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Celeste Kelly | Photo Courtesy the Institute for Justice

Celeste Kelly had been practicing as an equine massage therapist for a decade when she received notification in the fall of

2012 that she was being investigated by the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board. An anonymous email tip led the board to file a complaint against Kelly, claiming she was providing veterinary services without being a licensed veterinarian.

Kelly, who owns and operates her practice Hands to Wholeness in Tucson, Arizona, said she tried to comply, filling out the questionnaire the board had sent to her; however, she was soon faced with a cease-and-desist letter from the board. She then reached out to the Institute for Justice, having recalled a similar case it had won for an animal massage therapist in Maryland in 2008.

“Massage therapists for humans are not required to be medical doctors,” Kelly said. “It is ludicrous for massage therapists for animals to be required to be veterinarians.”

Institute for Justice attorney Diana Simpson, lead counsel on the case, said they are still very early in the legal process. A lawsuit was filed in March; in July, Judge David Udall of the Maricopa Superior Court of Arizona denied the veterinary board’s motion to dismiss. Now, Simpson said, the case is in the discovery stage, which could take around nine months. After both sides have presented their facts and arguments, the court will then make a decision, she said, adding that, regardless of the outcome, appeals could then stem from the verdict.

Initially, Simpson reached out to other animal massage therapists throughout the state, which is when Grace Granatelli, who has been practicing canine massage for 10 years, and Stacey Kollman, who has been practicing equine massage for almost 15 years, became involved. Granatelli had been issued her own cease-and-desist letter in September 2013. Kollman has no previous complaints.

“For me, it’s just an issue of really being able to openly practice something I am educated to do and certified to do and not have to fly under the radar,” Kollman said.

According to the original complaint filed by the Institute for Justice, “This civil rights lawsuit seeks to vindicate the constitutional right of plaintiffs Celeste Kelly, Grace Granatelli and Stacey Kollman to earn an honest living in the occupation of their choice, free from arbitrary, excessive and unreasonable government regulations.”

If the court decides in favor of Kelly, Granatelli and Kollman, the hope is that “this will open up the avenue for all animal massage therapists to be able to massage animals without fear of the vet board [in their respective states],” Simpson said, noting that each state is different and what is successful in one will not necessarily be successful in another.

Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board Executive Director Victoria Whitmore declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying she does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the board. Whitmore emailed the following statement, which is the board’s comment regarding the lawsuit: “Protecting the health and safety of the general public and animals in our state in accordance with Arizona statutes is the Board’s primary role. The Board considers each case and circumstance individually, with our mission in mind. Because of the pending nature of the lawsuit, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Emily Roland is the digital editor for MASSAGE Magazine.

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