Eric Weisman won't stop playing doctor
It all started with a dead cat.
For Eric Weisman, its longtime owner, the past couple of months had already been trying enough. He was working desperately to nurse a neighborhood dog back to health as it deteriorated from Lyme disease, making house calls to its heartbroken owners, listening to its weakening heartbeat and hand-feeding the animal by plastic syringe. He was on the phone to Las Vegas, where another client needed careful instruction on how to administer a potentially toxic treatment he'd recommended for a cat with a terrible intestinal parasite. He was also making long-distance calls to Texas, where yet another client was using his procedures to nurse a cancer-stricken dog back to health.
It was all very touch and go.
And then the cat died. As he often did in the course of his work, Weisman—a soft-spoken 59-year-old with a shock of black hair—wrapped the body up and drove it from his home office to the red brick Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University of Minnesota. In a case summary he left for the head of the lab, Arno Wunschmann, Weisman explained that his pet had likely succumbed to kidney failure. He also pointed out some lesions on the animal's legs, which he suspected could be cancerous.
Dr. Wunschmann laid the animal out on his cold metal work table and set to work on a necropsy, opening the animal up and carefully examining its condition. What he found shocked him enough to report it to authorities.
"This is experimentation on the animals," says Trevor Oliver, the city attorney who received Wunschmann's findings. "Haphazard, uncontrolled, and unscientific experimentation."
JUST AS INTEREST IN alternative medicine has soared in the U.S.—one estimate says a third of all adults have tried some form of unconventional treatment—so has interest in new methods of treating animals.
A 2003 American Animal Hospital Association survey found that 21 percent of pet owners have used some form of alternative therapy on their animals, and the business of vitamin supplements for pets has ballooned into a $1 billion industry. In Minnesota, practicing acupuncture on animals has become increasingly popular, and in 2008 the Legislature passed a law allowing chiropractors to treat dogs and cats.
But the blurring of the lines hasn't always gone over well with authorities. In 2006, the Washington Department of Health issued a "cease and desist" order to an unlicensed woman performing shock therapy on the acupuncture points of pets. In 2009, a California veterinarian lost her license for trying to diagnose animals using E.S.P. and selling her own homeopathic vaccines. And last year, a vet in British Columbia was forced to give up his license after he marketed his own dietary supplements as "cures," claiming he's seen "thousands" of pets healed with herbs.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with people being interested and exploring," says Dr. Brennen McKenzie, president-elect of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association. "I think it's important to find what's true, and not what somebody made up and put on the internet."
IN THE EARLY 1970S, an 18-year-old door-to-door salesman named Eric Weisman inadvertently walked onto the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. What he saw—animal carcasses hanging from hooks, their blood dripping onto the floor—horrified him.
"I was traumatized," he recalls.
Weisman had always been an animal lover, bringing stray dogs and cats to his Toronto home, though for most of his childhood his parents would let him keep only birds as pets. After seeing the slaughterhouse, Weisman wandered into a health foods store and came home with an armload of veggie hotdogs and hamburgers.
"I'm going to eat these instead of meat,'" Weisman pronounced.
After watching his mother suffer a long-term illness throughout his childhood, Weisman was inspired to pursue medicine. He moved to St. Paul to begin chiropractic studies at the school then known as Northwestern Chiropractic College, pleased that it incorporated a more "holistic" approach to health. He graduated in 1979 with two certificates in x-ray imaging and acupuncture, and set up shop in North St. Paul. Before long, he had locations in Roseville and Falcon Heights.
Weisman espoused the value of his meat-free diet to patients, and took to the airwaves with his own cable-access show, Health Now!
"Please don't hesitate to call me if you have a question!" he beamed, a business telephone number flashing below his pearly smile.
With his lustrous jet black hair and tidy suits, Weisman soon gathered an audience. Before long, the show was on multiple cable-access channels and callers could catch Health Now! almost any night of the week.
As a loving pet owner, Weisman began developing a pet food in line with the principles of veganism. In 1988, he formulated his own vegan pet food and called it Evolution Diet. He began advertising the kibble and wet food on a series of websites and marketing it in national pet magazines. The product even won best vegan pet food from VegNews magazine.
Word of the pet food began spreading around the country, and as Weisman built Evolution's reputation, he began letting his customers call him for advice about their pets' health.
"Eric is smart; he's a scientist," says Joe Jeansen, a longtime customer who works as a musician in New York City. "He's got a firm understanding of mammals, and it's pretty in-depth."
BEHIND THE SCENES OF the charismatic chiropractor's office, trouble was brewing.
The complaints were minor at first. The Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners noted that Weisman was calling himself a "holistic practitioner" on his letterhead and asked him to remove the term from his advertising.
