Veterinary group pumps new blood into leadership

Ethics society chooses Petco doctor as president

Published: April 22, 2013
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tom Edling
The Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics recruited Dr. Tom Edling, veterinarian for Petco, to join the organization and serve as its president.
Near the end of her 2-year term as president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics (SVME), Dr. Alice Villalobos scouted for a successor among members of the board of directors. Owing to busy schedules, everyone begged off.

Undeterred, Villalobos seized the vacancy as an opportunity to inject fresh life into the 19-year-old organization.

"When nobody sprang to be president-elect, I thought, 'We have an outstanding board, and with their approval, I will get nominations ... and recruit a visionary,' " Villalobos said.

In January, Villalobos handed the president’s gavel, literally, to a 54-year-old engineer-turned-veterinarian brand-new to SVME, Dr. Tom Edling.

The act was noteworthy even for an organization already unusual among professional veterinary groups for accepting as members non-DVMs and DVMs alike.

The society has drawn leaders from diverse quarters since its founding in 1994. In addition to private practitioners, previous presidents include a veterinary school dean, a regulator and a consultant. Non-veterinarians, too — a lawyer and a pharmacologist — have led the group. But Edling is the society’s first leader from industry: He’s vice president of veterinary medicine for Petco Animal Supplies, Inc.

Bringing in someone from pet store circles is daring, Villalobos knows. “There’s a whole lot of veterinarians who are totally unhappy with pet stores,” she said, ticking off reasons ranging from concern for the welfare of animals in the retail trade to pique over stores competing against veterinary hospitals by hosting vaccine clinics and dental cleanings.

“And here’s Dr. Edling who’s in charge of probably more pet stores than anyone I know,” Villalobos said. “But he’s set a good standard. ... (And) when you think about the millions of people who are in contact with the facilities that he’s medically directing ... his influence is just huge. I think we’ve (brought) an experienced person to give SVME leadership and vision in so many ways.”

The prospect of having a broad influence is exactly why Edling took Petco’s first-ever full-time staff veterinarian job 10 years ago. Before that, Petco had a veterinary consultant under contract. Concerns and complaints from the public about the well-being of animals in some stores led the company to create the staff position.

At the time, Edling ran a mobile practice in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When he heard about the Petco job, he said he thought, “Wow, what an opportunity. I can help change the entire pet industry!”

About the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics

  • “Basic Veterinary Medical Ethics" course available online through; registration opens April 30. Approval for continuing-education credit (RACE) pending.
  • Unwanted Horse Forum, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 20 at the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in Chicago.
“Petco has a tremendous influence in the industry,” Edling said in an interview. “So if I raise the standards of where we buy animals, that raises the standards for everybody, not just us. If I raise the standards of the cages we sell, or change the paint, that will change it for everybody. ... I can help thousands of animals every day across the whole United States as opposed to (only) the animals I see in my practice.”

For the ethics society, Edling has a more modest agenda. In a “Message from the President” published in a recent SVME newsletter, Edling listed two areas he would like to address during his two-year term: increasing the number of members (now around 150) and getting more ethics courses or programs into veterinary college curricula at a time that ethics courses are being dropped.

Noting that “I have yet to accomplish anything within the ranks of the SVME,” Edling wrote, “Over the next two years, we will make progress not by virtue of insight on my part, but by building on what has already been accomplished.”

In the view of Bernard Rollin, the SVME member who recruited him to the organization, Edling’s modesty belies his abilities, in the same way that a gentle voice belies the man’s bodybuilder physique.

Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University who wrote a seminal textbook on veterinary ethics, described Edling as one of a handful of students who stood out during the 33 years that he taught the subject at CSU’s veterinary school.

First, there’s his appearance. “He’s striking,” the professor said. “He’s just carved out of stone. He works out obsessively. He has muscles on his nose! ... But he’s very soft-spoken; I mean, he’s got nothing of the bully. Zero. Just the opposite.”

That soft-spoken manner is effective and persuasive, especially when it comes to matters of controversy, Rollin said: “He’s really reflective, and will say things really, really thoughtfully.”

And ethics is one of his strong interests. As a veterinary student, Rollins recalled, Edling would arrive at his 8 a.m. ethics class ready to roll. “Tom would be sitting there, big smile, eager. The first day I saw him, I thought, ‘What the hell’s his problem?’ ” Rollin growled. “But he really was like that.”

That’s why, when Villalobos asked Rollin to suggest a candidate for the SVME presidency, and Rollin asked himself, “Who’s interested in these things and is extremely effective?” Edling came to mind.

Rollin sits on an independent animal-care advisory board to Petco that Edling established. In that role, Rollin has observed how Edling operates, whether it was in convincing the company in 2005 to end sales of large birds such as parrots and macaws or to stop its lucrative sales of over-the-counter veterinary antibiotics.

Then there was Edling’s idea of pursuing a Master’s in Public Health degree to become more knowledgeable about the potential for pets to transmit diseases to people — an issue he saw as growing in importance among public health agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I wanted to be an educated liaison between the pet industry and the federal and state organizations that work on zoonotic disease concerns,” Edling said. Petco agreed, so Edling undertook a part-time program at Johns Hopkins University, earning the degree in 2½ years.

Rollin called the move “brilliant.” “He was able to establish credibility with CDC as a scientist,” Rollin said. “Not only is it clever for Petco to stay out of a pissing contest (with regulators), but more to the point, it creates a synergistic level of intellectual engagement, so that what could be adversarial ends up being cooperative.”

