Animal welfare initiative could divide Ohio veterinarians

HSUS 'serious' about winning ballot measure to ban cramped housing for farm animals

February 11, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

A war that waged between two factions of California’s veterinary profession in 2008 could repeat itself in the Buckeye State as the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) works to determine its stance on a proposed constitutional amendment designed to cement minimum housing requirements for pigs, veal calves and hens.

Veterinary insiders are calling the initiative Ballot X — a currently nameless proposition pushed by an activist consortium led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The immediate goal: to collect the 600,000-plus signatures needed to guarantee a spot for the “anti-cruelty measure” on the Nov. 2 ballot.

“If they don’t collect the signatures, this will all be a moot point,” says Jack Advent, OVMA executive director.

Yet Advent and others doubt that will be the case. If history is any guide, attracting supporters will be no problem for HSUS, a political powerhouse with an undefeated record in terms of pushing ballot measures across the country in the name of animal welfare.  

Much like its cousin initiatives that have passed via citizen referendum in Florida, Arizona and California, Ballot X seeks to mandate that egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves live in quarters that allow them to extend their limbs and turn around, effectively banning traditional sow gestation stalls, veal crates and battery cages. It also requires that cows and pigs are slaughtered in manners deemed humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). 

If enacted, the law would give the state’s newly minted Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board — an entity proposed last year by the Ohio Farm Bureau and other agribusiness groups — six years to set the new humane requirements in a state that ranks second in egg production and ninth in swine production. The proposed mandate also requires the board to adopt minimum standards for euthanasia and downer animals. Violators would face misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum $1,000 fine and/or a yearlong jail sentence.

At face value, the push for greater welfare requirements is hard to object to. But it's not so simple for the OVMA, whose leadership remains uncertain about where the association ultimately will stand on Ballot X. Among veterinarians, animal welfare is a polarizing and politicized topic. Even as practitioners spend their lives promoting the well-being of animals, it is non-DVM activists who appear to be guiding American attitudes on welfare. Some veterinarians are sympathetic to public sentiments; others find the position overly simplistic.

Considering the controversial nature of Ballot X, the OVMA is determined to take it slow. Within the next few months, officials plan to poll the group’s membership, hold a welfare forum in Columbus and start traveling the state to take the pulse of veterinarians.

“We need time to discuss this and have an open exchange with our members,” says Jack Advent, OVMA executive director. “Obviously no one wants to go to the ballot; it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone. We’re going to look at animal housing, and there’s no rushing to judgment on this. These issues are too complex.” 

What feeds the uncertainty? The answer boils down to politics, emotion and the push and pull between agriculture science and society’s ethics. For starters, there’s no consensus about whether veal crates, sow gestation stalls or battery cages are harmful or inhumane, even from the AVMA, which states that all housing systems carry pluses and minuses. As far as the nation’s largest veterinary membership body is concerned, science doesn’t point in any one direction when determining, for example, whether free-range housing is superior to battery cages. Case in point: While the public might suspect that tight quarters might be harmful to animals, free-range housing — a system favored by many activists — leaves livestock greatly exposed to communicable diseases, parasites and animal-on-animal aggression, the AVMA contends.

Yet for the public and even some in veterinary medicine, the notion that hens, pigs and veal calves want to get up and turn around seems like common sense, regardless of whether science can prove it. Critics claim that DVMs who support sow gestation stalls and battery cages in their current forms are less worried about animal welfare than they are that increased housing standards will be expensive for agriculture to implement. At the same time, a faction of veterinarians tied to agriculture contend that their small-animal colleagues are prone to jumping on the activist bandwagon, just as eager to impose costly and unnecessary reforms on those in agriculture who have fed America for more than two centuries. 

Advent claims that’s not the case: “Most of my members really want to know and understand this. They don’t want to make a judgment that will affect their colleagues in large-animal practice.”

Dr. Fred Gingrich, a mixed-animal practitioner in rural Ohio with a number of dairy clients, believes that without first-hand knowledge, many of his DVM colleagues are too far removed from agriculture to make educated decisions about welfare as it relates to the day-to-day lives of farm animals. And the fact that the public might make that determination via a ballot initiative is “scary,” he contends.

