Turning the tide: Bringing veterinarians back to the public animal welfare debate


Animal welfare leaders try to hash out a plan to reclaim their ground in the public arena

East Lansing, Mich. — The time has come for veterinary medicine to put up a united front to maintain its position as the leading source for animal welfare expertise.

That was the consensus at the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare, developed and co-sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).

"There's no reason we cannot all work together," Chester Gipson, deputy administrator of animal care for U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), told symposium attendees in his opening address. "We can run, but we can't hide. So we want to be very active in engaging the community. Animal welfare has developed into a science of its own. Issues are not always driven by science, but often by ideological agendas for each side. Those agendas shape policy and often the subsequent regulations."

What pieces go into forming a united front and how to get everyone on the same page, however, wasn't nailed down at the symposium. But the 30-plus international speakers at the event, hosted by Michigan State University Nov. 8 to 11, addressed more than 240 attendees from all over the world and laid a foundation for moving forward.

Identifying the problem

Part of the problem veterinary medicine has in defending its role as animal welfare experts is the voice it uses to speak for its cause, argued Candace Croney, PhD, an associate professor of animal behavior and bioethics at The Ohio State University Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.

"Literature in agriculture separates animals to make them symbols of profit," Croney explained. "It talks about them as meat resources, not animals. Beef, not cow. Pork, not pig."

Other examples of blurred ethical lines when speaking about animals include calling gestation crates IGAs?— individual gestation atmospheres?— and using animals to speak in advertisements about the quality of their products.

"In these ads, animals are actually pitching themselves to us," Croney says. "Politicians and advertisers use words that influence. But scientists and educators have the obligation to be truthful and objective. Not telling the whole story about food-animal treatment leaves the scientific community open for attack from the animal rights end that they are holding back and not telling the whole truth."

Large-animal practitioners — who should be at the forefront of the food-animal welfare debate — are often portrayed by animal rights groups as an arm of the agriculture industry. It gives these doctors less credibility in the public arena and more credibility with the agriculture industry, Croney says. On the other hand, small-animal practitioners are seen as more compassionate by the public, but have far less credibility with the agriculture industry.

"We need to be careful about the language we use and how it represents the message we are trying to communicate," Croney says.

She thinks veterinary medicine has largely stayed out of the debate to avoid sending the wrong message. "I think part of the problem for veterinary medicine is not taking any position, whether it's a popular or unpopular one."

"The fact that we're having political debates on this shows there needs to be a clear statement on the issue," she says. "The question I would ask is, if you don't have a voice, who does?"

Why is animal welfare policy such a big deal?

The debate is coming up more because animals are a reflection of the human condition, according to Janice Swanson, PhD, director of animal welfare at Michigan State University.

"We do well; they gain status," Swanson explains. "When they gain status, it also brings increased obligations, and with that, increased social demands."

But while animal rights groups use imagery and emotion to control their side of the debate, veterinarians must back their arguments with fact, some say.

"Veterinarians recognize the complexity of the issue, and that's what makes it hard to develop unified statements," Swanson explains. "When it's reduced to soundbites, it's very difficult for scientists to have an impact because they always feel like they're working at a disadvantage. I think it really has to do with packaging the message as carefully as possible."

The veterinary profession needs to stop waiting for the public to ask for its opinions and start by addressing the public's concerns.

"Always start with what the public is most concerned with. That drives them to ask more questions," she says. "Unfortunately, quite often what we find is [the veterinary profession] produces what they find is important, and they completely lose people."

Regulations don't shrink, but keep expanding, explains Gail Golab, PhD, DVM, MACVSc, and director of AVMA's animal welfare division. So animal welfare law is a problem that will not go away. Predicting increased activity at the state and local levels, new court cases, changes in legal interpretations and opportunities for the public to control the debate through ballot initiatives, Golab says the animal welfare debate will move forward as a result of bad incidents such as undercover raids on puppy mills and slaughterhouse videos.

Educate doctors and the public

Educating veterinarians to better understand the field of animal welfare might be the first step in gaining ground in this battle, says Linda Lord, DVM, PhD, who teaches veterinary ethics as part of the core curriculum at The Ohio State University.

"There is an increasing gap between the veterinary professional's knowledge of animal welfare and what the public wants from them," Lord says.

But veterinary colleges must first decide where animal welfare belongs in their curricula, whether it will be an elective or requirement, and what kind of format the class should use.