Venturing into new fields is Edling’s style. As a teenager in Texas, Edling recalled that he “wanted to be a football superstar, of course.” He wanted also to be a veterinarian, but in setting out to play ball at Texas A&M University, he discovered during freshman year that the course schedule for pre-veterinary medicine conflicted with the sport.

To accommodate practice times, he said, “All your classes had to be done at noon.” Engineering courses fit the bill, so he switched majors.

Not that it did much good for his football aspirations. “Lo and behold, I did not become a superstar,” Edling said with a laugh. “I just wasn’t good enough!”

To pay for school, Edling participated in a cooperative education program that allowed him to alternate semesters between studies and paid, full-time employment in the field. He worked for a fire protection company, helping design systems to suppress fires in industrial settings, including offshore oil drilling and pumping operations.

After graduation, Edling worked as a plant engineer in a coal-fired power plant in Texas. But sports remained on his mind. At A&M, he had moved from football to the power-lifting team. After two years at the power plant, Edling opened a Gold’s Gym in Waco. He stayed in that venture for a year before business misfortunes led him back to engineering, this time working as a fire-protection consultant for insurers; first Factory Mutual and later American International Group (AIG).

“It was challenging, but it’s not what I wanted to do,” Edling said. “I wanted to be a vet.”

Like so many veterinarians, the desire went way back. “I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a vet, put it that way,” he said. Perhaps it had something to do with his boyhood best friend, Katy. She was a Weimaraner his family got when he was 1. They were together until he was 16.

Although his love and respect for animals started with a dog, Edling’s interest as a veterinary student leaned to the exotic. He chose Colorado State University for his training partly because of its program in companion exotic animals. Weekends, he worked as a veterinary assistant on the zoological medicine ward of the teaching hospital, taking care of raptors and other wildlife, domestic guinea pigs, snakes — all manner of species.

Two externships solidified Edling’s interest in exotic medicine. The first was at Disney World, which at the time had a wild-animal area called Discovery Island. To obtain zoo accreditation, Disney World needed physicals on all the inhabitants. Edling got to work on every animal in the park, mostly birds, reptiles and primates.

The second externship, shortly before graduation, was with Kaytee Products, Inc., a maker of bird foods and supplies in Chilton, Wisc. With more than 100 species of 5,000 birds at the company, Edling said, he was “immersed in birds.” Later, he returned to Kaytee for an internship, which led to a permanent job as manager of the company’s Avian Research Center, where, he said, it conducts non-invasive nutritional research.

His multifaceted experiences didn’t end there. Edling later worked briefly as a clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin veterinary school; did a residency in avian medicine at North Carolina State University; returned to Texas to work as the avian doctor at a 24-hour clinic in Dallas; and started a mobile practice.

Late in 2002, while operating the mobile clinic, Edling heard from a colleague at Sea World, a veterinarian whom he’d met at Kaytee. She was Petco’s consulting veterinarian. “Hey,” she told Edling, “Petco’s looking for a full-time vet.”

It’s been 10 years since Edling got the job. He is responsible for the well-being of some 200,000 animals in the company’s 1,150 stores on any given day. Petco contracts with local veterinarians for clinical care; Edling’s job is to oversee welfare issues, including the care and handling of animals that supply the stores.

Petco draws plaudits for its “think adoption first” philosophy. Rather than sell dogs and cats, Petco stores host pet adoption organizations — a practice about which the company deserves to be proud, said Rollin, the Colorado State bioethicist and member of the company’s animal care advisory council. “Last year, they adopted out 350,000 animals,” he said. “That’s a helluva lot of animals.”

It’s an accomplishment most veterinarians would commend, too, but other aspects of the Petco operation are less admired. Petco still sells a variety of animals — fish, turtles, snakes, lizards, guinea pigs, ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, mice, rats and small birds. Dr. Gary Block, an internal medicine specialist in Rhode Island and a past president of the SVME, for example, said that while it’s laudable that Petco stopped carrying large birds, he would like to see them forgo selling birds at all.

“Knowing a fair amount about birds, and knowing they are not domesticated, and knowing that they are a social species, I do take issue with places that sell birds to an uneducated public,” Block said in an interview. “It’s so common to have behavioral problems and medical problems in these birds. They really shouldn’t be pets. ... The whole fact that we have birds, and clip their wings — some people would argue that the essence of being a bird is being able to fly.”

That’s not an objection to Edling as leader of the SVME — only an indication that Edling can expect to, as Block puts it, “take barbs” from some members for his Petco involvement. Block said, “I could easily have a two-hour discussion with him about why I think it’s inappropriate to have birds (as pets).”

And he looks forward to hashing out ethical issues with the new president. After all, wrestling over ethical questions is at the heart of SVME’s mission to provide a forum for discussions about sensitive ethical issues in the veterinary community.

In fact, Block is enthusiastic about having someone from outside private practice leading the ethics group. “It will be a nice breath of fresh air not to have the plain old small animal veterinarian,” he said.

Villalobos suggested that, like SVME, other veterinary organizations run by volunteers could try reinvigorating their membership by recruiting fresh personalities from varied backgrounds. “There’s a lot of lethargy,” she said. “It gets stale. You lose members. ... So many of us are stuck in our silos. Maybe other groups should reach out, as well.”

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