Stuck between a rock and a hard place: Legal dilemmas in shelters

Let’s face it: shelter medicine is evolving. As sheltering systems improve and the bar is raised for animal welfare organizations, what was once acceptable for sheltering 10 or 20 years ago is no longer in vogue. While shelters are not as heavily policed as some other industries, shelters can easily find themselves in a complex legal situation. While shelters may be more likely to be the victims of bad social media campaigns than a government audit, the implications of the latter being much more serious.

Shelters are governed not only by federal law, but by state and local ordinances. It is important to know that many organizations are involved, from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the state pharmacy boards. As inter-state transport and shelter cooperation increase, it is especially important to know the differences in state regulations. To look up local and federal laws, try Michigan State’s wonderful website: www.animallaw.info

Perhaps the most important laws to follow are those relating to the DEA and controlled drugs. The DEA enforces federal law regarding controlled substances in an attempt to reduce human abuse. Shelters can hold limited DEA licenses or use a veterinarian’s personal DEA license. Neglected log books, security or reporting errors can have serious consequences. If you haven’t recently reviewed the regulations, head on over to  www.dea.gov for more information.

Less serious, but equally important legal issues can arrive from the community and social dilemmas. Have you ever had someone surrender or request euthanasia of a pet which was not theirs? Make sure that your surrender forms encompass transfer of ownership and family issues with a statement such as “I am the sole and exclusive owner of (animal’s name). I am signing for myself, my spouse, heirs, etc.” The same is true of adoptions for dangerous or ill animals, foster care and rescue groups.

Remember, there is no way to completely stop a lawsuit from occurring, but you can mitigate the risk of prosecution with a good defensive paper trail. Organizations should consider getting professional legal services to ensure that their “fine print” is up to date. Contracts can be a good first step, but don’t forget to engage in the conversation. Many lawsuits are due to poor communication, rather than true malpractice or negligence.

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