Legislature to take on spay-and-neuter debate
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 07, 2013 | 4486 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A crowd crams a meeting room in Montgomery where the Alabama Veterinary Medical Examiners Board discussed a rule change regarding spay-and-neuter clinics. (Photo by Tim Lockette/The Anniston Star)
A crowd crams a meeting room in Montgomery where the Alabama Veterinary Medical Examiners Board discussed a rule change regarding spay-and-neuter clinics. (Photo by Tim Lockette/The Anniston Star)
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MONTGOMERY — Alabama legislators have proposed a pair of bills that could keep the state from shutting down spay-and-neuter clinics run by nonprofit organizations.

The bills have support in both houses and both parties, but they may not mean the end of a heated debate that brought animal welfare activists to Montgomery in force last year.

"These bills are not exactly the same," said Lu Moseley, a board member for the Calhoun County-based nonprofit Saving Animals Volunteer Effort. "One of them restricts what clinics can do."

Moseley was among more than 100 animal welfare advocates who descended on the state's capital in October to speak against a rule change being considered by the Alabama Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

The rule would have prohibited non-veterinarians from hiring veterinarians or owning veterinary equipment. Opponents of the rule said that if it passed, the four nonprofit spay-and-neuter clinics operating in the state would be forced to shut down.

Moseley, whose group regularly transports animals from Calhoun County to a Birmingham nonprofit clinic, said those clinics are vital to pet owners on fixed incomes. A pet can get fixed at a nonprofit clinic for around $70; prices at private clinics are around $200.

"In an ideal world, people would only buy a pet if they could afford it," Moseley said. "But we don't live in an ideal world."

A needed service

"We do have a need for spay-and-neuter clinics," said state Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman. "This is a need that has to be met."

Bussman was one of several senators who wrote to the Veterinary Medical Examiners Board in October to ask them to hold off on imposing the rule that would shut down the clinics.

He also believes those nonprofit clinics were operating illegally. Bussman said that state law — like last year's proposed board rule — already prohibits anyone but a licensed veterinarian from employing another veterinarian.

Still, Bussman doesn't want to shut the clinics down. He pre-filed a bill that would allow nonprofits an exemption from that portion of the state law.

The bill would allow nonprofits to employ those veterinarians in clinics that do spay-and-neuter operations only. Bussman said those clinics have begun to offer other services, such as vaccines and worming, which is what raised concerns among veterinarians in private practice last year.

"That puts them at a distinct advantage over veterinarians in private practice," Bussman said. If the law didn't limit the clinics to spay-and-neuter, he said, private veterinarians could convert their practices to nonprofits and avoid paying taxes.

Moseley, the Calhoun County activist, said the spay-and-neuter clinics need to provide shots for rabies and other diseases, especially when they're bringing in feral cats to be neutered and released.

"Does it make sense to neuter a cat, notch its ear so people will know it's been treated, and release it without its shots?" she said.

A grey area

Mark Nelson, director of the Birmingham-based nonprofit Alabama Spay/Neuter, said his clinic doesn't seek out return patients. It simply treats the pets of people who can't afford to get their pet fixed.

"This may be the only time they visit a veterinarian," he said.

Nelson said his clinic wasn't operating illegally. Alabama Spay/Neuter, he said, has a contract with a veterinarian, who employs the veterinarians who work in the nonprofit's facility.

The logo on the organization's homepage identifies the group as "Alabama Spay/Neuter in association with William Weber, DVM."

But the question of the organization's legality has come up before. Alyce Addison, attorney for the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said that before the October debate, the board was beginning an investigation of all four nonprofit clinics to see whether their operating arrangements were legal.

The investigation was dropped, she said, after the contentious October meeting. Addison said she didn't know whether the four clinics were operating legally or illegally, but said there were legal arrangements that could allow the groups to comply with the law.

She said she didn't know why the board didn't press the point about the state law in the October meeting.

"The spay/neuter people did a great job getting their message out," she said.

Addison herself recommended against the rule change in October, saying that it overstepped the board's legal authority. She stood by that statement Monday, saying that the rules about ownership of veterinary implements alone went beyond what the law authorized the board to do.

Nelson said the ownership rule was the big worry for Alabama Spay/Neuter in October. But the lack of clarity in who can hire veterinarians was also a worry, he said.

"It's a gray area," he said.

Easy fix?

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said the state's law about who can hire a veterinarian is ripe for a court challenge. Federal courts have struck down similar laws in other states, she said.

Todd, like Bussman, is proposing a bill that would exempt nonprofits from the hiring rule. But her bill would also allow those clinics to perform services other than spaying or neutering.

"If we don't handle it now, it will just be struck down in a lawsuit anyway," she said of the hiring rule.

Todd and other spay/neuter proponents have claimed that the state veterinarian's association has been pushing to restrict the nonprofit clinics. But the president of the Alabama Veterinary Medical Association said the board hasn't come down in favor of either bill, and won't take a vote until a meeting in February. He noted that the legislative session doesn't start until then.

"Bills can change a lot at this stage," he said. "We're going to wait and see what happens."

Bussman said he has spoken to Todd about both bills, and hopes both houses find a way to pass a bill that keeps the clinics in operation.

"It's such an easy fix that it shouldn't be a big deal," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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