The humane movement: The challenge and the future of the veterinary profession

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Veteirnarians should avoid direct opposition of animal welfare groups during this cultural shift.

Dr. Emily Strunk looked across the parking lot as she approached the old house. The lot was full of old, battered cars. She walked past a 1980s-era station wagon full of pet taxis and newspapers. Then she noticed a gleaming Jaguar parked well away from the others.

"The face of an unwanted pet behind a kennel gate is a powerful thing." GETTY IMAGES/ANDREI SPIRACHE

As Dr. Strunk climbed the stairs to the porch she noticed a sign reading, "All animals need to come in the back door." She smiled and hoped it didn't apply to her. She knocked. No reply. She opened the door a bit and was surprised to see several pairs of eyes staring at her.

No one said anything. The large room was still. She heard a cat meow in a distant room, followed by a muted bark. "Hello, I'm Dr. Strunk from across town," she ventured. "I was hoping to meet Dr. Thomas. Can anyone help me?" The silence was deafening.

A woman sitting at a paper-strewn desk pursed her lips and finally broke the silence. "I suppose you mean Sue," she said. "She's out for the day."

"I'm interested in meeting with her," Dr. Strunk replied. "We have many things in common, and I'd like to discuss helping out her organization." More silence.

Dr. Strunk was determined. "Could you please tell Dr. Thomas I dropped by and hope to tour the facility sometime?"

The room's occupants started to shift uncomfortably. The woman at the desk said, "We'll tell her you stopped by."

Dr. Strunk slowly backed toward the door—somehow this seemed the correct posture for exit. She turned at the top of steps and gulped in the fresh air.

A few minutes later she arrived at her veterinary hospital. "Hey, Em, did you get a tour at Hav-a-Heart Shelter and Rescue?" asked her partner, Dr. Jamie Street, as she entered. Dr. Street had just bought into the rural Texas practice after having worked for Dr. Strunk for five years. "No tour—no nothing," Dr. Strunk said, then she explained what had happened.

"I know you've been trying for years to get the veterinarians in town involved with shelter and rescue groups," Dr. Street said. "And when someone like you tries to get the ball rolling, this always seems to happen. You told me Dr. Thomas used to work at Academy Animal Hospital, right?"

"Yes, and why she left is anyone's guess," Dr. Strunk replied. "We used to talk on the phone, but I haven't spoken with her in months."

Dr. Strunk looked at the clock. It was time for lunch but she rarely ate. Today was no different. She entered her office and dialed Academy Animal Hospital.

"Sue must feel guilty," said her colleague, Dr. Joe Smith, after Dr. Strunk described her strange encounter. Then he filled her in on some background.

While she was still at Academy, Dr. Sue Thomas had started surrounding herself with friends from various rescue groups in town. Those people needed to rally around someone they could look up to because of her education and status in the community. Dr. Thomas loved that, and eventually the pull toward the humane movement became overwhelming. She came in one day and told Dr. Smith that her life purpose wasn't working with clients anymore—it was for the suffering masses of animals with no homes.

Within 30 days of leaving she and her friends had started Hav-a-Heart. Dr. Smith said Dr. Thomas hadn't taken a pay cut when she left—in fact, she now earned a little more. The corporation had good benefits, too. Within the local humane movement were smart people who knew how to form 501(c)(3) corporations using websites that provided legal documents and counseling for very little money—somewhere around $600. They also had board members with connections to a Dallas foundation that sent money. They also wrote grants and held fund-raising events. "The face of an unwanted pet behind a kennel gate is a powerful thing," Dr. Smith said.

He told Dr. Strunk that the organization's staff was made up entirely of volunteers. There was one technician who had been with the group for several years. She and Dr. Thomas could perform up to 30 spays or neuters per day. Dr. Thomas was also now seeing patients in the afternoon for other medical services—anybody who walked in the door. Although the group stated that it served only those who couldn't afford care, "it's become clear that's pretty much lip service," Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Strunk spent time over the years trying to cooperate with the shelters in the area, and she didn't understand why she was being met with silence. "You're now the competition," he said.

"What do you think we should do?" she asked.

"Do you have $600?"

Defining the movement

The humane movement, with its associated animal welfare efforts, is a worthy cause that's more than 100 years old. Over the years veterinarians have generally supported it with free labor and at the very least moral support. Unfortunately, the humane community often regards veterinarians with suspicion.

The humane movement is above all a political movement. It boasts an army of volunteers who operate with a zeal and methodology similar to an endless political campaign. It's fueled by emotion. It's fractured and without unity, but the cause overwhelms this deficiency. And even with support from the our profession, it opposes what veterinarians need to survive—adequate fees for our services.

Competitive forces are everywhere in our profession, and the animal welfare movement has moved into our field in unprecedented numbers. Of course, the veterinary profession has always advocated animal welfare. The Animal Medical Center (AMC) in New York City has operated as a not-for-profit since 1910 and started with volunteer veterinarians much like the veterinarians who volunteer in shelters around the country now. Today AMC employs more than 80 veterinarians.

The problem is that if we oppose these not-for-profits at any level, people we will see us as capitalists and as opposition to the causes within the humane movement. This is a poison pill. Many of our clients overlap with the rescue and animal welfare movement, so outright opposition is counterproductive.

Finding a way forward

We need one more rescue organization: Save Private Practice. How do we rescue the traditional for-profit practice? Saving large populations of animals is worthy, but it's outside our abilities. And if animal welfare becomes the predominating cultural norm for our society, veterinary medicine may simply become a subcategory. If society looks first to the humane movement when animal issues arise, we will have diminished our place in the culture.

Veterinarians must adapt. And so far we've adapted poorly. Our priority is to avoid the poison pill—direct opposition. Swallowing it result in separation from the movement and loss of business and credibility.

Do we need to directly embrace the movement? Well, yes and no. We must enter the movement and change it to give it our perspective on the inside. Most people within the movement don't understand what makes our practices tick, which is lots of clients. If we have a diminished caseload, expenses overwhelm necessary profits. Profits in veterinary hospitals in the private sector are plowed back into the practice and into the community. If they're not, people view the practice as unprogressive and clients will go elsewhere as they sense its decline. On the other hand, good clients may divide their loyalties with humane organizations in order to get discounted services they perceive as equivalent to services in the private sector. This is the crux of the problem.

So what can we do? The American Veterinary Medical Association and other organizations must push these issues to the forefront. Some veterinarians have opposed welfare initiatives and pain issues—especially with regard to livestock and housing. This resistance provides these veterinarians with short-term pride but creates problems between humane organizations and our profession. The time is now for meaningful dialogue and not simply position papers.

Veterinarians need to find ways to engage humane movement leaders in their area. Programs that move clients from humane organizations into long-term care at private veterinary offices should be the model. The humane movement must help in this regard. Shelter veterinarians and their umbrella organizations need to create dialogue wherever and whenever they can with veterinarians. We cannot survive without each other.

It's not too late, but it's approaching midnight and we are wearing glass slippers.

Dr. David Lane owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. He has a master's degree in agricultural economics and is a consultant, speaker and author of numerous practice-management articles. He can be reached at davidlane1948@yahoo.com.

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