AVMA creates elaborate system of welfare groups


Schaumburg, Ill. - The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) plans to rank as the nation's authority on animal welfare and establish the profession as a vital guide to welfare ideals by 2008.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) plans to rank as the nation's authority on animal welfare and establish the profession as a vital guide to welfare ideals by 2008.

Dr. Tom Burkgren

These objectives are just two of six welfare goals outlined by AVMA Executive Board members in April coupled with the creation of several governing bodies devoted to welfare issues. In addition, board members pardoned the association's 25-year-old Animal Welfare Committee, which was scheduled for sunset in April but was re-enacted due to protest from allied groups and activists fearing their voices would be lost within AVMA.

AVMA officials say they are taking strides to consider all welfare views. Following the November establishment of the Division of Animal Welfare and Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, Executive Board members in April created the Animal Welfare Governance Task Force, designed to monitor all AVMA entities and guide the mission of its new division. Executive Board members postponed consideration of an animal welfare council for the group's meeting this month. If enacted, the council would represent members of allied welfare groups, and state associations and meet twice yearly with the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. (See sidebar for details on all AVMA welfare groups and their makeup).

Dr. Bonnie Beaver

Known to be critical of AVMA's direction on welfare, Dr. Tom Burkgren now appears content with the association's efforts. As the American Association of Swine Veterinarians' executive director, Burkgren says establishing the governance task force is "the best move AVMA has made."

"We were happy to see that created because that will give everyone a chance to catch their breath and come up with the best ways to handle welfare issues," he says. "Part of the uproar was that no one outside the Executive Board knew what was going on. Our immediate concerns have been addressed."

Addressing animal welfare issues via consensus has been at the top of Dr. Bonnie Beaver's agenda since assuming the role of AVMA president last July. Beaver implored AVMA members to seriously consider animal welfare issues during her induction speech. With welfare activism gaining steam, the veterinary profession must weigh in with expertise, she says.

Dr. Gail Golab

"Now is the time for veterinarians to step forward and take the leadership in the area of good animal welfare based on science," she says. "Our welfare initiatives are at their best when we take on a lot of different, broad views."

Six goals in three years

Beaver's charge is echoed in goals outlined by Executive Board members. In addition to promoting the profession's leadership and guidance on welfare, they include:

  • Developing core values and principles to guide policy development for animal welfare;

  • Ensuring all veterinarians have a clear understanding and appreciation for the science and ethics of animal welfare including their historical, political and social constructs;

  • Working to uniformly define the legal status of animals in all states consistent with AVMA policy;

  • Ensuring AVMA has the infrastructure and resources to anticipate and proactively address emerging animal rights issues.

Professional education also ranks on the AVMA's list of ambitions. Approved during the April Executive Board meeting was the creation of Animal Welfare 101, an online educational program that introduces the animal welfare debate to practitioners. Hosted by Dr. Gail Golab, assistant director of Professional and Public Affairs, the half-hour video will be available through the AVMA's Web site. It will define the veterinarian's role in animal welfare and act as guide to public relations.

A breakdown on welfare groups within AVMA

Foie gras production

AVMA's public image suffered last year when the association failed to enact an activist-sponsored resolution to oppose foie gras production practices. Nearly a year later, Executive Board members have approved introducing its own resolution to the House of Delegates that opposes "the mechanical forced feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras because of the adverse effects on the birds' health and welfare associated with the practice."

Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights spokeswoman Dr. Holly Cheever says she's "thrilled" with the board's decision.

"I think this covers all the issues we had with foie gras production," she says. "AVAR has been making this recommendation for years, but to tell you the truth, we could care less about who's playing capture the flag."

Activist group Farm Sanctuary reportedly plans to withdraw it's own resolution to ban foie gras production based on redundancies. House of Delegates members are scheduled to consider resolutions next month during the AVMA annual convention in Minneapolis.

Sow housing surfaces

This month, Executive Board members are expected to consider a long-awaited position statement by the Task Force on the Housing of Pregnant Sows. The task force is charged with conducting a thorough and objective review of the scientific evidence relating to the impact of gestation stalls on the health and welfare of breeding sows.

The initiative emerged during the House of Delegates' 2003 session, where an animal rights petition to garner AVMA opposition of sow stalls grew into a task force charge to scientifically review the issue.

While Golab refuses to shed light what the proposed position statement includes, she says, "What I can tell you is that it is very balanced, relatively long and reflects the task force's review of 1,500 pages of peer-reviewed literature."

The association's current statement, adopted in 2002, says AVMA "supports the use of sow housing configurations that: minimize aggression and competition between sows; protect sows from detrimental effects associated with environmental extremes, particularly temperature extremes; reduce exposure to hazards that result in injuries; provide every animal with daily access to appropriate food and water; and facilitate observation of individual sow appetite, respiratory rate, urination and defecation, and reproductive status by caretakers."

Legal remedies involving pets

In other AVMA business, Executive Board members in April approved the Task Force on Legal Remedies, headed by Governmental Relations Division Director Dr. Michael Chaddock. The task force is charged with exploring damage recovery alternatives for litigation involving animals and offering opinions as to whether the current remedies should be adequate and expanded.

To date, most courts and state legislatures view animals as chattel, worth no more than their fair market value in instances of malpractice and wrongful death. The resulting small awards have empowered a movement of pet owners challenging the system to win non-economic claims seeking emotional distress and loss of consortium damages. Experts suggest that acceptance of these cases would likely lead to skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates for DVMs.

AVMA officials want task force members to "use your best efforts to develop an economic remedy that could recognize the value of the human-animal bond through reasonably identifiable, non-emotive economic means while preserving the status of animals as property."

A written report by the task force's seven members is expected within 90 days of the group's yet-to-be-scheduled initial meeting. Members were not identified at presstime.

Legal status of animals

Members of the Task Force on Legal Status of Animals reportedly concluded their work and recommended clarification to the AVMA's position on ownership versus guardianship. AVMA's position statement on compensatory value also has been tweaked to include a specific statement regarding non-economic damages involving animals, citing "any remedies beyond economic damages would be inappropriate and ultimately harm animals, therefore the AVMA opposes the potential recovery of non-economic damages."

Executive Board members approved the task force's recommendations and the group has since disbanded.

Starting SAC

The Executive Board also established the State Advocacy Committee (SAC) to support AVMA efforts to aid constituent organizations in state legislative and regulatory affairs for the benefit of animal health and welfare, public health and the veterinary profession.

In addition to scanning emerging issues and assessing needs regarding state legislative and regulatory affairs, the committee will provide a Crisis Advisory Team (CAT) responsible for rapid response in urgent situations to address gaps in AVMA policy.

The committee will act as a "think tank" on state legislative and regulatory affairs, develop guidance for AVMA, build a process for constituent groups to make AVMA action requests and describe instances when it's OK for AVMA to get involved even when not asked to do so.

Eight voting members serving staggered one- to three-year terms are planned for SAC, representing the Executive Board, House of Delegates, American Society of Veterinary Medical Association Executives, East Region, Central Region, West Region, Legislative Advisory Committee and one at-large member. "Members should reflect a variety of interests and practice settings of veterinary medicine," AVMA says.

Meetings will be held biannually at AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. The SAC and CAT will advise and report to the Executive Board.

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