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Calif. High court rejects anti-declaw challenge


San Francisco -Attorneys with the California State Department of Consumer Affairs want to put a legislative stopper on West Hollywood's anti-declaw law, cemented last month by the state Supreme Court's refusal to hear a challenge to the ban.

SAN FRANCISCO —Attorneys with the California State Department of Consumer Affairs want to put a legislative stopper on West Hollywood's anti-declaw law, cemented last month by the state Supreme Court's refusal to hear a challenge to the ban.

At press time, department officials were considering means to close a state-code loophole that's allowed West Hollywood to criminalize a regulated and sanctioned medical procedure. Taking the issue before lawmakers could protect all California regulatory agencies and their respective licensees, proponents say.

West Hollywood officials, meanwhile, are basking in legal victory. On Oct. 14, state Supreme Court justices declined to consider the California Veterinary Medical Association's (CVMA) challenge of the city's ban. The move strengthens a July appeals-court decision that upheld West Hollywood's 2003 anti-declaw ordinance by validating a municipality's right to outlaw veterinary medical procedures, officials say. It reversed a trial court's judgment favoring CVMA's position that local laws have no business infringing on a veterinarian's right to practice by outlawing procedures overseen by state regulations, including the Veterinary Medical Practice Act.

West Hollywood's Hernan Molina, deputy to Mayor John Duran, confirms officials are issuing letters to the city's three veterinary practices, reminding doctors that performing non-therapeutic declaws are criminal misdemeanors that carry fines and jail time.

"We'll be citing veterinarians on a complaint basis," he maintains.

So far, fallout from West Hollywood's victory has been restricted to veterinary medicine, with ear cropping and tail docking next on the city's agenda. South Pasadena is the latest California municipality to consider a copycat anti-declaw measure.

But on a broader scale, West Hollywood's legal win could have dire ramifications, critics contend. It opens the door for local restrictions on all regulated professions, leaving controversial but state-sanctioned human-health electives vulnerable to a municipality's impulse to ban, CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker says.

"The state now realizes how big this decision is," she says. "It affects every single licensed profession in California. We absolutely support a change in the statute that would give the state ultimate authority over professions and quash the power of local government entities to regulate licensed activity."

City rebuff

The consumer-affairs department's involvement is so preliminary, West Hollywood authorities were unaware of it at press time. Sue Geranen, California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB) executive secretary, confirms department officials wrote a letter to the Supreme Court backing CVMA's opinion, but it's too early to tell what will happen.

Molina suspects any legislative push designed to nullify the city's ordinance will garner little support in Sacramento, considering lawmakers in 2004 nearly passed a statewide ban on declawing domestic cats before CVMA opposition derailed the measure. The following year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Anti-Declaw Act, a bill restricted to wild and exotic cats.

For West Hollywood, the local ban falls in line with the city's goal to set minimum standards for the humane treatment of animals. It's not about an attempt to supersede a state regulatory agency, Molina explains.

"The Legislature left the law unoccupied, creating this window for us. Any effort to change that would be a long shot in my opinion," he states.

At the practice level

That means DVMs practicing within the city's 1.9 square miles must abide by the ordinance — for now. West Hollywood veterinarians did not return calls seeking comment. But in a previous interview with DVM Newsmagazine, Dr. Mark Hiebert called the local ban confusing and ineffective, stating he already doesn't perform the surgery and instead refers clients a half-mile away to a Beverly Hills practice.

That illustrates why a local jurisdiction has no business regulating an entire profession, CVMA President Dr. Jeff Smith says. He also argues that, strictly speaking, declawing can be described as a therapy for feline behavioral problems, contradicting West Hollywood's non-therapeutic definition.

Molina counters: "We do not have that same opinion. West Hollywood veterinarians should not adopt that stance."

In addition to a criminal charge, a West Hollywood conviction could result in regulatory-board discipline, officials say. That leaves CVMA scrambling to formulate a legislative remedy.

"Ultimately, the Supreme Court has allowed the police powers of a city to supersede the state's authority to regulate veterinary medicine. I'm just worried about the domino effect," Smith says.

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