AUSTIN - Brownsville veterinarian Ronald Hines in 2003 decided to begin offering advice, often free of charge, to animal owners around the world.

Hines didn’t touch or treat the animals, but owners valued his information for various reasons: Some had no local vet, others were broke. Local vets in some cases were stumped. Or an animal owner just needed a hand to hold. 

“People don’t call me with simple problems,” said Hines, who received his veterinary degree from Texas A&M in 1966. “I do my best. I feel good about being able to help.”

Then, in 2013, Hines stopped dispensing advice about a specific animals when the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners fined him $500, suspended his license and made him retake parts of the veterinary licensing exam.

There were no allegations of his having harmed animals. Instead, the board says that Hines cannot practice - or give advice about a particular animal - without physically examining his patients.

Early this month a New Orleans federal appeals court heard oral arguments in the case, which Hines’ lawyer says addresses free speech issues for anyone who uses the Internet to dispense information.

“I do this because I love to,” said Hines, 71. “The whole thing is ludicrous.”

Hines’ attorney, Matt Miller, said regulators apparently feel it’s better for people to remain ignorant than to get animal-care information from Hines over the Internet. 

“When people do nothing but talk to each other, the First Amendment applies,” Miller said. “This speech is protected. They’re just talking. The government can’t remove it from the First Amendment just by reclassifying it.”

The Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners declined to comment. But its federal appeal notes: “To practice veterinary medicine in Texas, a veterinarian must establish a ‘veterinarian-client-patient relationship’ by physically examining the patient-animal before commencing treatment. Hines brought this action claiming that the physical examination requirement violates the First Amendment by preventing him from treating animals solely through email or telephonic communications with an animal’s owner.

Adrian Hochstadt, an assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association who handles state legislative and regulatory issues, said Texas’ statutes follow the group’s model.

A relationship between a vet and an animal can’t be created over the phone or electronically, he said, though once established, it may be maintained remotely. 

“It’s a little different situation from human health, where you can talk to the patient. It goes to what is the best practice,” he said.

Hines’ website, 2ndchance.info, still displays information on dozens of animal-related questions.

It also carries testimonials from animal owners, including one in California identified as C.R. - none of the letters show full names - who describes finding Hines’ site from Internet searches: “In every instance, reading on my pets’ issues prior to visits with my vet helped my pets have a more favorable visit with the vet, and helped me to be a more informed consumer. 

Hines’ expertise isn’t the issue.

He earned a doctorate in microbiology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has held veterinary licenses in Texas, Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts. 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also licensed Hines to treat injured wildlife.

Early in his career, Hines worked at the National Institutes of Health during the Vietnam era, becoming a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Public Health Service, where he was injured on duty.

Though he went onto hold other veterinary jobs - including a stint at SeaWorld - the injury limited the use of his legs and his ability to be on his feet for long.

“I work online because of my limitations,” he said.

Trending Video

Recommended for you