Proposed animal welfare college challenged by veterinarians

Critics lambast mandate to sign AVMA welfare principles

August 5, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW) is in line to be rubber stamped as the American Board of Veterinary Specialty’s (ABVS) newest inductee this April. Proponents consider it a sign that the American Veterinary Medical Association — the parent organization of ABVS — is sincere about advancing the physical and psychological well being of animals.

Yet a growing faction of AVMA members contend that several requisites of ACAW candidates have damaged the college’s credibility and act as a political litmus test for credentialing. As of last week, more than 50 veterinary specialists — most would-be ACAW candidates — signed their names to a letter to the ABVS in an effort to repeal the requirements.

The ABVS is an umbrella organization that recognizes veterinary specialties in the United States. More than 9,800 veterinarians have been awarded diplomate status in one or more of 20 specialty organizations recognized by the ABVS by completing post-graduate training, education and examination requirements.

Critics object to atypical conditions required of ACAW members that are not found among other specialty colleges and which many consider to be exclusionary and stifling. One major point of contention: a mandate to sign off on the AVMA Welfare Principles in order to earn status as an ACAW diplomate.

The principles were developed in 2006 so that AVMA policies, resolutions and actions could be measured against them.

Such hurdles are widely believed to exist to keep what’s been deemed a radical element out of the college. In the past decade, various AVMA policies and perspectives have been challenged by animal rights advocates, some with degrees in veterinary medicine.

While the AVMA’s leadership has not publicly acknowledged this, insiders governing the association who attended the group’s annual convention in Atlanta last week confirmed such motives. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, they substantiated this to the VIN News Service on condition of anonymity.

Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a former AVMA president and academician from Texas A&M University, leads the ACAW organizing committee. She supports the notion that would-be veterinary welfare specialists should sign the principles, which she characterizes as "extremely broad" and "appropriate for any veterinarian wanting to specialize in animal welfare."

That fails to sit well with those who object to the first of eight principles, which proclaims, “The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian's Oath.”

Board-certified internist Dr. Gary Block, who holds a master's in animals and public policy from Tufts University and owns a specialty referral practice in Rhode Island, explains why he's opposed to making such a pledge:

“For the most part, everyone would agree with the principles. But let’s say that I come to the conclusion that based on ethical, medical, physiologic and environmental grounds that invasive research on higher primates should never be done. Now I’ve just run afoul of the principles."

Block also questions the validity of the requirement to agree with the principles, considering that the ABVS states that college conditions are designed to assess the competency of candidates. "How does signing off on the AVMA principles serve this?" he asks. "Are they deciding that a candidate's competency is in question if he doesn't agree with the AVMA principles?"

When asked about the impetus for such rules governing ACAW candidates, Beaver implied that some with criticisms might be overthinking things.

"There is a tendency to read too much into the principles rather than reflect on their true meaning," she says. "Agreeing with the AVMA Principles of Animal Welfare is not part of the training or evaluation of competency, but instead is part of the criteria used for those wanting to enter into training to ensure that the person doing so has an open mind to all aspects of welfare. Competency is based on education and then successfully passing an examination."

Dr. Jim Reynolds, a professor at the University of California, Davis and member of the ACAW organizing committee, adds that he's confused about what's driving the resistance.

"They're pretty generic principles," he says. "If you don't think those principles apply to animal welfare, you don't want to be part of this specialty. I just didn't see it as a contentious point, frankly. You pretty much have to agree with the principles to move forward from there."

But the principles aren't the only source of ire when it comes to ACAW. Dr. Bill Folger, a boarded feline specialist in Houston and member of the Veterinary Information Network, has spent years working on welfare committees within AVMA and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. He and others question the requirement that all ACAW members must hold degrees in veterinary medicine, which excludes prominent animal welfare scientists that have long guided the profession in this area.

"It took 20 years of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee being around for the welfare principles to be generated," he says. "The first one states that that the AVMA is the pre-eminent institution on animal welfare. Why start out the general principles with a lie? We are an authority, not the authority."

That type of talk has found its way onto the Society of Veterinary Medical Ethics listserv, where some characterize the ACAW requirements as "big brotherish." Block expands on those views by calling the requirements the "height of hypocrisy."

"This new group seems more like a political arm of the AVMA than an independent group capable of challenging the paradigms and the status quo," he says. "The group forbids non-vets from becoming certified despite the fact that some of the foremost animal welfare scientists and veterinary ethicists in the world have been doing for decades what this college is proposing all while the AVMA has spun its wheels on animal welfare issues.”

Beaver notes that the ABVS requires its colleges' memberships to be limited to veterinarians. "There is nothing to say that animal scientists or whomever couldn't go out and form their own specialty college," she counters.

Still, Dr. Barry Kipperman, a boarded internist practicing in Dublin, Calif., reports being “offended and disappointed” by the rules governing entry into ACAW.

“To start the process by forcing people to sign off on the principles does not reek of compromise,” Kipperman says. “It reeks of this is our way, and sign off if you want to join our club. There are people on my side of the ledger that consider killing animals for food and recreation, particularly in partnership with a statement on welfare, to be an oxymoron. If that puts me on the wacko edge of being a veterinarian, so be it, but I doubt I'm the only one with a veterinary degree who feels this way.

“The AVMA is notorious for being a politically inbred institution,” he adds. “This requirement will exclude some very knowledgeable, passionate people.”

One of them could be Dr. Wendy Koch, who works in animal welfare enforcement with the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency. In an e-mail to the VIN News Service, she describes animal welfare as a lifelong interest and supports the AVMA welfare principles.

Yet she considers ACAW's requirement that its members sign the document "extremely inappropriate" considering the principles are based on ethics as well as science.

"I find it hard to believe that the organizing committee has thought through the ramifications of this requirement. It reminds me of the Pope's response to Galileo — you will think as I tell you to or else. ... There are perfectly legitimate experts in the animal welfare field who would have a problem signing off on the AVMA principles, and excluding them is, in fact, nothing but thought policing."

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