A few years later, the board came knocking again, this time over multiple complaints that Weisman had billed too much for services and charged for procedures that were never performed. Weisman admitted to the board that he didn't typically take the vital signs of his patients and sometimes improperly administered acupuncture independent of any chiropractic procedure. The board placed him on probation for one year.
Almost immediately after the probation began, complaints came pouring in that Weisman was offering excessive treatments with exorbitant price tags. He also gained a reputation around the Ramsey County courthouses for suing patients who wouldn't pay.
"His bills were very, very high—outrageously high," says Paul Phelps, an injury lawyer whose clients sometimes used Weisman for accident-related chiropractic work. "He was trying to get money out of me from what the insurance wouldn't pay."
Bizarre advertisements began popping up in local papers. One implied that Weisman was a part of Fairview Lifetime Fitness. Actually he had just set up shop in the same building.
In one case, a woman claimed that Weisman had advised her to back her car into a wall several times to make an accident look worse for the insurance company, according to an order filed by the Board of Chiropractic Examiners. (Weisman says that if the incident occurred he was likely joking.)
The board placed Weisman on probation for five years and required him to do 300 hours of community service as penance. About two years later, when Weisman still had not completed the community service, the board summoned him back. Weisman had finally exhausted his last chance.
"The board said enough is enough," recalls Dr. Larry Spicer, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners. "We can't even control his behavior with orders. It's time to take away his license."
ON THE AFTERNOON OF January 9, 2001, Dr. Weisman and Dr. Spicer met in a conference room in the dreary office building of the Board of Chiropractic Examiners. With them were three other board members, and two representatives of the attorney general's office.
The atmosphere was tense. Weisman's license was on the line.
"Okay," said Spicer. "How did you come by your professional designation as a doctor?"
"By going to chiropractic college and getting a state license," answered Weisman.
"So the presumption is, then, that all things in which you refer to yourself as a doctor derive from the fact that you went to chiropractic college, studied chiropractic, and got a license as a doctor of chiropractic?" Spicer prodded.
"Mmm hmm," said Weisman.
"Then how can you then use that degree to give credibility to what you're doing with regard to pets?"
"Why not?" Weisman answered.
Buoyed by the success of his pet food, Weisman had begun experimenting on the strays he took in. His first, a sickly stray cat named Cranky, was force-fed vegan pet food and a mixture of milk thistle liquid, flax seed oil, and garlic. When she recovered six weeks later from what Weisman believed to be Hepatitis, he took it as a sign of success and began formulating his own supplement regimens. He called it "Metabolic Medicine," a treatment that combined vitamins, minerals, plant proteins, and a low-fat vegetarian diet.
In addition to Evolution Diet, Weisman's website began offering $50 packages to treat cancer, kidney failure, and dementia, not including the price of up to $275 worth of vitamins and supplements. For $100, pet owners could buy a "Heart Disease Emergency Treatment Plan" that included a 24-hour emergency pager number for Weisman. For one client, Weisman recommended a dog receive caffeine enemas for lymphoma.
The buzz soon grew loud enough to reach the ears of the Minnesota veterinary community. The University of Minnesota's Dr. Julie Churchill, an associate clinical professor of small animal nutrition, first met Weisman when he approached her hoping to get her to study the benefits of his pet food. But when she heard he was advocating a vegan diet for cats and ferrets, she wanted no part of it.
"You cannot, capital N-O-T, safely feed a cat a vegan diet," she says. "To use food in a medical way you should really know what you're doing."
After looking at Evolution Diet, Churchill reported numerous violations of advertising and labeling to the Department of Agriculture. At one point ads for the diet implied that the food could extend a cat's lifespan to over 20 years (12-15 years is the average lifespan for cats).
At the same time, the chiropractic board was hearing complaints that Weisman was keeping his pets in the office, and sometimes did his chiropractic treatments covered in animal hair and without washing his hands.
Finally, the Board of Chiropractic Examiners launched a full investigation. Weisman was called in for a series of depositions, where assistant attorney general Susan Damon grilled him about the basis of his research.
"Is there anything that you did to demonstrate scientifically that it was the treatment that you provided that caused these animals to get better?" she asked.
"I provided the treatment. The animals improved," said Weisman. "That's it."
Weisman was forced to admit that the 20 years of experience he touted was all private study and internet research. He counted the anecdotal evidence provided by a couple of dozen strays he'd experimented on at home as "research studies."
In the course of the interviews, he also admitted he'd been offering to provide some of the same supplement techniques and protocols to humans, calling them "tested organ-regeneration procedures with proven results."
Damon asked Weisman what he meant to treat.
"Heart disease, cancer, mostly undocumented arthritic and some undocumented brain disorders," he replied.
"Did you test any of these procedures on humans?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered. "I tested the stroke treatment on my mother and I tested the heart disease procedure on my father."
"And those were the only human subjects?"
"Let's see," he said. "Yeah. Uh-huh."
