Proposed welfare specialty college bends to veterinarians' concerns

AVMA welfare principles no longer a point of contention

December 16, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Candidates of the proposed American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW) no longer need to pledge to agree with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Welfare Principles in order to earn status as a diplomate.

Members of ACAW's organizing committee made the change last month, before the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) considers the college's bid for induction. A vote by the ABVS, an arm of the AVMA and umbrella organization that recognizes veterinary specialties in the United States, is expected in February.

Leaders of ACAW say the call for candidates to sign off on the AVMA Welfare Principles was repealed due to mounting pressure by veterinarians challenging it. Critics deemed the mandate to be inappropriate, acting as a political litmus test for credentialing. The AVMA Welfare Principles, devised in 2006, now have been adopted as guidance for ACAW and appear on the planned specialty college's website.

The decision to repackage the sign-off requirement as guidance is intended to be a workable compromise between those who believe the AVMA Welfare Principles should act as measurement of welfare aptitude and others who consider being forced to agree with such a document exclusionary and stifling.

Last summer, approximately 70 concerned veterinary specialists lobbied ACAW to rethink the sign-off stipulation. The Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics also submitted a petition to repeal the sign-off requirement. The reason: Some veterinarians do not agree with the principles and all they convey, especially when the document's animal-use statement conflicts with the beliefs of veterinarians who do not support eating meat or performing research on primates.

One sticking point concerning the principles was the first of its eight statements, 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.”

An editorial letter published in the Oct. 1 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association argued that ACAW could not claim to be knowledge-based "if it disqualifies competent candidates because of their personal beliefs." It also warned that moving forward with the sign-off requirement might encourage other specialty colleges to impose "philosophical requirements" on their members.

Though leaders of ACAW did not go on record, anonymous sources confirmed with the VIN News Service that a goal of the sign-off requirement was to keep what's deemed a radical element out of the college, such as animal rights activists with degrees in veterinary medicine.

ACAW founding member Dr. Jim Reynolds initially supported the mandate to sign the principles, describing them as "pretty generic." In an interview last summer with the VIN News Service, he said, "If you don't think the those principles apply to animal welfare, you don't want to be part of this specialty." Now the professor at Western University of Health Sciences has amended that line of thinking. He backs the decision to change the policy, which he says reflects "real and legitimate" concerns raised by veterinarians who petitioned last summer during the public comment period for ACAW, which ended Nov. 1.

"I think the process worked as it should have," says Reynolds, known for his expertise in the welfare of large animals. "I and most others on the ACAW committee did not see the sign-off as a deal-breaker and agreed to it early on. But the concerns raised were valid and ACAW responded appropriately."

No other ABVS-recognized specialty college calls on its candidates to agree with the AVMA Welfare Principles as a condition of their status as a diplomate. On the other hand, the AVMA Welfare Principles seem a natural fit for a specialty college on the topic of welfare, supporters contend.  

Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former AVMA president and academician from Texas A&M University, leads the ACAW organizing committee. In previous interviews with the VIN News Service, she backed the notion that would-be ACAW diplomates should sign the principles, characterizing them as "extremely broad" and "appropriate for any veterinarian wanting to specialize in animal welfare."

Beaver did not respond to recent queries from the VIN News Service asking for her take on the decision to roll back the sign-off stipulation.

Board-certified internist Dr. Gary Block, however, is "extremely pleased" with the move. Block owns a specialty referral practice in Rhode Island and holds a master's in animals and public policy from Tufts University. He led the charge against the sign-off provision and champions the sentiments of colleagues who might not agree that responsible animal use, for example, should extend to food or some types of research. Forcing them to pledge to agree with the AVMA Welfare Principles would contradict with their beliefs.  

In a statement to the VIN News Service, he writes: "The founders of ACAW should be congratulated for re-examining their position on this issue and determining that this was not in the best interest of the college or the profession. Mandating that candidates agree with all the AVMA Animal Welfare Principles would have limited diversity of opinion and ideas and discouraged a number of qualified candidates from applying to the college. Only by fully embracing this diversity will members of this college be able to take on some of the difficult and contentious animal welfare issues that are currently confronting our profession."

Block adds that while some might perceive the decision to use the principles as a guide for ACAW as a veiled attempt at endorsement, "it is not nearly as onerous."

"Given the political wrangling that was likely part of this entire process, I can live with this compromise as it will let people like me, should I so choose, to pursue board certification in the ACAW without the hypocrisy of formally endorsing something I didn't believe in," he says.

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