Thursday, December 9, 2010

AVMA Revises Veterinarian's Oath to Emphasize Animal Welfare

Rumor has it leaders at the American Veterinary Medical Association started reading Ethical Veterinarian and became terribly intimidated!

For the first time in its 56 year history, the famous(ly lacking) Veterinarian's Oath will finally claim a veterinary obligation to promote animal welfare. To the average person, this may seem like strange cause for celebration, since the term animal welfare would seem to denote the whole purpose of the veterinary profession. However, animal advocates know it's a small victory; parts of the veterinary profession have long viewed a concern for the non-medical treatment of animals (a huge part of animal welfare) as a potential threat to animal industries with whom they are allied.

Despite the AVMA Council on Veterinary Service's recommendation to reaffirm the old Veterinarian's Oath without changes, the Executive Board recently followed the Animal Welfare Committee's advice instead. It approved changing a section of the oath to the following:

"Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health AND WELFARE, THE PREVENTION AND relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge."

I'm obviously delighted that the AVMA is finally acknowledging that animal welfare should be a priority within the profession. I'm also impressed that the Animal Welfare Committee has pointed out its own "reactive, rather than proactive, approach to protecting animal welfare." Admitting this weakness is laudable and a great starting point for improvement.

However, I do have some other sentiments.

First off, it's unfortunate that this amending of the oath comes so embarrassingly late. Late like wishing someone a happy belated 30th birthday the day before their 70th birthday. It is also happening right after non-veterinary animal advocacy groups swept through the country, putting state animal welfare laws in place and banning horrendous practices that the AVMA had just condoned. In the years that it has taken the veterinary profession to reach this point of labelling itself committed to animal welfare, animal advocacy groups have been busy revolutionizing public awareness of animal welfare, putting forth cogent arguments regarding animal welfare and leading animal welfare reforms.

If we back up a little and look at the big picture, philosophers, ethicists and lawmakers have been discussing the treatment of animals for centuries. For decades, American animal activists have been productively laboring to win better treatment for animals. Other intellectuals and professionals in society are not afraid to discuss concepts like animal rights, speciesism, and nonhuman family members. Mainstream culture is even beginning to embrace these ideas. And yet, our national veterinary professional organization has just finished debating whether or not to formally pledge itself to "animal welfare," a conservative term that has been used in public policy since the 1800's.

And even with the oath's new reference to animal welfare, we can't forget that many of the AVMA's positions still stand in direct opposition to animal wellbeing. Changing words doesn't mean it will change its policies. After all, the AVMA still condones declawing and gestation stalls, among other things. What is it going to do about these positions now?  I hope it alters them, rather than persisting in its delusions that these practices are somehow aligned with animal welfare. But I wouldn't bet on it. I'd be more inclined to believe the AVMA is changing the oath so it can stake a better claim at being an "animal welfare" authority next time it goes toe to toe against the animal advocacy movement.

Even if it is becoming genuine about animal welfare, we must recognize that the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee's interpretation of "animal welfare" is undeniably biased in favor of industry, despite its repeated assertions to the contrary. In a recent presentation on its animal welfare approaches, an AVMA Animal Welfare rep stated, "Animal (and human) welfare requires consideration of:..." and among just a few factors listed were, "producer concerns and economics" and "consumer expectations." Producer concerns, economics and ever-becoming-more-vile consumer expectations are not the determinants of whether or not an animal is experiencing wellbeing. Nor can the word "human welfare" be used interchageably with "human interests" As long as the AVMA is letting economic factors (you know how much I love that photo) play so heavily into its judgement, it is never going to make significant changes for animals. The AVMA will, however, have a stockpile of lame excuses and rationalizations for allowing animal abuse to continue.

All in all, the AVMA still has a long way to go, and I certainly still do not regard it as any kind of visionary animal protection organization. In all honesty, it is a business organization that advocates for veterinarian livelihood moreso than animal wellbeing. For this reason, we should not expect it to be a serious player in fostering change for animals, though I do have fantastical ideas that it will one day become a serious player.

For now, let's just take a moment to be happy that the oath has become more animal-friendly and that at least some leaders in the AVMA seem motivated toward a degree of change. At this moment, the AVMA's oath revision is analagous to a 4 year old kid stating his first word ever as "pasketti" instead of "spaghetti." It's unbelievably late, and it doesn't technically mean anything. But it gets a smile of out me, because perhaps we're getting somewhere.

Here is just a parting reminder.


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