At the conclusion of his meeting at the Chiropractic Board of Examiners building, Spicer finally turned to Weisman.
"There's a very large likelihood, a very significant likelihood that we're looking here at violations of the Veterinary Practice Act, violation of the Practice Act of the Board of Nutritional Dietetics, violations of the Pharmacy Practice Act, and violations of the Medical Practice Act," Spicer said. "We are suggesting here, we are offering that there be a stipulated or agreed voluntary surrender of your license."
Weisman seemed dumbfounded.
"I definitely, I've definitely made some mistakes here," he stammered. "I'm willing to make some amends."
No dice. Weisman's chiropractic license was revoked. The order read that he "falsely claimed to have 'treatment programs' that could 'cure' certain forms of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, and other conditions. Such advertising preys on vulnerable people and shows that Respondent poses a serious threat to the public."
Weisman says that a head injury prevented him from completing his community service and he never stood a chance. "Professionals are not afforded a fair trial in this state," Weisman explains. "Bureaucrats make the decisions, not the trial judge and jury."
EIGHT YEARS AFTER WEISMAN'S license was taken away, Dr. Wunschmann was hard at work examining the dead cat Weisman had dropped off.
Contrary to what Weisman had suggested, the cat's renal system and kidneys were fine. The animal had died of acute pneumonia—it was unable to absorb nutrients from food any longer.
Both the cat's front legs were broken. What Weisman had suggested were cancerous lesions Wunschmann believed were actually scabs from the cat walking on its joints.
Alarmed by the cat's condition, Wunschmann wrote a letter to the Board of Veterinary Medicine. At wit's end, the board director turned the letter over to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office for criminal charges, along with a 2003 court injunction that the board had filed barring Weisman from performing veterinary services.
On a blustery day, the cops made their move. Officers from the Little Canada police department and the Ramsey County sheriff's department ascended the steep driveway of Weisman's lakefront home and presented a search warrant.
They fanned out through the house, opening drawers and flipping through documents with gloved hands. The team then went to Weisman's dungeon-like warehouse in downtown St. Paul, where they collected boxes of evidence among dollies and crates of Evolution Diet pet food.
Little Canada City Attorney Trevor Oliver pored over the evidence for the next two months.
One of the 29 files contained a fax from Weisman to a woman in Texas.
"I will charge $125.00 for writing a custom program based on your dog's blood work and physical findings," the fax read. "I am offering you a bargain and at least a normal life expectancy for your dog which is a whole lot more then [sic] you have now."
In another file, Weisman told a dog owner, "I am a former human physician," before diagnosing her dog with cancer. The file contained a note from the woman later indicating that the dog actually had a hematoma.
Finally, there were nine files for human patients. One man had contacted Weisman through his television program asking for help treating his cancer. Another asked "Dr. Weisman" for help with swollen knuckles.
A third was St. Paul attorney Eric Lee, who says he just wanted to buy some vitamins and was perplexed when Weisman pulled out a stethoscope to listen to his breathing.
"I'm not sure why he did that," Lee says.
Oliver came back with 58 separate criminal charges: 29 for practice of veterinary medicine without a license, nine of practicing medicine without a license, 17 criminal contempt of court charges, and two misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty against the autopsied cat.
"You don't have to injure somebody to commit this crime," Oliver says. "You just have to try to play doctor. And in this case, Eric clearly tried to play doctor."
OVER THE PHONE, ERIC WEISMAN'S voice lacks the joyful tone he uses on his cable network show, although these days a decent amount of his airtime is spent blasting his legal tormenters.
He sounds depressed. His wife, Lynn, an animal rights activist who helped him build Evolution Diet, does not want him speaking to the press. He plans to plead not guilty on all counts and the case is still pending. But he's agreed to answer the question on everyone's mind: Why?
"I spent a huge sum of money on my education," he says. "It was my chosen field, so to speak, and, so yeah, I wanted to continue working in that area."
He doesn't believe he can get accredited doing anything else, and has simply tried to work around his revoked chiropractic license. He admits he made mistakes.
"Being able to follow the rules rigidly has been a problem," Weisman sighs.
He insists the disclaimers on his website saying that he's not a physician and the caveat he rattles off to his clients ("I'm not offering cure, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment") absolve him of any wrongdoing. He repeats over and over that he's simply providing information, which he has every right to do.
"I'm certainly not breaking the law," Weisman says. "My information is not the practice of medicine or veterinary medicine. I have a very deep concern for the well-being of animals and people and the planet."
Before he hangs up, Weisman can't help mentioning some new accreditations and awards he's recently received: a 2011 certificate of appreciation from the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine.
When contacted for confirmation, the physician's committee explained that it had given the certificate to Weisman as an honorarium after he made a monetary donation.
"Unbelievable," Weisman says. "I interpreted it as for my stance on cruelty-free testing."
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