- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (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 (http://bit.ly/1iSXXuf ) 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.

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