Who's minding Department of Animal Services?

Lawsuit lends insight into X-ray safety protocol and lack of permits

Veterinarians' welfare was called into question in regards to X-ray safety.
  • Veterinarians' welfare was called into question in regards to X-ray safety.
  • (stock photo)

A former veterinarian is accusing San Diego County's Department of Animal Services of retaliating against her and her colleagues after discovering that several X-ray machines were not inspected and two shelters lacked permits to operate.

Veterinarian Jennifer Zeisse filed her complaint in San Diego County Superior Court on September 10.

Electromagnetic radiation gone wild

In April 2013, county veterinarians Dorothy York and Bruce Cauble discovered that the newly installed X-ray machine at the Bonita Animal Shelter had not been inspected by Department of Environmental Health officials. Also, the veterinarians were not given X-ray monitoring badges. The vets began looking at X-ray machines in other shelters around the county. They found that the county had failed to inspect the X-ray machine at the central shelter on Gaines Street in Linda Vista since 2002. The X-ray machine in Carlsbad hadn't been inspected since 2004.

Cauble sent an email to David Johnson, deputy director and medical operations manager for the Department of Animal Services.

"I don't have to tell you that the lack of registering our X-ray machines, not placing required warning posters required by Federal, State and County law, the lack of monitoring, training and documentation of our medical staff does constitute negligence. These also create a potential liability to the county. It also places my [veterinarian’s] license in jeopardy, a situation that I do not take lightly. Legally, as I have recently been made aware of these potential problems, I would be negligent in not reporting them to you."

Continued Cauble, "I am requesting that you inform me immediately if you have any of the above mentioned documentation or knowledge pertaining to any of these above mentioned issues. If not, we need to take action and start resolving these items immediately."

Johnson thanked Cauble for bringing the issue to his attention and suggested shutting down the X-ray machine until the shelters come into compliance.

"Thank you for bringing this important issue forward; as with all safety and regulatory issues, we take them seriously and address them appropriately so to be in compliance," wrote Johnson in an April 25, 2013, email.

Geez...it's just a lil electromagnetic radiation

Johnson added that the film badges were not necessary because the amount of radiation that vets and others were exposed to was low and within an acceptable threshold under "10 percent of the listed limit during one year." Johnson told Cauble that the badges and room monitors were on their way.

Despite the issues, and despite Johnson's directive to shut the machines down, X-rays continued at the shelters.

At the beginning of May 2013, the Department of Animal Services received notice of violations for failing to implement adequate protocols for use of the X-ray machines at each of the three shelters.

Really? And no permits?

Cauble, as well as veterinarian Jennifer Zeisse, subsequently found that some of the shelters were operating without permits. In a May 16 email, Cauble notified county officials that the central shelter in Linda Vista's permit had expired. In the email, Cauble said in order to keep his license he was notifying the state veterinary board of the expired permit.

Animal services superiors then asked Cauble's colleague Zeisse to sign off for new permits. When looking into the issue, Zeisse learned that the shelters in Carlsbad and Bonita never had a permit on file.

In an email to her bosses, Zeisse wrote, "It recently came to my attention that the Department of Animal Services North County Shelter, located on Palomar Airport Road, medical facility does not have a veterinary premise permit as required by law for the practice of veterinary medicine on owned animals….

"I proceeded to do a license look-up to check on the status of the permits for the [three] facilities. The Central Shelter, located on Gaines Street (premise permit license number 5537), is the only licensed medical facility in the Department. The South County Shelter medical facility, located at 5821 Sweetwater Road in Bonita, CA and the North County Shelter medical facility, located at 2481 Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad, CA, do not have a premise permit."

Zeisse said that medical treatments at the non-permitted shelters was illegal. She told her superiors that she had to inform state officials.

"Again, the practice of veterinary medicine by California licensed [veterinarians] and [registered veterinary technicians] on owned animals at the South County facility and the North County facility is currently considered an illegal practice of veterinary medicine due to a lack of a premise permit as defined by state law and as I have been advised by the [Veterinary Medical Board].

"It is my understanding that for the past 12 years the Department has neglected to obtain a veterinary premise permit for these [two] locations. I realize that I am a part-time temporary worker at the county, with no official supervisory duties. However, by default, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine is a supervisor of all who perform medical duties under their supervision and I am obligated by law and ethics to advise you all of this."


Beginning in June 2013, county shelter employees were ordered to transfer all animals from shelters in Bonita and Carlsbad to the central shelter in Linda Vista.

Cauble and Zeisse both filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor.

According to Zeisse's complaint, Johnson and the Department of Animal Services transferred Zeisse, Cauble, and York to different shelters, farther away from their homes.

By February 2014, two of the three veterinarians had left their posts and handed in their resignations, while Cauble applied for disability leave.

Reads the lawsuit: "The net effect, then, of Johnson's retaliation against the three veterinarians for speaking up and complaining to government and law enforcement agencies about violations of state or federal statutes, or violations of or noncompliance with local, state, or federal rules or regulations at DAS, many caused by his mismanagement, was to remove all three ‘core’ veterinarians that were treating San Diego County's stray animals.

"This left the medical care of animals to [registered vet technicians] and inconsistent supervision by part-time veterinarians, many of whom also fear retaliation by Johnson if they speak out against his mismanagement of [Department of Animal Services]. Zeisse's and the other veterinarians' passion and love for animals, the harm caused to those animals by Johnson's malicious behavior caused her mental anguish."

San Diego County's director of communications, Michael Workman, says that all shelters are now up to snuff. Permits are in place and all X-ray machines have been inspected.

"When we learned that the permit for the facility in San Diego didn’t cover the two outlying facilities it took us two days to get the permits," Workman writes in an email. "That was June 3, 2013. The permit for Carlsbad was obtained June 3, 2013 and it expires on May 15, 2016. The permit for South County was also obtained June 3, 2013 and it also expires on May 15, 2016. The permit for San Diego was obtained on October 31, 2000."

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It seems once again that what applies to Joe Six Pack and businesses does not apply to government. Its "do as I say not as I do". The County should set and example not be one.

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