July 2009 Blog Home September 2009

21 posts from August 2009

August 31, 2009

Talk Back: Veterinary Conflict of Interest

On Friday evening, I had a back-and-forth discussion with Dr. David Reeves, a swine veterinarian from the University of Georgia, before veterinarians and veterinary association leaders from 13 states at the Heartland Veterinary Leadership Conference in Milwaukee. Poised and well-informed, Dr. Reeves espoused a more typical, industry-oriented view of the treatment of animals in agriculture, while I said it was time for veterinary associations to stop mimicking the views of industrial agribusiness and to be in the forefront of the effort to protect animals. We had a constructive discussion that I hope left the audience thinking more critically of our dealings with animals and our responsibilities to them.

It was a timely follow-up to my recent posting taking the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to task for its misguided attack on the Pew Commission’s report on the reforms needed in industrial agriculture. The Pew Commission's own vice chairman—Dr. Michael Blackwell, former dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine—has since spoken out as well, saying he was “shocked over the fact that the AVMA did not try to learn the truth about the Commission’s work, even from one of its own members,” and “instead chose to write a response from the perspective of the industry.”

Pig face
Photo credit USDA

My thesis is simple: If there is a professional veterinary group that works for an animal-use industry (e.g., the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which typically works for large-scale pig producers), these vets are in the employ of industry and their “science” often reflects the thinking of the industry itself. These veterinary subgroups typically drive the policy positions at AVMA, and the broader consequence is that AVMA often defends obviously inhumane practices or, at the very least, stands on the sidelines as The HSUS, our Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and other leaders in animal welfare advocate for the interests of animals. 

It just defies common sense and the body of disinterested science to think that lifelong confinement of farm animals in very small cages is acceptable from an animal welfare perspective, but AVMA has worked against us in our efforts to phase out battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for years. The national association just about got into open warfare with the California Veterinary Medical Association in 2008 after the state group took a thoughtful and forward-thinking approach to the issue of factory farming and endorsed Proposition 2, a measure to phase out three of the most extreme confinement systems for farm animals in California.  

AVMA has been silent on the force-feeding of ducks and geese for production of foie gras and was silent for two decades as we pressed the case for a ban on downer cows (those too sick or injured to walk) being funneled into the food supply. AVMA has actively lobbied in favor of continuing the inhumane long-distance transport and slaughter of healthy American horses for human consumption overseas, and has also stood virtually alone as a science-based organization in opposing federal legislation to phase out the profligate use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes on factory farms (to keep animals from getting sick in inhumane, overcrowded, filthy conditions, and speed their growth). To take just the debate over the widespread dosing of livestock with antibiotics on factory farms, virtually all of the major public health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, back a dramatic change in policy. In its attacks on the Pew Commission, in fact, the AVMA has not only implicitly attacked a wide range of other science-based organizations, but it has placed the interests of industrial agriculture against the public health needs of the nation.

Many of you reacted favorably to my original column, and here’s some of your feedback.

I am a veterinarian and I am a member of HSUS, HSVMA, and AVMA. I am a member of all three because I believe that as a professional, I should support the organizations that support me. I truly appreciate AVMA’s protection and promotion of the practice of veterinary medicine; however, its positions relating to animal welfare often seem indefensible. AVMA’s disappointing opposition to the Pew report is not surprising given its association with agribusiness. Therefore, I fully support HSUS and HSVMA as they reflect and actively promote my personal beliefs about how animals should be treated in our society. And, I’m not a younger generation veterinarian as I’ve been in the profession for 23 years. Thank you HSUS. —Deb Teachout, DVM
THANK YOU for this very informative update on the AVMA! Realizing big business influences often impede animal protection efforts, one would hope vets might be excluded from succumbing to profit-only-driven decisions! I am hand-delivering a copy of this today to my own vet of 20 years in hopes he will join the HSVMA, encourage his peers in the Texas Veterinary Medical Association to do the same, and help convince the AVMA to change their lackluster leadership into real change for animals. And a letter to the editor would not hurt either! We must all do our part so the dream of a truly humane nation becomes a reality! —Linda Yarbrough, Texas
The AVMA, and the AVMA's Animal Welfare Committee, prove time and time again that they are unable or unwilling to be a significant voice for the animals that we, as veterinarians, have sworn to protect. The AVMA refuses to take any significant positions or stand on the most important animal welfare issues, and instead, panders to the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, as well as the conservative network of veterinarians who look at animals as commodities and the source of their income. The AVMA will continue to lose members, and in time, will realize that the organization is becoming less influential as they lose their credibility by refusing to stand up and be a true voice for more humane treatment of all animals. Until that time, I look to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, as many more veterinarians are doing, to lead us into the future, and be the voice for real change in the animal welfare movement. —John G. Hynes, DVM

