From the Executive Director

Veterinarians not immune to effects of anti-agriculture activism

I just returned from Florida. While there, I visited with several people who found out that I was a swine veterinarian. They had little knowledge of the pork industry, and inevitably the conversation came around to the Florida ballot initiative banning gestation stalls. The common question was "What did that really mean?" To many of them, this initiative seemed innocuous. Others completely misunderstood it. Apparently, on the basis of the voting outcome, it also appealed to many voters who sympathized with the activist rhetoric against sow stalls.

Now the same issue may be going on a ballot in California. Activists are currently gathering signatures to allow citizens to vote on an addition to the California penal code making it a crime to confine a pig in an enclosure too small for the pig to turn around. Exceptions are made for pregnant swine 7 days prefarrowing and for sows with nursing pigs. I will leave it up to your imagination as to what may happen in California.

The swine industry faces an immense problem in the fact that most people are so far removed from animal agriculture that they are unaware about the nature of pigs and how they are raised. Perhaps the average voter might even be a bit apathetic. The issue is not whether to vote, but whether to take the time to understand what the vote is on! It may be too easy to simply vote instead of spending the time to become informed about the issues. It is not hard to figure out why the opponents of animal agriculture have chosen Florida and California - neither is a state with much pork production. But don't think that it is just Florida and California. There are initiatives (both ballot and legislative) and campaigns starting in other states, including Iowa, which are attacking animal agriculture.

It is not only the general public that is being influenced by these attack political campaigns. Veterinarians may also be misled. Sow gestation stalls were recently discussed at the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA's) House of Delegates (HOD) meeting in July. The HOD is one of the governing bodies of the AVMA. It is made up of representatives from each state veterinary medical association as well as the allied specialty groups, such as the AASV.

Last year, the AVMA HOD adopted a position outlining welfare criteria for sow housing and stating that gestation stalls meet these criteria. This year, this position came under attack from Farm Sanctuary, which is an activist organization that "wages campaigns to stop the exploitation of animals raised for food." Farm Sanctuary is not represented in the HOD, but there is little to prevent outside groups such as this from influencing AVMA members to bring forth a resolution.

Farm Sanctuary's resolution asked AVMA delegates to rescind the current AVMA policy on sow housing. Several misrepresentations about the pork industry were given in the resolution and, as well, were verbalized during the debate. It was very disturbing to see several delegates (veterinarian colleagues) speak against gestation stalls without understanding the science of welfare and its application. One veterinarian went as far as attacking confinement housing of swine as being the root cause of everything from pseudorabies to ear hematomas. Inflammatory and misleading photos were also passed out to delegates depicting the "cruelty" of stalls and confinement.

Most if not all of the veterinarians speaking against the pork industry and gestation stalls were companion animal practitioners. Perhaps even more troubling than the speeches against stalls was the silence of key delegates who could have supported the science presented by the AASV but did not. The AASV strategy was to present the science showing that well-managed stalls are as humane as other types of well-managed sow housing. In the past, the HOD has supported science-based decision making. This time, however, the delegates almost chose to go down a different path.

Due to the efforts of Dr Randy Larson and Dr Dave Madsen (AASV's representatives to the AVMA HOD), the resolution as presented was defeated, but not until the delegates directed the AVMA to "conduct a thorough and objective review of the scientific evidence relating to the impact on the health and welfare of keeping breeding sows in gestation stalls." The AASV will be actively working with the AVMA as they conduct this review. This is an issue that is likely to come back again in the future due to the ongoing attacks of activist groups. It will not be the last time that the AVMA HOD engages this issue.

After the AVMA meeting, a colleague facetiously suggested that the AASV needed to start a new program called "Adopt a Companion Animal Practitioner." After giving it some thought, I think that it is a great suggestion that deserves serious consideration. Each of us should contact one or two of our companion animal colleagues and offer to take them on a tour of a sow farm. While they are there, we can inform and educate them about the natural behavior of pigs, the science of sow welfare, the importance of good stockmanship, and the impact that a ban on gestation stalls will have on our patients and clients. Ask them to actively support science-based decision making through their state or specialty organization.

There is an example of the effect that such a visit can have. Dr Pat Halbur, president of the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and an AASV member, recently conducted a tour of a sow farm for AVMA leaders and delegates. Initial feedback from the participants was that it was an eye-opening and very positive experience. One small animal practitioner wrote: "Before making decisions on any resolution regarding gestation crates, we need to carefully consider the scientific facts, the role of our fellow practitioners in production animal medicine, and our responsibility to help ensure the provision of a safe, healthy, and adequate food supply while continuing to monitor the welfare of our patients. In addition,economics of the pork industry cannot be ignored." I could not have said it any better myself!

-- Tom Burkgren