Learning how to handle the public is another story.

There are different notions of what is acceptable. Naturalists are believed to make up about 46 percent of the population, says Paul Thompson, PhD, the WK Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. Naturalists are concerned with species-typical behaviors in the realm of animal welfare. Another 40 percent of the populace are basic welfarists who believe cognitive measures like pain, suffering and satisfaction should be addressed. The remaining 14 percent are price seekers, who are concerned only with standard veterinary health measures.

"The price seekers are people who tend to discount animal welfare all around," Thompson explains. "But 46 percent still see behaviors as an important component of animal welfare."

Price seekers and basic welfarists can be combined into a group that approves of current approaches to animal welfare, trumping the 46 percent of naturalists by 8 percent.

But to bring the two sides together in agreement, respectful dialogue without antagonization is needed, says Dan Marsman, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ABT, a corporate veterinarian for product safety and head of the animal welfare and animal alternatives, product safety and regulatory affairs department at Procter & Gamble.

"Many things come into play with perspectives on animal welfare, like emotion, experience, religion, intelligence and pragmatism," he says. "Is it enough anymore to protect from cruelty, or should we also be charged with giving the animals we use a good life?"

Changes to the veterinarian's oath might be the place to start in transforming the veterinary profession's image into one of an animal welfare leader, adds David Morton, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, professor emeritus in biomedical science and biomedical ethics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Additions about advancing animal well-being and values would establish veterinarians as advocates for animals, he explains.

"We're moving away from preventing pain and suffering to promoting well-being," he says. "It's not so much keeping from harm, but more about providing a good life."

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media are not the enemy in the battle for public support in the animal welfare debate, he adds, explaining that NGOs keep the profession on their toes and encourage them to change practices that veterinarians know are wrong but do anyway. The media can help change the way a government views an issue overnight and should be used with care to spread the message of the veterinary profession.

"We need to set our values a lot more clearly than we have in the past," he says. "No one else can practice as a vet, and that gives us responsibilities to somehow meet that confidence."

Make time in veterinary education programs for animal welfare courses, he urges, and start doing things a certain way because you want to do what's right, not because there are expectations or because you are being watched by an organization.

Making changes

In changing regulations and moving toward stricter animal welfare standards, the question that first must be addressed is whether society is ready for change.

"If change is an acceptable notion to you, then the question is the rate of change," says David Bayvel, BVMS, MRCVS, MACVSc, MPP, and animal welfare director for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in New Zealand. He is actively involved with the World Organization for Animal Health's (OIE) international animal welfare initiative.

Speakers from Australia, the European Union and New Zealand detailed changes made in their countries' animal welfare policies and how they were carried out. Flexibility, clear methods and time are key to compliance, says Laurence Bonafos, DVM, MACVSc, and animal welfare policy officer in the Directorate-General Health and Consumers of the European Commission.

"Don't ask people to meet standards that are impossible," she says. "If you want to change farm systems, make sure you give a long enough transition period to allow them to adapt. You need good impact studies and large consultation with stakeholders in order to adopt good legislation. The legal process is longer, but more people agree with the end result."

And staff persons performing assessments of new regulations must be trained and able to make decisions on compliance. If a farm isn't in complete compliance but working hard to get there, consider waiting before disciplining in order to work with them and establish good faith, Bonafos suggests.

Creating policy that actually works in the real world may be more important than creating policy that is scientifically perfect, adds David Mellor, BSc(Hons), PhD, HonAssocRCVS, ONZM, a professor of animal welfare science, professor of applied physiology and bioethics and co-director of the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University in New Zealand.

"Science isn't the only thing," says Mellor. "Practical experience, common sense and ease of use must also be considered."

Every veterinarian and veterinary student should develop his or her own set of values and base decisions on those values, says Lawrence Carbone, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACLAM, a senior clinical veterinarian at the University of California – San Francisco who helped establish the school's Animal Welfare Assurance Program and serves as a Cornell University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee member. Schools need to teach students how to think about animal welfare, not what to think about animal welfare, he says. That will create a profession that can think on its feet about welfare issues and determine what kinds of laws need to be passed and what policies groups like the AVMA should promote.

How quality of life can be assessed and how surveillance can best be carried out are still big questions that need to be addressed, adds Morton.

"The primary aim of the future strategy for farm animal welfare should be to ensure that every farm animal has a life worth living," Morton says.

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