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Delegates face off on animal welfare issues


Denver- Two animal welfare issues targeted by some of the nation's most dogged activists sent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) delegates into a tailspin last month, triggering fierce internal debate and safety concerns due to protesters.

Denver- Two animal welfare issues targeted by some of the nation's most dogged activists sent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) delegates into a tailspin last month, triggering fierce internal debate and safety concerns due to protesters.

Massachusetts Delegate Dr. Peter Theran illustrated his stance against sow gestation stalls with photos of injured pigs. "These didn't come from some animal rights group," he informs the delegates. "These came from me."

Warned by association leaders not to wear their AVMA badges outdoors during the group's annual convention in Denver, House of Delegates (HOD) members took to the floor July 19, questioning the organization's stance on sow gestation stalls. In an impromptu move, delegates voted to rescind last year's position supporting gestation stalls in favor of further scientific review of their impact on breeder sow welfare and health.

The language patterns a resolution proposed by activist group Farm Sanctuary, which was defeated on a technicality. For more than an hour, delegates argued the issue. Pennsylvania Delegate Dr. Sherbyn Ostrich says he favors change.

"As soon as we turn our back on animal welfare we become a laughingstock in the eyes of the public," Ostrich says. "We need to walk out of this House of Delegates meeting with our heads held high. I sure don't want to hide my badge because I'm in veterinary medicine."

Massachusetts Delegate Dr. Peter Theran concurs: "I can find all kinds of science that supports any position you want to take on the issue. Do we need science to tell us this isn't right?"

Yes, says Dr. David Madsen, American Association of Swine Veterinarians delegate who argues that because pigs are vicious, individual gestation stalls serve to protect pregnant sow.

"There is nothing science can prove that shows stalls are less humane or effective than any other housing method," he says. "Let's base our decision on science and not let emotion get the best of the issue."

Dr. Jack Walther assumed his role as president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) July 18 before the group's annual convention in Denver. There, he charged delegates with upping their public role as veterinarians. "AVMA must reach out without being asked. We have accomplished so much and yet we have so much more to do."

Criticizing AVMA welfare positions, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and roughly 10 other activist groups publicly opposed the association's stance backing the forced molting of layer hens.

Activists march on Denver

Up for review by AVMA delegates was a resolution that, if passed, would have rescinded prior association statements that forced molting is a safe, accepted means of farm production. The motion failed by an overwhelming majority.

While the delegates spent considerably less time debating the issue than sow housing, a full-page ad in the Rocky Mountain News and a billboard accusing AVMA of harming animals did capture veterinarian interest. Demonstrators handed out literature to DVMs as an activist paraded in a full-body hen costume.

"We've known for a long time they were going to do this public relations campaign," says Dr. Bruce Little, AVMA executive vice president. "We're not going to fool with them. It just shows they have more money than we have."

At press time, there were no reports of clashes between veterinarians and activist groups.

For the second year in a row, delegates voted to increase annual membership dues by $25 to offset economic losses endured by AVMA.

Dues hike to raise $600,000

According to Treasurer Dr. James Peddie, AVMA remains a "financially sound" organization. Yet hefty investment losses and a near $300,000 loss in ad revenue generated by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association put the organization in a bind, Peddie explains.

"Without the increase, our income over expenses is $73,560," he says. "That's simply not enough of a financial safety net for 2004."

Delegates voted to pass just one of the six standard resolutions up for review. According to a document proposed by 10 state associations, AVMA now is formally charged with taking a more active role in supporting states' efforts to respond to legislative challenges.

Stepping up state support

The need for official language stems from battles waged within the owner/guardianship issue, declaw ban movement and the push for legislatures and court systems to value pets as more than property in malpractice and wrongful death cases.

Animal rights activists are picking the states "one-by-one," says Dr. Dick Schumacher, executive director of the California Veterinary Medical Association.

"These groups we're fighting are well funded and well organized," he says. "What happens in Rhode Island does have an effect on California. A vote against this resolution would leave states hanging out to dry."

Delegates turned down a resolution granting debt-forgiveness for veterinary health students with advanced degrees in public health or epidemiology on grounds its scope is too narrow. They also nixed a change in the election process of the executive board chair.

On the table

But the delegates did agree to investigate the need for a public relations campaign on the role of the veterinarian in homeland security. While delegates remained divided on the campaign size and perceived cost, most acknowledge a need.

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