Turning the tide: Bringing veterinarians back to the public animal welfare debate

Turning the tide: Bringing veterinarians back to the public animal welfare debate

Animal welfare leaders try to hash out a plan to reclaim their ground in the public arena
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Jan 01, 2010

East Lansing, Mich. — The time has come for veterinary medicine to put up a united front to maintain its position as the leading source for animal welfare expertise.

That was the consensus at the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare, developed and co-sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).

"There's no reason we cannot all work together," Chester Gipson, deputy administrator of animal care for U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), told symposium attendees in his opening address. "We can run, but we can't hide. So we want to be very active in engaging the community. Animal welfare has developed into a science of its own. Issues are not always driven by science, but often by ideological agendas for each side. Those agendas shape policy and often the subsequent regulations."

What pieces go into forming a united front and how to get everyone on the same page, however, wasn't nailed down at the symposium. But the 30-plus international speakers at the event, hosted by Michigan State University Nov. 8 to 11, addressed more than 240 attendees from all over the world and laid a foundation for moving forward.

Identifying the problem

Part of the problem veterinary medicine has in defending its role as animal welfare experts is the voice it uses to speak for its cause, argued Candace Croney, PhD, an associate professor of animal behavior and bioethics at The Ohio State University Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.

"Literature in agriculture separates animals to make them symbols of profit," Croney explained. "It talks about them as meat resources, not animals. Beef, not cow. Pork, not pig."

Other examples of blurred ethical lines when speaking about animals include calling gestation crates IGAs?— individual gestation atmospheres?— and using animals to speak in advertisements about the quality of their products.

"In these ads, animals are actually pitching themselves to us," Croney says. "Politicians and advertisers use words that influence. But scientists and educators have the obligation to be truthful and objective. Not telling the whole story about food-animal treatment leaves the scientific community open for attack from the animal rights end that they are holding back and not telling the whole truth."

Large-animal practitioners — who should be at the forefront of the food-animal welfare debate — are often portrayed by animal rights groups as an arm of the agriculture industry. It gives these doctors less credibility in the public arena and more credibility with the agriculture industry, Croney says. On the other hand, small-animal practitioners are seen as more compassionate by the public, but have far less credibility with the agriculture industry.

"We need to be careful about the language we use and how it represents the message we are trying to communicate," Croney says.

She thinks veterinary medicine has largely stayed out of the debate to avoid sending the wrong message. "I think part of the problem for veterinary medicine is not taking any position, whether it's a popular or unpopular one."

"The fact that we're having political debates on this shows there needs to be a clear statement on the issue," she says. "The question I would ask is, if you don't have a voice, who does?"

Why is animal welfare policy such a big deal?

The debate is coming up more because animals are a reflection of the human condition, according to Janice Swanson, PhD, director of animal welfare at Michigan State University.

"We do well; they gain status," Swanson explains. "When they gain status, it also brings increased obligations, and with that, increased social demands."

But while animal rights groups use imagery and emotion to control their side of the debate, veterinarians must back their arguments with fact, some say.

"Veterinarians recognize the complexity of the issue, and that's what makes it hard to develop unified statements," Swanson explains. "When it's reduced to soundbites, it's very difficult for scientists to have an impact because they always feel like they're working at a disadvantage. I think it really has to do with packaging the message as carefully as possible."

The veterinary profession needs to stop waiting for the public to ask for its opinions and start by addressing the public's concerns.

"Always start with what the public is most concerned with. That drives them to ask more questions," she says. "Unfortunately, quite often what we find is [the veterinary profession] produces what they find is important, and they completely lose people."

Regulations don't shrink, but keep expanding, explains Gail Golab, PhD, DVM, MACVSc, and director of AVMA's animal welfare division. So animal welfare law is a problem that will not go away. Predicting increased activity at the state and local levels, new court cases, changes in legal interpretations and opportunities for the public to control the debate through ballot initiatives, Golab says the animal welfare debate will move forward as a result of bad incidents such as undercover raids on puppy mills and slaughterhouse videos.