Animal welfare: When emotion and science collide

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

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

"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."

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.

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."

Science vs. conscience

Conflict of interest or not, both sides believe they are working toward what they think is best for animals. But the goal of animal welfare also is a question of what's best for the mind vs. what's best for the body. The way HSUS and AVMA deliver their messages are based on which side of that argument they take.

"This is a moral issue of right and wrong, and AVMA is trying to throw science out there," Jamison says. "What if AVMA says stressor and behavioral tests show that if you provide larger living space and stimulation for slaves, cotton production could continue? People are listening to language about morality of animal use as much as they were listening about the morality of slavery."

Still, Gail Golab, head of AVMA's animal-welfare division, says just because the moral debate is the easier side to argue doesn't mean it's the best.

Controlling the debate: Gail Golab, head of the AVMA's animal-welfare division, says just because the moral question is the easier side to argue doesn't mean it's best.

"I think it's always easier to take the simple road home. It takes a lot more time to understand the science, and that's part of the reason you have scientists and veterinarians in the first place," Golab says. "I think our role is complicated. The challenge that AVMA has is trying to make sure the accurate information gets on the table. And sometimes it's not only harder to transmit, but the information is not as attractive. When people have problems, they want simple answers. And the answers in this issue are not simple if you want them to work."

Delivering the message

Science might be the better way to debate the issue, according to Golab, but it doesn't appear to be what's working in the public arena, as voters and legislators look past the recommendations of the animal-health community.

"You've got about 30 seconds to get people's attention and understand the issues, and you just can't do that with science," Croney says. "The HSUS' appeal is brilliantly simple and, in terms of what they're asking, anyone can relate to it because when they propose legislation, it's always written along these lines — animals just need room to stand up, lie down and stretch their limbs. No one is going to see anything ridiculous or evil about it. What HSUS has to do is make that work in real life."

But gaining the support of the public has less to do with the sides of the debate than it does with making voters and legislators feel better about their animal-use habits, Jamison says.

"You have a public that wants animals as a companion and as cuisine. All the humane society has to do is point out the hypocrisy of that stance and make more or less an emotional appeal to amplify the guilt of the consumer," Jamison explains. "And all people are looking for is permission to live as hypocrites."

"Who's against the humane society? Who's against treating animals nicely? That's about the extent of what the public thinks about," he continues. "HSUS speaks the language of modern consumers. The veterinary community does not. You've got every structural advantage and yet practically are getting your hat handed to you because AVMA does not know how to speak the language of its consumers. It has something to do with the message, it has something to do with the appeal of the message, and it has something to do with how people process information."

But in the end, those are human debates that don't get either side closer to better animal welfare, Golab says.

"It's not a debate that really makes a difference to the animals involved. I think at the end of the day, we need to worry about what kind of impact we're having on these animals. If we're going to use animals, we need to maximize the benefit of those animals while treating them as well as we can," Golab says. "Do you want to be on the front page of the New York Times, or do you want the health of the chicken to improve? I know which one we're running for."

Can they meet in the middle?

"I think there's a big transition occurring in animal medicine. Those who work for the agriculture industry, they adopt the orientations of the industry. Welfare groups are questioning how these standards in these industries have gone off track and how the interest of the animals has been subverted to other practices," says HSUS Chief Executive Officer Wayne Pacelle. "What you get is a very kind of concentrated view from industry veterinarians, and you don't get any kind of broader discourse within the larger veterinary community."

But that's not all, says Jamison. AVMA also must grapple with dissenion in its own ranks.

"The AVMA internally has two factions that can't be reconciled because they view animals differently," Jamison says. "You're not going to be able to reconcile the commodity vet and the companion vets. The AVMA is going to have profound difficulty internally. It's a very complex issue that has little to do with how animals are treated."

The differences of opinions in AVMA could be a challenge in the eyes of some, but Golab thinks it's an advantage.

"I'm always fascinated by the whole concept of how AVMA is portayed and that somehow it's to our detriment that we have a diverse composition. And to me, that's actually our greatest strength," Golab says. "What's at either end of the debate is the lack of that diversity."

A changing of tide could come with a new generation of veterinarians, more exposed to animal-welfare concerns, Pacelle says.

"I believe the problem is the older leadership of the AVMA parroting the views of animal agriculture being too close to industry vs. any scientific basis for their position," Pacelle says. "Rank-and-file veterinarians support our issues consistently. I think there is no question that we'll see a convergence of interest as that older generation at AVMA relinquishes power. At some point, there will be a correction at AVMA, and more animal welfare-related voices will control the policy-making and decision-making in the future."

While generational differences do play a role in changing views on issues like animal welfare, Golab doesn't think AVMA will see much a shift in the support of its members as time goes on.

"Certainly there's always going to be differences over generations because people's attitudes as to what's appropriate change. Equally important is the fact that we're learning more about animal welfare when it comes to how to measure it and what things are contributing to it," Golab adds.

In the end, the answers to these animal welfare issues should be solved scientifically — not by emotion.

"Ultimately it's finding an appropriate place in the middle. The way you get there is figuing out what about a particular system works and doesn't work, then taking the parts that don't work and make them better," Golab says. "You have to do some real hard soul-searching on what's important to you. It's either the political agenda or doing what's best for the animals. And I think AVMA has decided its agenda."

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