Dr. Barry Kipperman responds to the dozens of letters (positive and not so positive) that came pouring in after his commentary was published in dvm360 newsmagazine.
The responses to my commentary “Why small animal veterinarians should care about farm animals” (May 2013) remind me of the current debate regarding climate change. There are those denying any problem at all, suggesting that any supportive data is fabricated propaganda, while others are suggesting immediate action. Dr. Douglas Aspros, former American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) president, states that we should approach animal welfare questions from a “broad and informed perspective.” I agree. According to the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Principles, “Decisions regarding animal care, use and welfare shall be made by balancing scientific knowledge and professional judgment with consideration of ethical and societal values.”
The AVMA has utilized science that is in accord with its present positions as the primary criterion for addressing welfare decisions, diminishing the import of societal mores. Because animals are sentient beings capable of manifesting emotions, the ideal balance would entail equal parts heart and mind, compassion and science, empathy and knowledge. Otherwise, we’re destined to make myopic decisions that are blinded by science.
A number of common themes prevailed in the responses to my commentary. Below I address the top five points.
1. Animal care on farms is exemplary. Saying that we have a long way to go to improve the welfare of farm animals was distressing to many of my large animal colleagues. I didn’t imply that small animal practice does not have its own ethical dilemmas. I simply chose to discuss farm animals due to the profound numbers of animals affected. Many colleagues remarked that animal care on farms they visit is exemplary. I pose these questions to them:
> Are these farms representative of the 9 billion animals we produce for food?
> Is your on-site presence such that your observations are representative of what occurs when you are not there?
>What about the care of animals on farms that seldom if ever request veterinary care or assistance?
Suggesting we examine what has been accepted for decades as conventional treatment of farm animals should be no more offensive than reexamining hospital analgesic protocols to ensure they are contemporary. If we believe that dehorning, castrations and tail docking are painful, are we advising that analgesia be utilized and providing farmers with analgesic protocols to use?
2. Small animal doctors just don’t understand. So small animal veterinarians should leave farm animal welfare to the experts who work with these animals and accept the imperfections of present systems? I don’t need to be board-certified in animal welfare to recognize that keeping pigs in gestation crates and birds in battery cages is antithetical to any notion that quality of life can coexist within these methods of extreme confinement. For those that desire scientific support, the Pew Commission produced an evidence-based report of farm animal production in 2008 stating the commision “considers animal well-being an essential component of a safe and sustainable production system for farm animals. Hog gestation pens ... and battery cages for poultry ... constitute inhumane treatment. We recommend phasing out these systems as soon as possible” (Ref. 1).
3. My depictions were inaccurate. It’s unfortunate that the majority of farms raising animals for food are located in areas distant to population centers, making the truth difficult to access. That being said, no one disputes that most breeding pigs are housed in gestation crates and most egg-laying hens are confined in battery cages. In addition, recent efforts by the agriculture industry to make it a felony to photograph or take video on farms does not portend an environment for farm animals that the public would be pleased to witness.
4. Sows need to be alone sometimes. Some readers justified individual confinement of pregnant sows in order to prevent the negative consequences of possible aggressive behaviors. If one accepts the premise that skirmishes and fighting are more harmful than solitary confinement, this still raises the question: Is confinement to the degree of immobility the only alternative to group housing of sows? How do the numerous group-sow housing facilities in operation today prevent such aggression? One is left to surmise that economics is a significant reason for these confinement methods. If so, then let’s not blame the aggressive nature of sows for our rationale for housing them. If not, then why not recommend larger, individual stalls that allow sows to move?
5. Slaughter facilities are under veterinary supervision. An audit report just published by the USDA reached the following conclusions:
> “Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors didn’t take appropriate enforcement actions at eight of the 30 plants visited for violations of the Humane Slaughter Act. We reviewed 158 humane handling violations, and found 10 instances of egregious violations where inspectors did not issue suspensions. As a result, the plants did not improve their slaughter practices, and FSIS could not ensure humane handling of swine.”
> “Inspectors did not always take necessary enforcement actions required by regulations and policies” (Ref. 2).
These findings suggest there’s significant peer pressure against inspectors not to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, lest they suffer consequences due to the negative ramifications to these corporations. If these problems are noted in our slaughter methods of approximately 100 million pigs, one shudders to contemplate the issues associated with the demise of billions of chickens and turkeys who remain unprotected by the Humane Slaughter Act.
There was a time early in my career where patients who sustained trauma didn’t receive pain management. We were satisfied if they recovered from shock, as we weren’t trained to provide analgesia. I propose that all veterinarians examine farm animal welfare from a new paradigm—one that’s more in keeping with our oath to “protect animal health and welfare” and “prevent and relieve animal suffering.”
There remain profound ethical issues associated with the confinement, transport and slaughter of billions of animals raised for food in the United States. The public and our legislators view veterinarians as leaders in animal welfare concerns. Until we are willing to acknowledge and confront these problems as a profession, progress will occur without our input and expertise. I hope that I can respond with confidence in the future when a veterinary student asks me, “What are veterinarians doing to improve the welfare of farm animals?”
—Barry Kipperman, DVM, DACVIM
VetCare Veterinary Emergency and Specialist Care Center
Edited by DVMnewsmagazine, 7 months ago
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