Sunday, May 15, 2011

Humane Movement + Veterinarians = Success

This past week I returned home from my much-anticipated yearly vacation event, i.e. gambling and gallivanting in Monaco. Yes, of course I’m kidding. I was actually down in Orlando, Florida at my fourth Animal Care Expo. The Humane Society of the United States holds this conference annually, not just for animal shelter personnel but also for anyone working to further the cause of animal protection in this country or abroad.

This year, there was a talk I was happy to attend called “Veterinarians and the Humane Movement: Past, Present, and Future.” The majority of people who love animals but are neither veterinarians nor workers in the humane movement seem bewildered when they learn that cooperation between these two camps is not automatic. Actually, there has always been some degree of animosity between them.

The person giving this talk, a PhD historian, gave a factual presentation on how both the humane movement and the veterinary profession developed. (Facts are important to vets, since we are programmed to reject "fluff" and subjectivity.) Speaking of "fluff":

I think there's a rabbit under there.

Anyway, the historian explained how the American veterinary profession emerged in the 1800’s primarily to uphold and ensure the nation’s transportation infrastructure and economy (i.e. the horse). Imagine if airplanes and cars today were subject to decimation by a disease epidemic (like the equine flu epidemic of 1872) and there were no mechanics. In other words, veterinarians were essential to maintaining the economy and making sure the horses were “working.”

The humane movement, on the other hand, came into existence around the same time because horses were also, not surprisingly, being overworked, whipped, abused and objectified.  If you don’t know the story of Henry Bergh, he was outraged when he witnessed a man beating a horse that was unable to pull a load beyond its physical capacity. This inspired Mr. Bergh to found the ASPCA, one of our largest animal protection agencies, which is still advocating for animals almost 150 years later.

Some other historical facts presented: the AVMA opposed the Lab Animal Welfare Act in 1966, and veterinarians throughout the 1950’s-1970’s tried to prevent veterinarians in animal shelters and SPCA’s from conducting spay/neuters, despite the serious overpopulation of animals. In more recent years, only 6 of 28 veterinary schools surveyed viewed animal welfare as worthy of inclusion in a veterinary curriculum, and 3 actually labeled it a threat.

Why is this the case? Because it is deep-rooted in the veterinary tradition, culture and purpose to preserve “animal resources”, a term still present in our veterinary oath. And, as we know, huge portions of our economy benefit when animal welfare is downplayed. (The myth that animal health and productivity are synonymous with animal welfare has been debunked more times than needed.)

However, the good news is that as society evolves, so does veterinary support for the humane movement; it has been increasing steadily over time, and will surely continue to do so. The time has arrived when animals are regarded as family members, and our economy is relying less and less on animal labor and products in order to function. There are plenty of dynamic, intelligent and dedicated people showing a new road, including veterinarians.

One of the purposes of this talk I attended was to reaffirm the century-old invitation for veterinarians to get on board with the humane movement. At the end of the talk, I was happy to meet several other veterinarians who are making great efforts to help the veterinary profession and humane movement join forces.  One such amazing person I met is Dr. Lynne Swanson (Cornell '86) who, in her retirement, runs her own nonprofit animal rescue and rehab center, complete with its own mobile spay/neuter clinic. She is a gem! (In my retirement, I'm going to be gambling and gallivanting in Monaco. Right.)

A great place to find other vets interested in combining animal welfare and veterinary medicine is the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. They are the force behind HSVMA Field Services/Rural Area Veterinary Services, and overall they’re providing an amazing service to animals, veterinary students and their veterinarian members. Check them out! Maybe I’ll see you at a future HSVMA gathering or Animal Care Expo...please find me and say hello!