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Views on Accused Veterinarian Strong and Split

Times Staff Writer

A nationally recognized veterinarian accused of letting a former heavy-equipment operator perform surgery on a cat, passing staff doctors off as specialists and altering medical records is at the center of a legal fight dividing pet owners, animal rights activists and peers.

The state is trying to revoke Dr. Robert L. Rooks’ license and close his high-volume Fountain Valley veterinary hospital, All Care Animal Referral Center. A former national Veterinarian of the Year, Rooks has been charged with nine counts of wrongdoing by the California Veterinary Medical Board. He is standing trial in San Diego in a case that has gained wide attention.

More than 300 veterinarians and pet owners have come to Rooks’ defense, signing letters of support. Yet clinics have been flooded with hundreds of anonymous letters urging them not to send animals to Rooks’ hospital. And a Bay-Area animal rights group said the civil trial, which began in late April and is expected to last about four weeks, validates their long-held distrust of Rooks.

Pet owners as far back as 1996 have contacted state officials, saying treatment at All Care was inadequate. The veterinary board investigated the complaints and charged Rooks with numerous violations of medical codes. None of the allegations against Rooks have been linked to the deaths of any animals.

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“There have been many complaints against the Dr. Rooks and the center over the years,” said Sue M. Geranen, executive officer of the state board. “If we prevail in the complaint filed against him, we plan to revoke his license and shut him down.”

Rooks’ attorney says the case -- stemming from an alleged misdiagnosis on a limping 120-pound mastiff to alleged surgery by the onetime heavy-equipment operator -- is built largely on exaggerations and misunderstandings.

Rooks, a licensed veterinarian for 25 years, and All Care are nationally known and treat about 30,000 pets a year, many of them referred for specialized care by veterinarians across the country. Its doctors perform rare procedures such as hysterectomies in tortoises and high-risk brain and spinal surgeries on dogs.

Rooks was named Veterinarian of the Year in 1996 by the American Animal Hospital Assn., which has consistently given All Care high marks for its level of care. The hospital employs 20 veterinarians and 65 technicians and is considered one of the highest-tech animal facilities in the country. It was among the first veterinary hospitals to own a magnetic resonance imager.

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So well-regarded is Rooks that the state’s highly publicized allegations provoked cries of disbelief among his peers. In July, more than 300 veterinarians signed a letter of support.

“Dr. Rooks has been instrumental in improving the quality of veterinary medical and surgical care in the community.... We continue to trust and support All Care and Dr. Rooks. We would trust Dr. Rooks with the care of our own pets,” the letter states.

Geranen said she has seen that letter but added that “there were also some vets who wrote letters of complaint.”

The letter of support, in part, was in response to animal rights activists who bombarded veterinarians last summer with anonymous mailers, telling them of the veterinary board’s charges against Rooks and asking them to stop referring animals to All Care. Rooks’ supporters have branded the campaign “trial by letter.”

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Among the charges Rooks faces is an allegation that he permitted an unlicensed technician named Michael Wilt to perform surgery. A former heavy-equipment operator, Wilt was made the animal hospital’s “director of surgery.” A key piece of evidence against Rooks is a videotape of Wilt allegedly performing surgery on a cat. The board’s 26-page complaint says Wilt’s “unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine” included administering anesthesia, performing surgery and making and closing surgical incisions.

Clifford W. Roberts Jr., Rooks’ attorney, did not deny that Wilt performed surgery on the cat but said it was permissible because the cat was owned by All Care and not brought in by a client. He said Wilt did not perform surgery on clients’ animals and that the medical procedures he did perform were done under a veterinarian’s supervision and allowed by the board’s regulations.

“Wilt wanted a title for his business cards. So, he was made director of surgery. The title had no significance whatsoever,” Roberts said. “He was the guy in charge of bringing in the bedpans, so to speak.”

Wilt could not be reached for comment.

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Geranen said Rooks also committed fraud and deception by passing off two licensed veterinarians as board-certified specialists in internal medicine and neurology. Roberts disputes the charges.

Alan L. Mankes -- a physician -- testified that Dr. Craig Bergstrom, who handles neurology cases at All Care, identified himself as a board-certified neurologist when he treated Mankes’ dog for seizures in 1995. Mankes said he was not satisfied with Bergstrom’s treatment of his dog and filed a complaint with the Veterinary Medical Board.

Bergstrom was later cleared in an investigation by the veterinary board, but the incident was listed as an example of wrongdoing in the state’s complaint against Rooks.

“Dr. Bergstrom is a doctor who handles neurology cases. Nobody has ever identified him as a board-certified neurologist,” Rooks’ attorney said. “You don’t have to be board certified to do neurological procedures.”

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Rooks is also accused of misdiagnosis in the case of Rocky, the 120-pound mastiff with a limp. He recommended a neurological procedure, but Geranen said the dog was successfully treated with orthopedic surgery by another veterinarian.

Dr. David Griffin, a Sacramento veterinarian and the board’s expert witness, reviewed Rocky’s medical records and testified in the San Diego trial that Rooks had misdiagnosed the dog’s condition. But under cross-examination, Griffin said it is sometimes difficult to diagnose whether an animal’s disease is orthopedic or neurological and that he himself has sometimes been wrong in making that diagnosis.

Griffin also said Rooks “used good faith and honest judgment” in diagnosing and treating Rocky, and even if he was wrong, that “is not a violation of the standard of care.”

Administrative Law Judge Alan S. Meth dismissed two of the nine counts against Rooks before the state attorney general’s office could finish presenting the prosecution’s side of the case.

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Meth, who is hearing the case without a jury, is expected to issue a ruling after the trial ends this month.


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