SC animal doctors and shelter/rescue organizations at odds over proposed bill

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 31, 2013 

— Animal rescue/shelter groups still have major concerns about proposed state legislation after a meeting designed to quell their fears.

Several large groups say they will continue to oppose the bill, H.3492, which was put together at the request of the S.C. Association of Veterinarians to put limits on services offered by the rescue/shelters groups.

“The real issue is affordable veterinary care,” said Joe Elmore, CEO of the Charleston Animal Society. “Preventing nonprofit or government organizations from offering veterinary care for animals is not going to solve the problem.”

The meeting last week, put together by Reps. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, and David Hiott, R-Pickens, was held behind closed doors. Leaders of the veterinarians group came away from the meeting hopeful that the groups had found some common ground. Shelter/rescue groups were less optimistic.

If passed, the current bill would:

•  Require that animal shelters receiving public grant money or taxes use it only for sterilization procedures for animals in the shelter, not for spay/neuter clinics for non-shelter animals.

•  Require that shelters fall under the regulation of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. The bill’s backers claim some shelter employees without veterinary credentials provide veterinary care and that some shelters either don’t keep patient records or don’t share them with other vets.

Require that some veterinary services at shelters be available only for prospective pet owners who are considered low-income. The presumption is people with sufficient income could pay for the services at a private veterinarian’s office. This would add another layer of paperwork for shelters proving low-income status and a hurdle for prospective pet owners, shelters said.

Rescue/shelter groups complain that some sections of the bill seem to apply to government-related shelters and other sections apply to nonprofit groups. They hope the amendments will clarify which sections apply to which organizations.

The larger groups like Pawmetto Lifeline in the Midlands and the Charleston Animal Society have no qualms about record-keeping provisions of the bill or restrictions on veterinary services provided by non-veterinarians.

“Some of what they are trying to say shouldn’t be done (by non-veterinarians) already is against the law,” Elmore said. “We have no problem with that.”

But the shelter/rescue groups vehemently disagree with the veterinarian group’s contention that tax dollars shouldn’t be used to support groups that provide care that competes with private practice veterinarians.

“It’s a home-rule issue,” Elmore said. “The state doesn’t contribute a dime to animal sheltering. When the public gives tax dollars to animal shelters, it’s local dollars.”

Charleston County provides tax support for Elmore’s group, and both Richland and Lexington counties contributed to the construction of Pawmetto Lifeline’s new headquarters. Shelter/rescue groups say local governments should be allowed to determine the best way to control pet populations in their localities.

After an initial hearing in a House subcommittee, the bill was put on hold to allow the two sides to discuss their differences and come up with amendments. The two sides definitely came out of the meeting with different perspectives.

The veterinary group “believes the meeting with the interested parties was very positive,” said Dr. Pat Hill, president of the veterinary association, in a statement. “As a result most of the shelter community now understands that their ability to provide sterilization services would be unaffected by the legislation.”

Deloris Mungo, president of Pawmetto Lifeline, said her organization will wait to see how suggested amendments are worded before determining whether they make the bill more palatable. Regardless of the amendments, Pawmetto doesn’t think the bill is necessary.

“We believe the bill will limit access to care for thousands of pet owners in South Carolina and impose onerous regulations that will create barriers to pet adoption resulting in increased numbers of animals euthanized in shelters,” Mungo said in a statement.

Elmore said his organization “doesn’t agree with the bill in its entirety. ... Animals (are) brought to us on death’s doorstep because the owners can’t afford veterinary care. These people aren’t going to pay higher rates at private vets’ offices.”

With the House on furlough, another subcommittee hearing on the amended bill hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Many private veterinarians are concerned that the public perception paints them as looking out only for their bottom line. Dr. Tim Loonam, owner of Grace Animal Hospital in Lexington, has worked beside many of the Columbia-area animal rescue groups through the years and appreciates the work they do. But he also sees animals that have received substandard care from some groups.

“I’m confident none of the ‘mistakes’ were overt,” Loonam said. “However it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the animal rescue world, and often times the volunteers are poorly trained; the rescue groups appreciate any warm body to help. All these organizations have great intent but veterinary care requires more than ‘love and compassion.’ There is a standard of care, and many times it’s not being met.”

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