Police, firefighters and medics who provide aid to animals during emergencies would get new protection from liability under legislation that cleared the General Assembly this month.
First responders in Maryland haven't been covered by Good Samaritan laws when treating animals — whether they were trying to stop bleeding, rinse soot from a pet's eyes or use an oxygen mask on an animal — because it was considered practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
Del. Clarence Lam, the lead sponsor of legislation to change the law, said about 20 states have similar statutes and a number of first responders testified in favor of the change. Emergency workers told him if they came across an animal injured or in distress, they would treat it.
"They weren't concerned about the liability," said Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. "This would remove any threat of lawsuit or prosecution for our first responders who are really just trying to do the right thing."
Baltimore County fire personnel have always provided aid to animals, said spokeswoman Elise Armacost. She recalls the rescues of horses mired in mud, herons caught in kite string, a deer stuck in a well and pets suffering from smoke inhalation.
"Our focus is on people, of course, but we do our best to help animals too," said Armacost, who can't recall any lawsuits arising from animal treatment or rescue.
Lam, who has a mixed-breed rescue dog named Sugar, realized first responders were not protected after Baltimore County received a donation of 58 pet oxygen kits in September from Invisible Fence Brand of Baltimore. The kits are valued at about $3,500 apiece.
Around the same time, Ohio legislators passed a similar bill to the one that was passed in Maryland, which piqued Lam's curiosity. The state attorney general's office confirmed Lam's suspicion that it would have been illegal for first responders to give pets first aid.
"It's great that they got the 58 oxygen masks for animals," he said. "But I realized they couldn't use them for their purpose, which seemed kind of strange. To be able to get a great contribution from a local business, but not be able to use it, seemed sad and a bit absurd."
Dr. Brooke Loewenstein, veterinarian at Paradise Medical Center in Catonsville, is in support of the legislation.
"We know that [first responders] already do what they can to help pets at the risk of their own legality because they're not protected," she said. "This just gives them protection and I think that's valuable."
Loewenstein hopes first responders will get additional training to help animals. While some first aid treatments and examinations for pets are similar to those administered to humans, such as checking a heartbeat rate or breathing, the "normal" rates are different, she said.
Lisa Radov, chairman of Maryland Votes for Animals, a political action committee that champions legislation to improve the lives of animals, said first responders were vulnerable when they were doing something that society expected them to do.
"If there's a Good Samaritan law for people, there should be the same thing when first responders are putting their lives on the line for our animals," she said.
The legislation passed with an unanimous vote from the Senate and a 140-1 vote in the House of Delegates. Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, cast the dissenting vote. He did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the legislation is under review. If the bill is signed by the governor, the change will take effect Oct. 1.