“The real situation is that we’re very outnumbered (by activists) and now we’re outnumbered in the veterinary community,” Gingrich says. “In the United States there are more people in prison than there are that make food. The vast majority of veterinarians have never been on a farm. To us, this is about HSUS, this is not about animal agriculture. What it has to do with is them trying to weasel their way into agriculture to end it.

“We don’t need a vegan from San Francisco telling us how to raise our cattle,” he adds.

That vegan is Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president. In an interview with the VIN News Service, Pacelle refuted the notion that his dietary habits are an undercurrent in the animal welfare movement: “The majority of our policy directors are meat eaters; 90 percent of our members are meat eaters. All of our reforms are focused on humane production, transport and slaughter practices. We want proper care and treatment for animals raised for food.”

Asked how far HSUS is willing to dip into its campaign war chest to sway Ohio’s voters on Ballot X, Pacelle replies: “We never launch a ballot initiative unless we’re serious about winning. We have never failed on an initiative about farm animals. The polling indicates statewide support for reform.”

That kind of resolve was on display in California in 2008, where HSUS’ Proposition 2, a ballot initiative to phase in a ban on traditional battery cages for laying hens, produced so much upheaval that CVMA’s decision to support it caused a faction of its membership to spin off and form a new association. Veterinarians argued with each other about Prop 2 on the pages of newspapers while voters were inundated with campaign ads, the product of a collective $20-million battle waged between HSUS and the opposition, made up mostly of California livestock groups and agribusinesses.

Fallout from the CVMA’s support for Prop 2 came to a head when the AVMA made an unprecedented move by coming out in direct opposition of a state veterinary medical association.

Despite the AVMA’s message, Prop 2 passed with 63 percent of the vote. Reflecting on that time, CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker says she wishes that a compromise between welfare activists and agriculture groups could have been reached so that the ballot initiative might have been avoided. After all, similar negotiations between activist, agriculture and veterinary groups resulted in increased welfare standards in Colorado, Oregon and, most recently, Michigan, where veterinarians helped craft and push for the passage of a welfare bill that imposed minimum housing requirements for some farm animals.

OVMA’s Advent hoped that would have been the case in Ohio. The opportunity to hammer out a deal with HSUS arose last February when Pacelle and Shapiro held a meeting with Ohio stakeholders in agriculture in an effort to work together and avoid what promises to be a costly and contentious battle.

But the Ohio Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups, mistrusting HSUS and its consortium, turned down the invitation to talk. Rather than negotiate with the activist group, they pushed for Issue 2, a ballot proposal that passed in November to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.

Many Issue 2 supporters had hoped that the board, designed to create standards for the care and treatment of livestock, would keep the HSUS threat of a ballot measure at bay. Yet Pacelle says it just inflamed the situation: “We wanted to sit down and hatch out a compromise that everyone could support, but the Ohio industry groups slammed the door on us and then ran to get Issue 2 approved. Our ballot measure will build on Issue 2 and give the board direction on what to do.”

Some in the veterinary profession agree that the 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board needs direction. Critics contend that it’s too heavily weighted toward producer and industry interests. While Keith Stimpert, the Ohio Farm Bureau’s vice president of public policy, did not return VIN News Service interview requests, DVM insiders claim that the board’s initial makeup included no veterinarians. Now it involves the state veterinarian and one private practitioner. 

Gingrich reasons that there’s a lack of trust between producer groups and veterinarians: “People in agriculture are scared; they have no idea who they’re talking to. They’re trying to batten down the hatches.”

That's why it's imperative to keep animal welfare at the debate’s center and move away from the debate about HSUS, Advent contends.

“There’s a lot at stake,” he says. “We don’t want to have to deal with ballot issues, but we can’t ignore this; that’s avoiding our responsibility to the public and to the profession.

“Regardless of where we go, an element of our membership will be unhappy,” he adds.

Chances are that Gingrich might be an OVMA member who feels dejected.

“It concerns me that what happened in California is going to happen in Ohio,” he says. “I have no doubt that this will pass; HSUS has a pretty good track record. But I don’t want this to divide Ohio’s VMA.” 

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