Proposed amendment aimed at 'a few bad apples'


Charleston, S.C. - An independent consumer-rights advocate is pushing for a change to state law that would allow veterinarians to face criminal charges for animal abuse and mistreatment.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — An independent consumer-rights advocate is pushing for a change to state law that would allow veterinarians to face criminal charges for animal abuse and mistreatment.

Amendment Breakdown

Existing law exempts the practice of veterinary medicine from criminal charges of animal cruelty. But animal advocate and lobbyist Marcia Rosenberg, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., asked her state representative, Ben Hagood, to introduce a proposed amendment limiting the legislation.

"As I looked at the law, I saw there was a blanket exclusion from our state animal-cruelty laws for veterinary practices. It seemed to me, as a matter of policy, that the law was too broad," Hagood says. "So I introduced the legislation that would narrow that exclusion to accepted veterinary practice standards."

The amendment, if enacted, could still leave the law too open-ended. "We think there are a lot of unanswered questions about standards of care. It is so broad. We've got to answer those questions before we can come out and oppose or be in favor of it," says Alan Finley, DVM, president of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians (SCAV). "It's not specific enough in its language."

A needed change?

While current state legislation does not control veterinarians' actions, practicing DVMs are held to the profession's code of conduct, which focuses on acting in the best interest of the animal, while professionally practicing medicine to accepted standards, says Susan Weinstein, JD, member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association and executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.

The proposed amendment brings to light an issue that most states are silent on, she says.

"In general, I would think that the community of veterinarians would say that if something really does rise to the level of cruelty, neglect or abuse perpetrated by a veterinarian, they would not want the mere fact of a veterinary license to stand in the way of that person receiving appropriate consequences," Weinstein says.

Rosenberg contends the law is necessary to ensure veterinarians can be punished for mistreatment. "A veterinarian, if he does truly abuse an animal, should be held accountable. He should not have a license to kill, a license to abuse," she says. "There are just a few bad apples that need to be weeded out."

However, Weinstein is not as confident in the benefit of the amendment.

"Public perception is very important. People need to feel like veterinarians work hard to protect animals and advance their well-being. So if there is this pending legislation, that makes people think this is such a big issue in South Carolina that they have to make a law forcing veterinarians not to do this. It is potentially detrimental," says Weinstein, who also expresses concern that the bill's possible ramifications have not been fully considered.

"The fact that it is a citizen-driven proposal, without widespread support from what I understand, indicates to me that even if it is [Rosenberg's] best effort, it doesn't really make me feel comfortable that it's been thought all the way through. If it passes, I speculate there will be a lot more lawsuits, a lot more pressure on the district attorney's office and a lot more work for animal experts," she says. "There may be a perception that veterinarians need to have a law like this in order to not abuse animals, whereas I think that the overwhelming majority of veterinarians do not abuse animals, and it would be a rare one who did."

Hagood understands the concerns, but still feels the existing language is too open-ended.

"I clearly see the public-policy unintended tension here. You certainly don't want in any way to create a chilling effect for veterinarians and their technicians to be subject to frivolous prosecution if they're applying proper veterinary care," he says. "On the other hand, I have to believe that veterinarians and their assistants are people like everyone else, and there are good and bad veterinarians. Not that there would be many who would use their practice to abuse animals, but there may be some. And having that legislative blanket is too broad."

Awaiting approval

Rosenberg hopes for the amendment's passage in the 2008 term. After securing the support of South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, "I don't think the veterinarians are going to fight me," Rosenberg says.

But Hagood realizes that changing the bill may be more than just a simple tweaking of words. "I've seen some concerns about exactly how to word the language, and I recognized at the onset that this is the difficult aspect of it," he says. "But I am hopeful we can find the right language and move it forward."

The SCAV remains unsure of its position on the language. "We feel the public already has answers, has remedies at hand. And we want to look out for our best interests, so we'll be watching [the amendment] closely," Finley says. "As veterinarians, we all love animals — that's the reason we're veterinarians — and we want to help them and keep them out of distress. That is always our ultimate goal."

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