New rules unsettle animal shelters

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comMarch 26, 2013 

— Possible changes for animal care providers in South Carolina met formal opposition last week from York County, though there’s still plenty of debate about how much impact the new rules might have.

Proposed legislation in Columbia could affect how nonprofit or municipal animal shelters operate, what services they can provide, how they’re regulated and possibly what income levels would disqualify people from being able to use low-cost services. H3492 sits in the state House Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs. S194 sits in the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The county operates a shelter and provides veterinary services including sterilization, vaccination, micro-chipping and other medical procedures. The unanimous resolution passed by Council last week cites a strong animal control program and successful animal placement as reasons to oppose new rules that could “negatively affect, hinder or restrict the efforts of animal rescue groups, veterinarians or the county.”

Opponents say the new rules are being driven by veterinarians wanting animal care routed to or supervised by their facilities, creating more revenue for them. Dr. Michael Kolatis at Fort Lawn Animal Hospital and board member with the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians, said the issue has been, but shouldn’t be, painted as veterinarians against shelters.

“There is no interest by the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians to not work with shelters,” he said. “And, spay/neuter clinics should not be affected.”

Several of the more contentious issues with the original legislation have been discussed and modified, he said, including one that originally indicated mobile clinics would need permission from a veterinarian in the area to set up. Other issues with the proposed legislation, like all agencies providing medical records, are agreeable to opponents.

Tracy Johnson, director of medical services with Pawmetto Lifeline in Columbia and an opponent of the proposed rules, said the problem is it’s “real fuzzy” about which groups would be affected, for instance whether municipal shelters would be grouped with nonprofits. Several meetings, including one last week, have been held with vets, nonprofits and municipalities since the legislation was drafted.

Pet owners use low-cost services, like the Pet Med Mobile service that stops throughout York County and throughout the state. Pet Med operates through Richland Creek Animal Clinic in Greenville. Originally the bill appeared as though such units might not be able to operate without local vet approval. Now it appears it would, Johnson said, though the specific services it could provide aren’t clear.

An employee of Pet Med Mobile said her group wouldn’t comment on what impact the legislation could have because it’s “still in the works.”

Opponents of the bill as it’s currently written say decreased care options and higher prices as more services are available only through veterinarians will lead to more and less healthy animals. Marion Worrell with local nonprofit Animal Adoption League said the small declines in euthanasia rate in York County won’t continue if the new legislation passes. More than 7,500 animals are put down annually in York County, she said.

Animal Adoption League began in 1992 and provides veterinary services for cats and dogs, along with animal placement in adoptive homes.

“If people can’t afford to spay and neuter strays, there will be more and more unwanted animals dying in our shelters,” Worrell said. “It’s a shame some veterinarians don’t care and consider low-cost spay/neuter clinics a competition to their business.”

The counterargument is better regulation of facilities will lead to fewer instances where animals are unknowingly placed in substandard care. Kolatis began working with adoption groups and shelters in York, Chester and Lancaster counties in 1999. Locally, veterinarians and those groups “have always done a very good job” cooperating.

“The crux of the problem is we see that some of the veterinary services that are provided in certain shelter environments are sub par,” Kolatis said.

Johnson said there’s “far too much work to do” for her to expect votes quickly at the state level, though she sees the bills as an ongoing fight. Progress has been made, she said, and opponents are looking forward to a revision of the legislation addressing concerns.

“I’m not really sure how quickly we’ll see that happening,” Johnson said.

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