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DVM Newsmakers: The battle for public support


Schaumburg, Ill. - Animal welfare ranks as one to the top strategic initiatives for AVMA, for good reason.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — Animal welfare ranks as one of the top strategic initiatives for AVMA, for good reason.

Emotional and oftentimes volatile, animal-welfare problems have been thrust into the public spotlight — from California's Proposition 2 to equine slaughter to last month's denouncement of ear cropping and tail docking for cosmetic purposes.

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven.Photo by Callie Lipkin

The issues, according to AVMA's Executive Vice President Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, tug at the heartstrings of the human-animal bond. And every episode — from ex-NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dog-fighting conviction to HSUS's infamous undercover video showing a processing plant prodding a downed cow to slaughter — not only signals problems in the system, but ignites new debate about how to handle animals humanely within our society.

In the middle sits a $28 million organization made up of 75,000 veterinarians in debate over these multi-faceted, complicated welfare problems. Every sector served by veterinary medicine faces animal-welfare challenges, DeHaven explains. Because of it, veterinarians need to push for a seat at the policy table. Though often underfinanced and outnumbered by rivals like the $120 million Humane Society of the United States, there is no profession more qualified to address these problems, DeHaven adds.

Think of it this way: Veterinary medicine sits at an intersection, so he says, and trends within animal welfare, veterinary practices, education and public health are all passing through.

Last month's position against cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking was considered a defining moment for the association. So was California's controversial Prop 2, which was heavily supported by HSUS and ultimately will change longstanding agricultural housing practices in the state. And who can forget the vortex surrounding equine slaughter and a growing unwanted horse problem?

"Animal welfare seems to be clear-cut and simple on the surface, but if you start peeling away the layers you can see that these are complex, multi-faceted issues."

"We need to be willing to take some firm positions on animal-welfare issues," says AVMA's W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA.

AVMA's goal? Take a leadership role in defining problems and finding solutions to animal-welfare problems, DeHaven says. Yet, its guiding principles are focused on the responsible use of animals for food/fiber, work, education and research.

"We start with the premise that it is acceptable to use animals for those purposes. But we want to do so humanely and find ways for continuous improvement. Within that foundation, we need to be willing to take some firm positions on animal-welfare issues."

Growing animal populations

So what is driving this deep-seated interest in animal welfare? It's the human-animal bond. It's shelter organizations teaming with unwanted pets. It's the media. It's campaigns from animal activist and welfare groups challenging longstanding agricultural practices.

"In the big picture, we are seeing a growing population of animals," DeHaven explains. "As developing countries become more developed, demand for animal protein is growing, but so too is the desire to have pets. It's not just a national phenomenon, it's very much a global phenomenon.

"As a society, we really do care about animals. Animal-protection organizations recognize it, and they are taking advantage of the public's interest in animals' well-being. To some extent, they are driving the agenda, especially on production farm animals. That signals to the veterinary profession in general, and the AVMA in particular, that we need to assume a leadership role. We have as much or more trust and credibility with the public than any other profession, and that really speaks to our role and responsibility to be leaders in animal welfare."

Ear-cropping debate

December's controversial policy statement against ear-cropping and tail-docking riled the American Kennel Club. Humane organizations applauded the move.

But AVMA's position was for the right reasons, DeHaven counters. And, according to DVM Newsmagazine's online poll (dvm360.com), he had the backing of three-quarters of those voting on the issue.

"Those procedures, done for cosmetic purposes, yield no benefit to the animals, but it does subject them to some level of pain and distress as well as surgical and anesthetic risks. In our role in being advocates for animals, we couldn't find any position other than to be opposed to those procedures — cosmetic procedures — that have no medical basis for doing them." The issue, DeHaven says, came up during a five-year review of its position statements. The rest is history.

Target: agriculture

In the United States, urban populations now outnumber those in rural areas for the first time. Animal agriculture is on a collision course, DeHaven says. Increasing demand is driving consolidation of farms, and society wants to have a say in agricultural practices, or at least the ones they find objectionable, like confinement.

"Our population is getting further and further removed from the farm, but they want to have more and more to say about farm-animal practices. So, therein lies the challenge. It is in educating the public about production agriculture — what it is, and what it is not. We also want to create an environment that fosters continuous improvement, but not at the expense of driving that production out of the country."

There is an inevitable economic pressure that results from increased regulation on industries, DeHaven explains.

"I would argue that the unintended consequences may be a welfare for animals that is far worse than it is currently. He, of course, is referring to keeping agricultural operations within the United States. "So, let's not export our animal issues from the perspective of the animal and make things even worse. Let's deal with them reasonably, scientifically and rationally in our country."

Equine slaughter

One example was the forced closure of equine processing plants in the United States. The unintended consequence is the growing number of exported horses to Mexico for slaughter, DeHaven says.

"We lost the battle when we allowed it to be characterized as a horse-slaughter issue. The reality is there are 90,000 to 100,000 unwanted horses in this country every year. How do we deal with that problem? We are not pro horse slaughter. We are pro humane treatment of horses. Arguably, slaughter of horses right now is the best alternative we have, as opposed to animals that have been turned out to die or animals that are left at livestock markets when they can't be sold.

"Instead of being humanely slaughtered in the United States, they have an additional 1,500-mile trip to Mexico where we don't have any oversight. We would prefer that horses not be slaughtered for human consumption. But at least for the time being, until we get more long-term solutions in place, it's a better alternative than some of the others," he says.

On this issue, AVMA's stand was contrary to public opinion.

"But it was the right one for the the right reasons, given the cards we had been dealt," DeHaven adds.

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