FERNDALE - A Ferndale veterinarian faces charges that he punched, slapped and choked animals, botched surgeries, and diverted painkillers for his own use.
Peter Rule, of Glacierview Animal Hospital, denied allegations of deliberate violence, as outlined in charges filed in the past few weeks by the state Veterinary Board of Governors.
In interviews, three former employees claimed he "constantly" slapped animals. Carmen Harriman, who worked at Glacierview for five years, said she once saw him choke a Chihuahua to the point of unconsciousness. Rule has a different story. He said the dog was out of control, so he had to wrangle it, at one point holding its head with his hands.
Rule, a volunteer firefighter for Ferndale's District 7, has been working toward an EMT license for about a year. The outcome of his application is pending the result of a hearing before the state's vet board in spring 2013.
He has admitted to making some mistakes, especially between 2005 and 2008, in the first years after taking over the Glacierview practice.
Rule admits that he diverted the painkiller Tramadol from the clinic and used the drug himself, without a prescription, for about a year. He says he stopped in February 2008.
Sometimes he performed surgery minutes after taking the drug, he told a reporter. He argued that Tramadol's effects are minor, akin to an over-the-counter painkiller, and his drug use has been "blown out of proportion."
"Even when I was taking it," Rule said, "it had very little effect on me."
Some employees hired after February 2008 - Kelly O'Connor, Tanya Rutherford and Aan Gonsalves - said they never saw evidence of drug abuse, violence or anything questionable. They gave him glowing reviews.
"I think he's sterling," said Rutherford, a former receptionist who said she feels in safe hands bringing her cat to Glacierview. "I've never seen him be mean to an animal."
However, in four surgeries dating back to 2008, Rule "did not meet the standard of care for the state of Washington," according to the charges:
- Rule nicked the spleen of a Yorkshire terrier named Daisy, by accident, on April 11, 2008. The dog bled for eight hours. Despite efforts to save her, she died.
- While being helped by a young assistant, he overhydrated a cat during surgery.
- Under his supervision, an assistant burned a dog's skin during a spay. The assistant used warm water from a bottle to keep the animal's core temperature up, but the water was too hot.
- During a routine neuter in July 2010, he nicked the urethra of a healthy border collie named Trooper. One of the dog's owners, Corinne Dickey, said Rule suggested that the dog stay overnight at the clinic. They met with Rule at 9:30 p.m. to check on Trooper.
"On arrival," Dickey and her husband recalled in a statement, "Dr. Rule said he 'cleaned him up.' (We) found Trooper soaking wet, visibly shaking, cowering in the corner of a poorly-lit, cement and chain link kennel in a puddle of blood."
The dog suffered permanent damage to his genitals and had to spend a month in a Canadian animal hospital. The $8,000 bill was covered by Rule's insurance policy.
The Dickeys said they have no interest in suing Rule. But they want him out of medicine, whether he's treating animals or humans.
"Well, I wouldn't want him to be my first responder. Golly," Corinne Dickey said. "We just want him out of practice so he can't hurt, maim or kill any other animals."
Adam Karp, a Bellingham lawyer who specializes in animal law, worked with the Dickeys and the former employees to document the alleged unprofessional conduct.
"The number of people who came to me (about Rule) leads me to believe, yeah, it was out of the ordinary," Karp said. "Mistakes happen, but not with such prevalence."
Rule has admitted to other charges detailed in depositions: He forgot to suture a cat after surgery and had to run out to the parking lot to get it back on the operating table. Another cat inexplicably died while under anesthesia.
Harriman claimed that Rule was "playing on the computer and watching YouTube videos" at the time the cat died, while another young assistant was keeping an eye on the procedure. Rule said YouTube might have been open on his computer, but he wasn't watching it.
Based on testimony from former employees, the board alleged that sometimes Glacierview's interns performed surgery without a license, at Rule's insistence. Rule said his workers only did work they're legally allowed to do, such as shaving animals and holding them during surgery.
Rule was offered relatively mild sanctions if he admitted to the charges. The case had been in legal limbo for several years until Rule officially decided to contest it.
If he loses the case, his veterinary license could be taken away.
View a PDF of the sworn depositions submitted by former employees of Glacierview Animal Hospital by clicking here. These were provided to the state Veterinary Board of Governors in 2009.