. That’s not going to happen. In many shelters around the state, there are no vets. Some can’t afford a vet. … So there needs to be a way for shelter veterinarians to say, ‘Look, you can administer these drugs.’”

Choate said the TVMA does not support the second bill, HB 859, which upholds current law.

“(HB) 859 is, frankly, dangerous,” she said. “It completely and totally exempts veterinarians from all the standards of practice they’re expected to operate under.”

Choate said that for years now, the medical association has been hoping to see the law catch up to the reality of shelter practice — that, unlike private veterinarian practice, shelter veterinary practice would be more effective if run like herd medicine because of the sheer number of animals they care for, with their priority being to stem communicable disease.

Commission member Robert Shaw suggested they send the bills to Council with recommendations. However, other members said Council has more legal advice at its disposal and could make a more informed decision about how, if at all, the bills would affect city shelters.

The motion to send the bills to Council without an endorsement passed 5-1, with Commissioner Geigel voting in opposition.

Photo By Jocelyn Augustino (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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