Animal welfare: When emotion and science collide


Animal welfare: When emotion and science collide

Two camps prepare for battle over livestock housing
Nov 01, 2009

National Report — When it comes to animal welfare, is it too late for diplomacy or have the battle lines finally been drawn?

The question isn't far-fetched, considering some of the latest developments in the long-brewing controversy.

On the one hand, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is plowing ahead with its national campaign to reform livestock housing.

On the other, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) continues to argue for what it considers a more rational, scientific approach.

With a $165 million budget and huge public following, HSUS has the bigger war chest. It reported a 12-fold increase in public mobilization using the Internet over the last five years, and has developed a constituency and membership of 11 million, plus another 1.2 million online supporters. By comparison, AVMA works with a $29 million budget, an active membership of 69,634 and total membership of 76,726.

In what seems a classic David vs. Goliath analogy, the two groups are locked in a tug-of-war for support, and some question whether AVMA stands a chance, based on its size, visibility and the way it argues its position.

Fundamental differences

Welfare divide: "When people have problems, they want simple answers. The answers are not simple if you want them to work," says AVMA's Golab.
"HSUS is an animal-rights organization masquerading as a humane society, and they want to regulate animal practices that have a widespread consensus out of existence. They don't want bigger cages; they want no cages," says Wes Jamison, an associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic. "Meanwhile, AVMA is a conflicted organization that can't possibly have a cohesive response to animal-welfare concerns. First, because it's a moral question, not a scientific one. Second, there are two groups — farm and companion-animal veterinarians. Some view animals as instruments for human use. That, by definition, is offensive to the veterinarians who treat animals as companions."

Jamison formerly worked in the poultry industry before turning to communications and has spent the last several years studying why HSUS seems to have more pull in the public arena than AVMA. He has addressed the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the animal-welfare debate and participated in an animal-welfare symposium for veterinarians at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in October.

"AVMA's caught in an almost impossible bind ... it has a complete conflict of interest. I think AVMA is stuck in the middle, and it's hard because of their ties to large-animal industries. Their credibility, by default, is in question," agrees Dr. Candace Croney of OSU, a featured speaker at this month's joint AVMA/AAVMC animal-welfare symposium at Michigan State University. "HSUS is good at telling people what we shouldn't do to animals. We have very rarely in public come out and said we need to be thinking about how we treat our farm animals. If we never do that, how are people going to believe we care about animal welfare? There are people who campaign to save animals and there are those campaigning to keep killing them."