Wildlife legalities can conflict with DVM ethics

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Cleveland — Treating wildlife poses its own set of legal risks, even if it conflicts with veterinary ethics, DVMs warn.

CLEVELAND — Treating wildlife poses its own set of legal risks, even if it conflicts with veterinary ethics, DVMs warn.

And as more protection is granted to endangered species, the legal risks increase proportionately.

Dr. Mark Lowe, Midway Animal Hospital in Homosassa, Fla., has first-hand experience.

He sums up the issue this way: "It's not often that citations are issued to a veterinarian, but sometimes it's easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask permission."

Some veterinarians contend that these laws are forcing practitioners to break their ethical oath, especially when a certified rehabilitator cannot be reached. And while most veterinary lawyers advise against circumventing laws, the issue poses some serious ethical dilemmas.

Licensed rehabilitator Ron Hardee says keeping raptors for more than one day can spell trouble for DVMs despite good intentions.

"If you are dealing with an endangered species you have to have a letter of authorization (LOA)," Lowe says. "As a veterinarian, you can stabilize the animal, but then you have to get it to a licensed rehabilitator usually within 24 hours."

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act are two of the federal laws that might be encroached upon when good intentions get in the way of the law, but there are more common experiences that can lead to trouble.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act includes all birds except the starling, English sparrow, quail, turkey and exotics.

Osprey are among the many birds protected by the federal government.

Although Lowe didn't violate federal law, he risked the repercussions of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) when he pulled a dolphin from Florida waters to help it before getting the OK from authorities.

"The dolphin was swimming down the river and if we didn't pull it out of the water then, we would have lost it and not been able to help it at all," Lowe says. "I had put a call in to get the go ahead but could not wait for them to call back."

When the NMFS learned the dolphin had been taken from the water without permission, the agent was angered, citing the repercussions and why it should not have been done, Lowe says.

"I was concerned about what might happen, but I would do it again," he says.

Ron Hardee holds an adult Bald Eagle at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Central Florida, where raptors, among other animals, are treated and released.

As a general rule, veterinarians can administer first aid to raptors, which are protected under federal law, but must also get the bird to a licensed rehabilitator," explains Dr. Erik Stauber of Washington State University's (WSU) College of Veterinary Medicine.

Stauber, who heads the raptor program at WSU, says these laws force veterinarians to compromise their ethics when a rehabilitator cannot be reached in time.

"As a veterinarian, you take an oath to protect all animals, use your scientific knowledge to protect an animal's health and you then have a moral obligation to treat the animal," Stauber says.

Some of the consequences for violating a federal law include a $100,000 fine, jail time, loss of veterinary license and right to vote, says Ron Hardee, director, Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Central Florida, in Christmas, Fla.

"I don't want to discourage veterinarians from helping injured animals, but the laws are ultimately in place to protect the animals," Hardee says.

When dealing with a situation where a wild animal needs immediate help, veterinarians must make a decision that might have long-term effects.

"I'm not going to watch an animal die when I can help it, no matter what the regulations are," Lowe says. "Sometimes the bureaucracy can weigh things down."

Legal counsel can play a role when a veterinarian is questioned by authorities about treating some wildlife. If the practice has an attorney, asking state-related questions on animal care is an option.

"There are so many laws in every state, I would recommend not to jump to treating an animal without knowing if it is permitted," says Dr. Charlotte Lacroix, Esq., founder of Veterinary Business Advisors. "Ethics conflict with the law all of the time, but if breaking the law is a big penalty or not, then it needs to be an issue."

Veterinarians may need to consider repercussions of treating wild animals, including inadvertently introducing disease to other patients or endangering the hospital's staff.

"Prosecuting a veterinarian for helping an animal is wrong," Stauber says. "I think some of the officials are just trying to prove how good they are at their jobs. When it is obvious the doctor was just trying to help the animal, then they shouldn't be prosecuted. That is not what the law is in place for; it is to stop violators who are mistreating them."

Some say the fault shouldn't rest on veterinarians' shoulders at all, but with those who regulate what animals are allowed to be sold as pets in the country.

Breaking a state law can turn into a federal law when the animal crosses state boarders. If an animal is legal in one state, that might not be the case in another, even if it is just passing through, Hardee says.

"Veterinarians should be able to take more control over what can be sold in the U.S. They should be an intricate part of what can be purchased as a feasible household pet," says Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, of Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver. "The number of illegal exotics in the U.S. is huge, and it's a growing problem nationwide."

Mike Elkins, assistant special agent in charge of southeast region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, "Legal action could be a factor especially when dealing with federally protected animals. "Even veterinarians need to report possession of an animal to proper authorities within 24-hours and transfer the animal to a licensed rehabilitation facility."

"Veterinarians have a natural desire to help animals, and they don't always know the laws," says Janet Alexander, director of operations for the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley. "On the federal level we all have to adhere to the law, but state laws that often cover mammals and reptiles, are another story.

Tips for staying legal

Each state has its own laws on treating wildlife. Contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, keeping a local licensed rehabilitator number handy and knowing state laws will eliminate possible confusion on legal/illegal aspects of treating injured animals.

Veterinarians interested in becoming federally licensed, should contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To obtain a state permit, which allows DVMs to hold many mammals for longer than 24 hours, contact the local game warden or state fish and wildlife department.

For a list of rehabilitators in your area, contact the local humane society, game warden or the International Rehabilitation Council at (707) 428-4972.

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