Sense or subterfuge?

Questions arise about halted veterinary contest

September 17, 2015 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Two weeks after the American Veterinary Medical Foundation abruptly ended a national contest due to cyberbullying, contestants are speaking out about how they unwittingly got snagged in the hot-button issue of declawing. 

While many candidates are grateful that the AVMF cancelled its contest to name America's Favorite Veterinarian, others are wary of the organization’s response to activist pressure. Dr. Gary Richter, a practitioner from Oakland, California, is among those critical of how the AVMF handled the anti-declaw backlash.  

“I really can’t support the AVMF decision to call this thing off,” he said. “This is a big national organization that should be far too large to let a small group of people using inappropriate tactics deter them.”  

In its third year running, America’s Favorite Veterinarian receives hundreds of nominations from across the country. Judges with AVMF, the benevolent arm of the American Veterinary Medical Association, consider essays and resumes before selecting 20 finalists. Finalists' biographies are posted online, and the public is invited to vote for their favorite.

The winner receives $500, a trip to the AVMA annual convention and, of course, the title of “America’s Favorite Veterinarian.” 

Late in the contest, Richter became a surprise frontrunner after an activist cold-called the top-10 contestants and determined that he was the only one who refused to declaw his feline patients. The procedure, known medically as non-therapeutic onychectomy, involves amputation of a feline’s third phalanx, or toe bone. Opponents of cat declaws believe the procedure is painful and maims the animal. Mainstream veterinary medicine in North America, however, has determined the procedure to be justified in some cases. 

What started out as a show of support for Richter quickly turned into an online campaign by anti-declaw activists to shame and defame the other contestants. Some candidates and their supporters reportedly fired back with equally inflammatory rhetoric. The name-calling involved words like "butcher" and "terrorist."

Six days shy of the contest’s Sept. 1 end, AVMF officials pulled the plug. “Cancelled due to cyberbullying,” a banner across the website read.  

Richter, rumored to have received thousands of votes from anti-declaw actvisits, said he's been targeted by colleagues who suspect that he somehow incited the social media outbursts.

It's an assertion he flatly rejects. “The topic of declaw coming up was completely unexpected. I didn’t see this coming,” he said.  

Neither did Dr. Christy Layton, a fellow contestant and practice owner near Tampa, Florida, who was the frontrunner at the time the contest ended. Like Richter, she disagrees with the AVMF’s response, though she didn’t received the level of harassment felt by some of her colleagues. She suspects that’s because she’s reluctant to perform declaw procedures and made the public aware of that on Facebook. 

“The last cat I declawed was 10 months ago, and its owner had leukemia,” Layton said. Cancer patients often are immune-suppressed, putting them at increased risk for infection if they are scratched. 

Still, Layton isn’t sympathetic to activists who pressure veterinarians via harassment. Veterinarians take a lot of abuse, she said, and it’s taking a toll on the profession.  

“I think that in general, veterinarians have kept pretty quiet about the online bullying we get,” she said. “We’re the kind of people who don’t like to talk about it.
 After Dr. Koshi’s suicide, I think we all need to wake up and start defending ourselves against people like this,” she added. 

Dr. Shirley Koshi died by suicide on Feb. 16, 2014, following a custody dispute involving a stray cat that had been brought to her clinic in the Bronx for care. The dispute played out online, drew pickets to her clinic and ended up in court. Koshi was said to be under financial pressure, which, along with the harassment, led to a depression that prompted her to end her life. She was 55 and beloved by many of her clients and colleagues. 

Becoming targets of public shaming, whether by negative online reviews or other harassing comments, resonates with much of the profession because every veterinarian is vulnerable to attack — and many have endured it. Layton, who practices in Plant City, Florida, said her Facebook page was littered by an activist posting anti-declaw rhetoric. “These people said I should be in jail and should lose my license,” she recalled.  

That doesn’t mean she supports the AVMF’s decision to cancel the contest. “We should be able to have a contest for America’s Favorite Veterinarian,” she said. “These people shouldn’t be able to hide behind a keyboard, and I think that’s what’s so hard for veterinarians to grasp.” 

She was “personally upset” when it was cancelled. 

“It was frustrating,” Layton said. “To be able to name yourself America’s Favorite Veterinarian is a great way validate the care and compassion we give to animals every single day. We had put in hours and hours of work, creating a Facebook page, promoting that page. We had 700 likes and a lot of followers. We bought a banner for the hospital … and the effort was void.” 

She added: “We don’t do what we do on a daily basis for fame or fortune. We do it for the love of animals and the human-animal bond. It’s unfortunate that this contest was hijacked by activists who tried to make it about their own concerns.” 

Layton is sympathetic to the AVMF’s plight, even if she doesn’t agree with the decision to end the contest: “I don’t know that they were given a choice, with the phone calls and the cyberbullying that we endured. It was too much for everybody to handle.” 

Before the contest was cancelled, at least one veterinarian — Dr. Tina Roggenback of Saginaw, Michigan — withdrew from the running, citing the activist campaign. Her practice posted this statement on Facebook: 

“ATTACKED by groups of cyber terrorists in an attempt to discredit who we are and what we do in an effort to MOVE US DOWN the ladder on the AVMF’s America’s Favorite Veterinarian contest.”  

The post noted that “untrue, professional, unethical and profane” comments were left on the website. AVMF officials expressed their sadness and frustration in a statement to the VIN News Service. “As you know, the problem of cyberbullying of veterinarians is becoming more and more widespread,” the statement said. “There is some concern that it may have contributed to a recent veterinary suicide.” 

