Veterinary Directors Discuss Welfare Issues

The American Society of Veterinary Medical Association Executives (ASVMAE) met prior to the AVMA Annual Convention in Washington, DC last week. The group is composed of representatives of the state veterinary medical associations and allied organizations. I attended representing the AASV.

The topic was animal welfare and the veterinary profession. Sow stalls and poultry cages were the targets of most of the animal welfare concerns associated with livestock. Companion animal issues, including declawing, horse slaughter, and guardianship, were also discussed.

Dr. Bernard Rollin, Colorado State University Professor of Philosophy and University Bioethicist, opened the meeting with a presentation discussing philosophy, ethics and morality associated with animal welfare. He indicated that he worked extensively with Smithfield Foods and was instrumental in their recent decision to phase out sow gestation stalls. He mentioned recent meetings with the National Pork Board to discuss the future of sow housing. In his opinion, "sow stalls are finished and will be removed from the industry within a year." He warned that livestock producers need to "get in line with societal ethics or else changes will be legislated on you." He stated that historical animal husbandry practices have been replaced with "industrial agriculture" which has "threatened the traditional fair contract between humans and animals, resulting in significant amounts of animal suffering."

Likewise, Wayne Pacelle, President & CEO of the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), similarly chided swine veterinarians and producers for continued "inhumane practices" associated with sow housing. He noted recent state-level legislative changes in Florida, Arizona and Oregon outlawing sow gestation stalls. He noted that HSUS has 10 million members (1 in every 30 Americans) with an annual budget of $135 million. His opinion is that "current livestock housing systems are inconsistent with the notion that animals should have sunshine on their backs and the feel of dirt under their feet". He denied that it was the "mission" of HSUS to eliminate the use of animals for food while admitting that he and many of his association's membership are vegetarians.

Pacelle indicated that HSUS is a supporter of a program entitled Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) to bring free veterinary services to rural communities. According to the RAVS website, the program also "provides valuable training and experience for hundreds of future veterinary professionals that goes far beyond anything they could learn in a classroom alone." Pacelle estimated that the program "touches" about 20% of all veterinary students. While acknowledging the lack of support from AVMA and other veterinary organizations, he promoted HSUS's support of the ban on horse slaughter. He explained their position based on the opinion of his organization that American's would not stand by and watch while a national symbol such as the horse was "butchered for human consumption". When asked how he proposed to deal with the numbers of unwanted horses destined for slaughter, he responded that the public would find a way of addressing those animals similar to programs targeting unwanted cats and dogs.

Technology and the scientific process were considered part of the "problem" by determining processes that allowed animal agriculture to develop to its current state. Rollin refers to workers in swine facilities as "minimum-wage, often animal-ignorant [having] often no empathy with, or concern for, the animals." The "intelligence", he suggests lies in the "mechanized system", not in the workers. Pacelle expressed concern that livestock veterinarians are "too closely tied" to the industries they serve to be unbiased advocates for the animals under their care.

Thus, it was left to Dr. Gail Golab, Associate Director, AVMA Animal Welfare Division, to defend AVMA's position on livestock welfare issues and sow gestation stalls. She presented the process through which the AVMA's Animal Welfare Committee evaluated the available scientific literature and derived their current position on sow stalls that recognizes that no one housing system is consistently better than any other. She proposed that the welfare of the animals is dependent on a number of factors including, in part, the genetics involved and the level of management at the farm level. To which, Pacelle responded that it was only due to the "power of the swine veterinarians" to influence the committee that this decision was reached.

Unfortunately, all of the speakers exceeded their allotted time leaving none for discussion. However, one telling example of the position of the audience, composed largely of non-veterinarians, was provided when Dr. Golab showed 3 pictures of different housing systems for poultry production and asked the audience to vote for the one they considered most humane for the birds. She provided a list of the positives and negatives associated with each system. The majority voted for the picture showing free-range birds in a fenced yard ignoring the negatives associated with rearing poultry outdoors.