Continue reading "Talk Back: Veterinary Conflict of Interest " »

August 28, 2009

Continued Progress Four Years Post-Katrina

Almost exactly four years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, with all her devastating force, the memories of the crisis brought on by forced abandonment of pets in the strike zone come flooding back for all of us at The HSUS who participated in the response effort. Desperate rescue attempts of stranded or trapped animals, the massive emergency sheltering operation organized in the midst of chaos, the endless toil of thousands of caring people in the sweltering heat—all of the bad and all of the good that came from it.

Dog rescued after Hurricane Katrina
Photo credit Milani/The HSUS

Katrina was a yardstick moment in the history of the humane movement. But more importantly, it was a moment of awakening for many Americans, many of whom had never realized how disaster planning without an animal rescue component puts animal and human lives in jeopardy. It reminded Americans of the strength of the human-animal bond. Many people chose to stay behind rather than to abandon their best friends or risk their safety by relying on first responders with no guidance or instruction in dealing with animals.

Katrina made the Gulf Coast states a region of special concern for The HSUS, and we’re more active there than ever. We’re leading a raft of ongoing projects and initiatives in Louisiana and Mississippi, and we’re making good on our promise to make the animal care infrastructure better than it was before the disaster. That’s an important legacy for the animals and those who labored to help them.

The Katrina disaster greatly heightened awareness about animal problems within Louisiana, and state lawmakers, prompted by The HSUS, have passed new legislation since Katrina to outlaw cockfighting, strengthen anti-cruelty laws, include animals in disaster planning, and crack down on puppy mills. We've seen similar progress in Mississippi.

On the national level, too, there is reason for optimism. We passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standard (PETS) Act, and changed the landscape on disaster planning when it comes to animals. President Obama has made an inspired choice in selecting Craig Fugate as Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the spring. A pioneer of animal-focused disaster planning during his tenure with the Florida Division of Emergency Management, he championed the recognition of the human-animal bond in disaster planning and response, serving on the state committee that wrote Florida’s original animal disaster plan and establishing one of the first pet-friendly disaster shelters in the country. There are many other signs of how the momentum has shifted in the right direction on the issue of disaster planning for animals, but the presence of such an individual in the position of FEMA Administrator is a great consolation to us.

When the next disaster hits, there will undoubtedly be challenges. But it doesn’t look like persuading disaster response officials at the local, state, and national level that animals are important will be one of them. That was a debate resolved on the ground in the bitter and harrowing weeks after Katrina struck, when we all vowed “never again.”

August 27, 2009

Catching Up to Cruelty

Most of our work at The HSUS is very linear. We see abuse, or we see a pathway to stop it, and we chase it down.

Today, for instance, our staff stood beside Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell as he signed HSUS-backed legislation to make it a criminal act for non-veterinarians to debark dogs, or to perform a Caesarean section on them. Some of the state’s puppy millers performed these procedures on the dogs even though they had no medical training to do so, and this legislation was a response to those cases. It was the second law we’ve worked to pass in the last two years to crack down on Pennsylvania’s puppy millers, and that represents great progress in a state long known as the “puppy mill capital of the East.”

And in Virginia today, we just got the exciting news that a puppy miller we worked to bust this last weekend—resulting in the seizure of 100 dogs kept in squalid conditions—has now been barred by an Augusta County judge from owning animals. We hope this court order puts him out of the commercial breeding business for good.

And this week, we also announced that we’ve paid our 50th reward for information that led to the arrest of animal fighting criminals. In fact, we’ve paid $157,470 in reward money for information leading to arrests in animal fighting cases since we launched the program two years ago. The rewards have resulted in 2,000 animals being removed from animal fighting operations in 16 states.

But our limited work with Michael Vick is not nearly so linear. Vick completed his two-year sentence in a federal prison for his horrible dogfighting crimes, and now he’s returned to the NFL. We are putting him to work to reach at-risk youth because his anti-dogfighting work may steer kids away from this practice and thereby save dogs’ lives. We hate what he did, but shunning him won’t save the life of a single dog. I’ve urged our supporters to think about what’s best for the animals—even if that runs in the opposite direction of our emotional instincts.