That reference was likely to Dr. Shirley Koshi. 

Fallout on both sides

Since the contest ended, anti-declaw activists say they, too, have been harassed, with some suggesting that the AVMF’s cyberbullying claims mask what was truly behind the contest’s abrupt end. AVMA and AVMF officials don’t want activists to steer the outcome, surmises Lori Shepler, who runs an anti-declaw organization called City the Kitty, named for her cat, City, a 13-year-old Bengal-Manx mix. 

On Facebook, City the Kitty has close to 270,000 followers. Posts on the site typically are dedicated to the cat's daily life, which Shepler writes in the cat's voice. In late August, Shepler phoned America's Favorite Veterinarian contestants to determine their stance on declawing cats — a procedure she vehemently opposes. 

She reported that Richter was the only contestant who refused to perform feline declaws. Activists with whom she does not work, she said, confronted other veterinarians in the contest. Shepler rejects any notion that she played a role in the cyberbullying or that it's been as widespread as the AVMF claims. Name-calling, she argues, does not rise to that level.

VIN News Service screenshot
A national contest to name America's favorite veterinarian abruptly ended last month, six days shy of its original Sept. 1 deadline. Rather than pick a single winner, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation extended the honorary title to all 20 contestants in the running.

On Monday, City the Kitty issued a statement: “Ever since the America’s Favorite Veterinarian contest was was cancelled under the guise of cyberbullying, we have been called terrorists, rebels, an animal activist terrorist organization and other very inappropriate things by the pro-declawers.” The Facebook post was followed with the hashtag #tellthetruthAVMA and a press release.

In it, Shepler explained her involvement in the contest. Again speaking through the feline persona of City, she stated: “We made the announcement on Aug. 20 to vote for Dr. Gary Richter. At no point did she ever ask anyone to attack the other vets. This was simply a positive way to show our support for a vet who is a true advocate for animals.

“A few days into the contest," the press release continued, "she got word that some anti-clawing activists were saying inappropriate things to one of the veterinarians. In a passionate plea on my Facebook page, she immediately asked those responsible for this cyber bullying to cease. 

"My mom and I do not condone this type of behavior and stand firmly on a higher ground philosophy that educates and inspires others to stop declawing.” 

By phone, Shepler said the AVMA and AVMF blocked her from their Facebook pages for violating "their community guidelines," and AVMA communications staff ignore her inquiries. She reportedly has received death threats from a friend of one veterinarian and called viscious names by an associate of another veterinaria. “I fear for my life,” Shepler said.

The focus on cyberbullying, she added, is overblown and drowning out the anti-declaw message.  

“People all over the world think declawing cats is appalling, and I think (the AVMA) is not going to change until they’re the last person standing,” she said. “I’m sure they’re looking at me like I’m a crazy activist terrorist, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.” 

Dr. Jennifer Conrad, who started the Paw Project in 1999 as a way to convince owners and veterinarians to stop declawing cats, says her organization, too, has been implicated in aggressive online tactics by anti-declaw activists.

There’s no truth to that, she said. 

“There are a lot of us who are anti-declawing … and the anti-declaw side has all sorts of people on it,” Conrad said. “I can only control what the Paw Project does. But, of course, declawing incites a lot of passionate people who want to be heard.”

Conrad notes that the anti-declaw movement has “gone viral.” 

“Anyone in our society understands the power that social media has now … for good or other,” she said. “The people truly have a voice. These are big national organizations. What really became clear over that past week is there is a really large number of people who want to have a discussion about ending declaw in cats and only a tiny fraction used inappropriate tactics to get that message across.”  

Declaw positions

The American Association of Feline Practitioners calls feline onychectomy an "ethically controversial procedure" that's not medically necessary for most cats. Its position statement stops short of recommending a ban on the procedure. 

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recently published something similar. 

"Declawing may warrant consideration as an alternative to relinquishment or euthanasia, but only after extensive education and presentation of other strategies to manage scratching behavior," the AAHA statement said. "Many declawed cats are still relinquished to shelters — declawing does not guarantee that cats will remain in households." 

It also includes a medical caveat: "This statement does not apply to claw removal when medically necessary to treat conditions such as tumors or chronic infections. If declawing is performed, the procedure must follow current best practices for amputation including multi-modal pain control before, during and for an appropriate length of time after the surgery.”    

The AVMA says onychectomy should be regarded as amputation and a major surgery. The decision about whether or not to declaw a cat, the policy states, should be made by the owner and his or her veterinarian — not legal mandate. Some veterinarians and pet owners believe that declawing a cat can make it adoptable or keepable, saving it from relinquishment.

Social media has the power to push organized veterinary medicine — and the public — on that stance, said Richter, the anti-declaw advocate and veterinarian from California. While policies from the AVMA, AAFP and AAHA have no legal teeth, state regulatory bodies that govern the practice of veterinary medicine often look to them for guidance. 

nyone in our society understands the power that social media has now. People truly have a voice," he said. "What really has become clear is there is a really large number of people who want to have a discussion about ending declaw in cats and only a tiny fraction used inappropriate tactics to get that message across.”

Inspired by the public's outcry, two veterinarians in the contest reportedly have committed to stop declawing cats in their practices. The AVMF has extended the title of America's Favorite Veterinarian to all 20 contestants. 

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