September 15, 2008

 

 Tennessee veterinarian keeps license after accusations of improper euthanasia - September 15, 2008

 

Baber says he was targeted in vendetta, proceedings could have been avoided

 
posted September 1, 2008
 
courthouse
Dr. Baber's case led to changes in state law meant to clarify
euthanasia rules and require regulatory boards to notify
professionals of changes that affect their practices.


"My attorney and I had a signed affidavit with 17 veterinarians in the area who said they were unaware of this change in the law."


—DR. WILLIAM BABER


A Tennessee veterinarian accused of improperly euthanizing dogs and cats was fined about $7,000 but kept his license to practice.

The Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners placed Dr. William Baber's license on a five-year minimum probationary period, which started April 24, and fined him $2,000.

In addition, the Gallatin practitioner was sentenced in criminal court July 18 to a two-year probationary period under a pre-trial diversion program and 200 hours of public service, said District Attorney General Ray Whitley. And he was required to make $5,000 in contributions to two private animal shelters.

The veterinarian's criminal record could be expunged at the end of the two-year period, Whitley said.

Dr. Baber had been criminally charged with 12 misdemeanor counts, which included accusations he administered intracardial injections of sodium pentobarbital to fully conscious dogs and cats.

Other charges accused him of falsifying records, cruelty to animals and failing to verify animals' deaths. State documents say the actions took place between 2005 and 2007, when Dr. Baber was working under contract with the Sumner County Rabies and Animal Control Agency.

Dr. Baber, who is now strictly in private practice, said some of his accusers were trying to make positive changes in county facilities. But he said the regulatory and criminal proceedings against him were the result of a witch hunt and personal vendettas over past feuds.

The veterinarian said he has lived a nightmare since November.

Dr. Baber said the state regulatory board never notified him or other veterinarians of the 2001 change in state law that banned intracardial injections on fully conscious animals. He said the same euthanasia methods were used by the county for about two decades.

"My attorney and I had a signed affidavit with 17 veterinarians in the area who said they were unaware of this change in the law," Dr. Baber said.

And Dr. Baber said the charges and board hearings could have been avoided.

"If you had a problem with it, why didn't you say something to me?" Dr. Baber said.

Dr. Baber's case drew widespread attention after a Nashville TV news station aired video of him administering the injections to euthanize animals.

Dr. C. Maben Thompson, president of the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said testimony before the board indicated a private investigator contacted a former shelter employee and helped him outfit a coffee cup with a hidden camera. That camera captured the video that was given to news media.

Dr. Thompson said he thinks Dr. Baber's case would have been better handled if the former employee notified shelter management of problems. He said management could have told Dr. Baber to change his procedures or terminated his contract.

"I don't think there was ever intent by Dr. Baber—this is my personal opinion—to harm those animals," Dr. Thompson said. "And he has suffered a great deal."

The board consensus was that Dr. Baber had fallen into lax procedures but otherwise had an exemplary career, and it was not necessary to take his license, the board president said.

Whitley said the veterinarian's prosecution has led to increased scrutiny of substandard animal control facilities and practices statewide. And he said some other veterinarians have admitted they didn't previously know the laws regarding euthanasia.

"It's certainly raised the consciousness of the whole state as far as how animals are treated," Whitley said.

The $5,000 in criminal court fines will be split between Friends of Hannah of Gallatin and the Sumner County Humane Society of Hendersonville, both of which have helped county officials find homes for abused animals, Whitley said.

Suspend, reinstate, repeat

Filings by the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners indicate Dr. Baber received a contract in 2005 to practice at the Sumner County Rabies and Animal Control Agency. The contract was terminated when accusations arose in November 2007.

Tennessee state health authorities summarily suspended Dr. Baber's license the same month. The board's filing for that suspension contains harsh assessments of Dr. Baber's actions, accusing him of engaging in "unprofessional, unethical and incompetent conduct" and practicing veterinary medicine in a way that reflects unfavorably on the profession.

It says he "engaged in gross malpractice or a pattern of a continued or repeated malpractice, ignorance, negligence, incompetence and dishonesty."

Dr. Baber said that is simply inaccurate.

"I'm not unprofessional," Dr. Baber said. "I know what I'm doing."

In addition to the improper euthanasia charge, the November suspension order says Dr. Baber left animals unattended until their deaths and failed to ensure each animal was dead before incineration.

His license was reinstated after a few days and a determination he was not a threat to public health and safety. But it was again suspended Dec. 19, pending a hearing April 24.

Andrea Turner, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health, said Dr. Baber complied with requirements of the board, leading to reinstatement of his license in April.

Laws and guidelines

Dr. Thompson said changes in law that are noted in state newsletters to veterinarians can go unnoticed or be forgotten by practitioners who work long hours or aren't immediately affected. He said private practice veterinarians may not note rule changes for animal shelter work, even though they could later receive contracts with shelters.

"The amount of information that has to be disseminated on our whole practice act is very difficult for our veterinarians to keep up with," Dr. Thompson said. "With that said, there is a format with which the information is disseminated."

Tennessee state legislators changed the language of the law regarding euthanasia methods earlier this year. But the change, which was signed into law March 18, only clarified the rules, rather than changing them.

The law already said it was illegal to inject sodium pentobarbital intracardially in a fully conscious animal. The adjustment changed language later in the same statute that said a nonlivestock animal "may be tranquilized" before any form of euthanasia.

Tennessee House Rep. Debra Maggart said she wrote the bill after talking with attorneys, prosecutors, and police who were unclear whether Dr. Baber broke the law. She said the new law makes it clear that animal control or shelter workers in Tennessee have to sedate animals before they perform euthanasia through intracardial injection.

Maggart said the state also passed in May a law that requires state licensing boards to inform members whenever there is a change in law that affects their professions. The boards decide how to notify members, she said.

"This was a direct result of what happened to Dr. Baber," Maggart said.

Under Tennessee code, section 44-17-303 of the Non-Livestock Animal Humane Death Act, veterinarians can perform intravenous or intraperitoneal injections of sodium pentobarbital without the sedation or anesthetization restrictions of intracardial injections. They can also introduce the substance in a solution or powder added to food.

The AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia state that intracardiac injection "must only be used if the animal is heavily sedated, unconscious or anesthetized." The AVMA also provides links to state rules and regulations at www.avma.org.

To find those rules and regulations, click on "Advocacy" and follow the State Legislative Resources and Resources by State links. AVMA euthanasia guidelines are available by clicking on the "Issues" tab on the main page.