Monday, December 17, 2012

Protect Animals, Protect Yourself: New Role of Veterinarians in Animal Advocacy

When working in an animal shelter or humane agency, it's difficult to make your only concern the animals in front of you.  It's nearly impossible to toil 9-5, go home, see a new set of afflicted animals the next day and not make connections between them.  Individuals who do this work aren't only concerned with animals they happen to be helping at the moment; they also care about the bigger societal failings that created those animals' problems. That's why so many in these fields write op-eds, lobby, or engage in humane education.  While it's important they take personal steps to avoid burnout, working on the big picture is the most reasonable way to attempt long-term elimination of the problems that ultimately get unloaded on them in the workplace.

Although the average private practice veterinarian doesn’t have infinite time outside work to engage in animal advocacy, it's unsettling how little our profession acknowledges that our daily stresses and obstacles also stem from the bigger societal view towards animals.  Although veterinarians have 8 years of higher education and the same level of scientific training as human physicians, we also have a burden that limits our efficacy; our patients are currently regarded by much of society as inferior lives to be exploited, abused, neglected or thrown away. 

What an obvious contradiction. What an overt problem!  We have CT scans, MRI's, phacoemulsification, and even prosthetic limbs for the luckiest of these animals.  Yet, how many times does the general public still display lack of basic respect for animals, or deem their suffering as tolerable?  How many times do we recommend spay/neuter to no avail?  How many times do we urge against patronizing puppy mills but still fail to curb this epidemic?  How often, for the sake of convenience, are we asked to medically neglect or physically modify other people's animals in ways we never would our own?  Keep in mind that vets don’t even see the worst cases out there; someone at least cared enough about the animals in front of us to take them to a veterinarian.  Billions of animals in our society never even have a home or the freedom to turn around, let alone a veterinary exam.

I hate to see this profession exemplify claims that society is surging ahead with scientific advancement while vegetating in a state of ethical defectiveness.  This is why it’s imperative that change happen  outside the exam room.  As a profession, we should be at the forefront of promoting and endorsing proposed measures to protect animals' basic interests.  However, our veterinary medical associations and societies have an alarming track record of going out of their way to thwart or avoid endorsing even the most modest animal welfare legislation.  They do this so as not to upset allied industries like the giant agribusiness sector or make enemies of special-interest groups like the American Kennel Club (AKC). 

Busy veterinarians who want to speak out against puppy mills or gestation crates, or speak in favor of properly enforced animal cruelty laws, need not necessarily huff and puff and blow up 1000 balloons for the sake of it.  But my hope is that those veterinarians will try to blow up one or two balloons per year, when the opportunity presents itself.  At the very least, I hope they will not pop each existing balloon simply because their old-school veterinary medical associations are irrationally afraid of balloons.  If vets don’t help lobby for better laws, write to local papers, or give their signatures to campaigns, we can’t complain about all the problems animals face that cannot be cured with medicine.

I speak to members of a profession with one of the highest rates of compassion fatigue and suicide when I say that overall, better lives and more respect for animals also means a better life and more respect for your profession.  It means better public embracing of your best medicine.

It's been two years since the Veterinarian's Oath was revised to emphasize our role in animal welfare and the prevention--not just the alleviation--of animal suffering.  Let's ensure those aren’t empty words.

Let’s get to work!