Reclawed in California

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Los Angeles - West Hollywood's declaw ban is legal and enforceable, according to an appellate ruling that's headed for the state Supreme Court if the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has its way.

LOS ANGELES — West Hollywood's declaw ban is legal and enforceable, according to an appellate ruling that's headed for the state Supreme Court if the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has its way.

Valerie Fenstermaker

Last month's unexpected 2-1 decision by the California Court of Appeals, Second District, Division Seven, shocked veterinary officials when justices upheld West Hollywood's 2003 ordinance deeming non-therapeutic feline onychectomy a misdemeanor. The ruling reverses a trial court's judgment that the local ordinance infringes on a DVM's right to practice and is already pre-empted by state regulations, including the Veterinary Medical Practice Act.

The verdict carries "dire ramifications" even outside veterinary medicine, CVMA counters, because it invites local restrictions of regulated professions. Allowing city bans on state-sanctioned medical practices leaves other controversial procedures vulnerable, including human-health electives such as cosmetic surgery or circumcision, critics contend.

Claiming victory: Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a proponent of West Hollywood's ban on cat declaw, and Mayor John Duran announce the city's legal win during a June 26 press conference. An appeals court upheld the city's right to outlaw the state-regulated veterinary medical procedure.

"The most troubling component for me is that the appellate court acknowledges declaw is a common veterinary procedure and still allows the city to enact a law restricting it," CVMA attorney Dan Baxter says.

Its broader impact has CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker more concerned.

"Cities that are allowed to start passing their own ordinances to restrict medicine will create chaos. This could affect the whole country," she says.

Welfare issue

For now, the ban applies only to veterinarians working among the city's three licensed practices. But West Hollywood's Hernan Molina, deputy to the mayor, wants other local governments to pick up on the trend, setting "minimum standards for the humane treatment of animals." Just 20 minutes away, Santa Monica officials are considering a mirror ordinance.

Extending West Hollywood's ban to include tail docking, ear cropping and defanging is a possibility, he maintains.

Dr. Jennifer Conrad promotes such regulation, and rides the media circuit in favor of the ban. Unlike organized veterinary medicine, she considers declaw procedures inhumane.

"I'm a veterinarian. I don't want to be going against my colleagues, but I have to stand," she says. "It's an issue of whether or not this is benefiting cats, and it's not. I think that most people who care about cats have been extremely happy with the court's decision."

Practicality

Not West Hollywood practitioner Dr. Mark Hiebert, who doesn't doubt other non-therapeutic procedures are on the city's agenda. Local bans are confusing and ineffective, Hiebert says, when he can refer declaw-seeking clients to a practice in Beverly Hills, just a half-mile away.

Equally frustrating is the city's attempt to regulate the profession: "I think it would open up a real can of worms if local jurisdictions can regulate what professions can do. It's at the whim of city council. Whether you end up agreeing with what they did or not, this adds a level of bureaucracy," he says.

Inside the argument

That hits on CVMA's core argument, supported by the now-reversed Los Angeles Superior Court decision.

In 2005, Judge James A. Bascue backed CVMA's stance that a municipality holds no authority to control the medical practices of 7,300 licensed resident DVMs governed by state regulatory framework. Such a ban also conflicts with a Business and Professions Code that bars municipalities from prohibiting professionals' state-granted rights to practice within the scope of their licenses, the ruling stated.

Not so, the appeals court ruling now contends. Justices threw out that finding by remanding the case back to the lower court, arguing that the code does not preclude local regulation of the manner in which a profession is performed. Furthermore, the ordinance fails to conflict with the practice act, which does not expressly approve or prohibit declawing procedures, the appeals judgment states. The ruling continues by calling the ban an "incidental regulation of veterinary medicine" pertaining to all citizens, not just DVMs.

Power play

That characterization makes no sense, considering West Hollywood admits the ordinance targets veterinarians, Baxter says.

"We're not talking about some rural area of the country where people are going around declawing animals. This was aimed at stopping DVMs," he says.

What's disturbing, Baxter adds, is that the verdict allows the city to legislate its opinions under the auspices of its police power.

"State lawmakers certainly know how to craft a statute to prohibit declawing if they want to. It's not the job of local government," he says. "If this is allowed to stand, the West Hollywood police can go in and bust veterinarians."

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