But many in the profession are not trained to identify animal cruelty, Dr. Paul Boehm, a 35-year Colorado practitioner, says.
"I do have a bit of concern for the pressure that mandated reporting puts on a vet to make a judgment which is awfully hard
to ascertain in the office," he says. Some might worry about losing a client if their suspicions are wrong, he adds.
That's why training and education for veterinarians to distinguish between animal cruelty and accidental injuries is important,
Lockwood says. He says the ASPCA does provide such training, and that he personally is "involved in training vets on the technical
aspects of recognizing animal cruelty and advancing the field of forensics."
Mandatory reporting laws will affect the entire veterinary community because its involvement will not only be appreciated,
but required, Merck says.
She acknowledges that the most effective way to combat animal abuse is through education. "We have to have animal cruelty
covered in some way in our curriculum in the vet schools," she says, adding that she is starting to see a change in university
curriculum to include this training and education.
"We have to teach incoming vets and train those already in practice," she says.
Some veterinarians might hold back out of fear or reluctance to testify in court. Lockwood calls this "the halo effect," in
that DVMs are used to being liked and can be very uncomfortable under questioning by an attorney. "Vets are not used to being
in an adversarial environment and having their authority attacked," he says.
The ASPCA not only trains veterinarians in how to recognize cruelty, but also provides mock trials for them to make them more
comfortable presenting evidence, Merck says.
"Communication between the team of vets, prosecutors and law enforcement is crucial," she says. "The more vets are trained
and exposed to these issues, the more they'll gain confidence in relying on their experience and common sense while testifying."
Those fearful of the courtroom setting might be relieved to know that not all animal cruelty investigations result in prosecution.
"A substantial majority of our cases result in a negotiated plea and don't end up with witnesses testifying," Balkin says,
adding that because most people in the community don't like people who are cruel to animals and because veterinarians come
to the stand with a degree of credibility that jurors respect, the mere thought of facing a veterinarian in the courtroom
can induce a defendant to plead guilty.
Other legal effects
How else will stronger penalties and laws against animal cruelty affect veterinarians?
"If the effect is better treatment of animals, then the bills should be applauded," says Adrian Hochstadt, assistant director
of state legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
"If vets fail to report suspicion of abuse, they may be subject to a fine and jail time and also the possibility of having
their license to practice revoked," says Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
Still, legal action seems to be the last thing on veterinarians' minds. Their main concern is protecting animals. "The law
just reinforces that our main priority is to put the animals' needs first. It is our job to step in," Hazelwood says.
The current legal trend has growing support.
"The United States has become more sensitized and unwilling to accept the unnecessary suffering of animals," says Dale Bartlett,
deputy manager of animal-cruelty issues for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), adding that "the violent behaviors
of people who do this kind of thing are a very real threat to our communities."
Merck agrees. "We are the voice for the animal, so why shouldn't we step up when they are the victim?"
Miss Rammohan is a freelance writer in Chicago.