Disgruntled CVMA members spin off with new group

Association's support of Proposition 2 divides California veterinarians

August 5, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The California Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA) support of an activist-led initiative to phase out battery cages, among other agricultural housing systems, has widened the divide between the state’s small- and large-animal veterinarians.

CVMA officials argue that housing animals in cramped quarters violates its welfare principles, while some food-animal veterinarians counter that the association’s stance lacks a scientific basis, creates new problems for agriculture and will cost millions of dollars to implement.

The fracture between the two groups is so severe that a small portion of CVMA’s membership has spun off to form the Association of California Veterinarians (ACV). It’s mission: “To be the principal veterinary organization in California regarding issues affecting California’s animal agriculture industry.” The organization expects to draw at least 150 DVMs — not nearly enough to strain CVMA’s voting block, which ranks the largest in the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) House of Delegates. Yet the group, headed by President Dr. Michael Karle, is pressuring AVMA to lobby against the initiative.

That would pit AVMA against CVMA in an unprecedented and public veterinarian-versus-veterinarian battle concerning animal welfare. At its center is Proposition 2, slated for the state’s Nov. 4 general election and backed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Formally titled the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, prop 2 calls for amending California’s Health and Safety Code to phase out confinement methods that prohibit animals from turning around, lying down, standing up and fully extending their limbs. It targets battery cages, sow gestation stalls and veal crates. While bans on sow stalls and veal crates incite little fanfare in California, industry groups claim that outlawing battery cages “would have dangerous and expensive consequences” in a state that annually produces almost 5 billion eggs from roughly 20 million laying hens.

At press time, AVMA had yet to determine whether or not to weigh in. The conservative group usually does not get involved in state issues unless invited by the state association. Yet according to insiders, prop 2 was discussed in closed session during the Executive Board’s July meeting. CVMA officials fear the group ultimately will take action and side with industrial agriculture’s interests. 

“All we want to do is promote science-based standards that are in line with our welfare policies,” says Dr. George Bishop, CVMA official and delegate to AVMA. “We want to lead the way on welfare. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this new group sounds a lot like AVMA, supporting industry and arbitrarily not working with humane organizations.”

ACV’s Karle counters that CVMA’s position alienates food-animal veterinarians. Furthermore, animal welfare should not be guided by a public that’s overly influenced by activists, he says.

“It’s not a big leap to look at veal crates or battery cages and switch that over to dairy calves, which are raised in hutches,” he says. “Our goal is to become the voice of responsible science-based animal agriculture. Since CVMA isn’t helping out on that, we’re a little scared.”

Such dissent is indicative of a growing rift within the veterinary profession. In simplistic terms, the push and shove boils down to a battle between agricultural science and society’s ethics. In one corner is a group of food-animal veterinarians who cite a need for scientific proof that small enclosures harm animals, especially when change proves costly for agriculture in America. The systems, they say, protect livestock from each other and communicable diseases. Furthermore, there’s no concrete evidence that other housing methods are better.

That stance carries weight but contrasts with the attitudes of veterinarians, many practicing small-animal medicine, who consider it inhumane to house livestock in enclosures so tight that the animals can’t turn around, regardless of any contrasting scientific data. They point toward recent company decisions to phase out sow and veal stalls and accuse their large-animal colleagues of being too financially tied to industry. While large-animal leaders who support current confinement practices argue that companies merely are bowing to consumer pressures, one thing remains clear: Change is underway.

“Animal welfare asks what do we owe an animal and to what extent. Sound science can tell you how to raise pigs in confinement, not if you ought to raise pigs in confinement,” says Bernard Rollin, Colorado State University bio-ethicist and philosophy professor. “Let me just say that society’s ethics have moved away from accepting animals in small cages.”

Supporters of agriculture’s current practices say that attitude feeds off emotion and reflects America’s migration from the farm. Consequently, consumers know little about how a steak gets on their plate, critics contend.

“We need to educate the public about why the current housing systems are humane,” says Karle, who expects to petition AVMA to fully recognize ACV during the national organization’s July 2009 meeting. “The industry is not 100-percent committed to the current housing systems, but they’re always doing research. Why let the public lead the way on this?”

Uphill battle
That fight has proved a lost cause in Florida and Arizona, where veterinary and agriculture groups spent millions of dollars in a failed campaign against statewide bans on sow gestation stalls that passed via citizen referendums. In 2007, the Oregon Legislature banned the controversial housing practice amid no opposition, signaling industry’s apparent resignation to the housing system’s demise in small agriculture states. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association followed by helping to broker a deal between the Colorado Pork Producers Council and HSUS to phase out swine gestation stalls and veal crates, which Gov. Bill Ritter signed in May. Two months later, AVMA delegates enacted a resolution calling for “a change” in such movement-restrictive husbandry systems as veal crates. The decree overshadowed an almost identical resolution submitted by HSUS.

In a July 31 letter to The Modesto Bee, CVMA past-President Dr. Jeff Smith writes that the veterinary profession’s neutral stance on such controversial issues no longer is being accepted. 

“When one acknowledges that the positions are clearly not defensible from a welfare perspective, the profession needs to say so instead of being deemed irrelevant or taken kicking and screaming to the eventual proper ethical outcome,” he says.

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