New York Times ad campaign blasts AVMA

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SCHAUMBURG, ILL - A public relations battle plaguing the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) peaked last month when a full-page advertisement in the New York Times accused the nation's largest veterinary organization's of harming animals.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL — A public relations battle plaguing the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) peaked last month when a full-page advertisement in the New York Times accused the nation's largest veterinary organization's of harming animals.

The June 21 advertisement, paid for by animal activists, poses the question, "Has anyone betrayed more animals than the AVMA?" and is the latest in a series of attacks targeting the association's image. The $42,000 page includes graphics and text concerning "anti-animal" welfare policies, centering on the recent AVMA acquittal of Dr. Gregg Cutler, an Animal Welfare Committee member accused of ordering the euthanasia of thousands of spent hens via a commercial wood chipper. The announcement advises readers to voice concern with outgoing AVMA President Jack O. Walther and lists his contact information. It also asks supporters to visit www.AVMAHurtsAnimals.com, sponsored by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Walther says he was "absolutely shocked" to see his name in print.

"I was on the road when it hit the papers, and I just couldn't believe it," he says. "I think the claims in the ad are unwarranted. I figured I'd be absolutely deluged with extreme phone calls and e-mails, but for the most part, they've been polite with the exception of a few. One suggested I be tossed into a chicken chopper. It's that kind of talk that gets us nowhere."

Bad PR

The criticism exemplifies a growing activist movement that uses emotion to ramp up the public's distaste for medical research involving animals and production practices such as as sow gestation stalls and the forced molting of layer hens.

The disparaging words often aren't limited to AVMA leaders but address the entire profession. Sponsored by People for PETA, www.AVMAHurtsAnimals.com opens with the title "Vets without hearts." The text reads: "Would you take your cat to a veterinarian who had no objection to starving animals? Would you take your dog to a veterinarian who thought it perfectly fine to keep animals in small crates with cement floors for most of their lives?

" If your vet is a member of (AVMA)—and most vets are—then your answer to these questions could be ' yes,' because the AVMA is the authorized voice for the profession in presenting its views to government, academia, agriculture, pet owners, the media, and other concerned publics ."

AVMA responds

Despite the Web site and advertisement, Walther and AVMA Executive Vice President Dr. Bruce Little say the publicity has generated less than expected reaction in the form of phone calls, e-mails and letters.

To address the accusations, AVMA initiated a press release titled, "Animal welfare as a priority," outlining the association's policies and highlighting it's task force charged with reviewing scientific evidence related to the impact sow gestation stalls have on the health and welfare of breeding sow. AVMA was charged last year with creating the task force in response to concern from its members.

The release also states, " AVMA has been the rational voice for scientifically based and compassionate advocacy on behalf of animals," and calls the advertisement " misleading ."

"We've gotten very little comment, which in my opinion, reflects on the inaccuracy of the statements made in the ad," Little says. "We've already responded with the news release that animal welfare is a priority for us, and we have a position. Are we going to wage a verbal media attack on those groups? No way."

In your face

Ignoring the groups might prove challenging for AVMA leaders. While a small group of PETA and Farm Sanctuary members convened on the AVMA annual convention last summer in Denver in protest of association-backed farming practices, similar plans were in order at presstime, when the 2004 convention kicked off last month. PETA also purchased billboard-advertising space. While last year's billboard advertisements addressed forced molting, this year's message targets swine stalls: "End life in prison for pregnant pigs. Veterinarians shouldn't support cruelty."

PETA's message on the billboard was scheduled to appear for one month and run eight blocks away from the AVMA meeting, housed downtown in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

In the arsenal

Expected to be absent from the AVMA convention is Peter Singer, Ph.D., who ranks as perhaps the biggest gun behind animal activists targeting AVMA. As head of Animal Rights International (ARI), Singer's the mastermind behind the

New York Times

advertisement as well as the author of

Animal Liberation,

the 1975 publication viewed as the Bible of the animal rights movement. Until five years ago, Singer, a Princeton University professor, lived outside the United States.

In February, AVMA invited the Australia native to Chicago to speak to the group's leaders concerning animal welfare. Singer claims he addressed the AVMA's lacking welfare principles to a largely silent audience. Now, he's on a mission to garner public reaction.

"When I first came here, the public didn't know about AVMA's role in influencing animal welfare practices," he says. "I was astonished that the American body was so backward compared to its oversees counterparts. Those who don't know are shocked to see this veterinary organization is not a strong stand for welfare."

AVMA becomes a target

Singer's distaste for AVMA policies stems from the failure of a California bill proposed last year that would have banned veal gestation crates and sow stalls in the state. The California Veterinary Medical Association's opposition of AB 732, Singer says, was based largely on the policies of AVMA.

"I had never been involved with AVMA until this bill came up," Singer says. "It was then that I realized AVMA policies were a huge stumbling bock. As far as our future actions, I can't talk about about specifics, but we will certainly be keeping the pressure on AVMA."

Anti antagonistic

That pressure won't ease for at least 20 years, predicts Dr. Jim Wilson, an attorney and veterinarian tracking legal issues concerning the welfare movement. In the meantime, AVMA should adopt a middle ground, he says.

"My hope really is that rational welfare activists will come to the forefront so that radical organizations like PETA don't discount what's already going on in veterinary medicine to improve the well-being of animals," Wilson says. "The middle has to take charge so we're not the victims of the radical right. My biggest problem with AVMA is that historically, they move too slow. This pressure has helped to move them more rapidly near the middle line."

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