I recorded some off-the-cuff thoughts on the subject in this video.

August 26, 2009

Remembering Ted Kennedy: A Lion for Animals, As Well

The nation mourns the loss today of Sen. Edward Kennedy—but in a different way than his three older brothers, all of whom were cut down in youth or midlife and long before they completed their work on Earth. Ted Kennedy had to deal with a degree of trauma and loss that few of us can ever know, and with the abrupt and unexpected deaths of three of his closest family members, he was thrust into the role of patriarch of his famous and large but shrunken family. Yet the tragedy and the responsibility did not debilitate him, but somehow infused him with an added measure of commitment to public service and the common good. He triumphed in the face of adversity and lived a full and complete life, leaving a mark over the last 50 years that few public servants can ever hope to achieve. He was not only a champion of many important social and economic causes, but a brilliant legislator who leaves in his wake a raft of laws that embody the values that he held so dear and that gave meaning and purpose to his life and the lives of others.

Though animal welfare was not one of his signature concerns, he was always there for the cause, and he had all the right instincts on the subject. It was personal for Sen. Kennedy. He loved his dogs, and he could often be seen at the Capitol with his furry companions at his side. His beloved Splash "narrated" his wonderful book introducing young readers to the Congress and the legislative process.

Photo credit Chris Hartlove

His compassion extended far beyond his own family’s pets. He was a stalwart ally over the years on a wide range of legislation to protect companion animals, farm animals, animals in research, and wildlife. Measures he cosponsored and voted for included those to crack down on dogfighting and cockfighting, ban horse slaughter, curb abuses at puppy mills, end the slaughter of “downed” animals (those too sick or injured to stand and walk), limit federal subsidies for very large factory farms, condemn Canada’s commercial seal hunt, halt poaching of bears for their viscera, block oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and restrict taxpayer funding for use of steel-jaw leghold traps on national wildlife refuges. Sen. Kennedy also consistently joined calls, beginning in 2001, for increased funding to ensure viable oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and other key laws.

For eight years, he led the Senate on legislation to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms—a reckless practice used to keep animals in inhumane, overcrowded and highly stressful conditions, which hastens the development of antibiotic resistance and threatens the availability of effective medicines to treat sick people and animals.

Sen. Kennedy also championed the first-ever legislation calling for development of alternatives to animal testing—as part of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) Revitalization Act of 1993—and he was the lead Democratic sponsor of a bill enacted in 2000 that strengthened and made permanent the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, to encourage the use of non-animal or less invasive tests that are more humane and can be more accurate and cost-effective than antiquated animal tests used for products such as cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

As chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the NIH, he played a key role in enactment of a bill in 2000 to establish a national sanctuary system for chimpanzees no longer used in medical research but warehoused in small, barren, and expensive cages in federally funded laboratories.

In addition to his work on all of these specific issues, Sen. Kennedy had an extraordinary talent for inspiring people to become involved in public service and social change. He helped inspire many activists to pursue their passions, including animal protection. He participated in the Humane Society Legislative Fund's Party Animals program about three years ago when he joined on a call with thousands of activists across the country to help energize their work on behalf of legislation to protect animals in disasters, which led to the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act. "I wouldn't leave the house without Sunny and Splash," Sen. Kennedy said on the nationwide conference call. "It's no surprise that so many people in New Orleans flat-out refused to be rescued if they couldn't take their pets with them." The PETS Act, he said, "is not just about saving animals; it's about saving people, too."

I spoke with him on a good number of occasions, including this year’s Inauguration Day, and never did he exhibit anything less than enormous comity and kindness, even though his illness was severe and had confined him to a wheelchair. He always had a wonderful word to say about Mimi Brody, The HSUS’s director of federal legislation, who had worked on Sen. Kennedy’s staff for nearly a decade prior to joining our organization. Mimi’s own remarkable and highly focused work on animal issues with us since 1999 put an exclamation point on the oft-expressed testimonial from Capitol Hill mavens that Sen. Kennedy maintained the smartest and hardest working staff on Capitol Hill.

He was passionate about the issues he advanced in the Senate, but he counted among his closest friends many Republican senators whom he had policy disagreements with. He often spoke about wanting to create a “Canine Caucus,” and said it would be one of the truly bipartisan groups on Capitol Hill, because he shared his love of dogs with Republican senators like Mike Enzi, Kit Bond, and Elizabeth Dole. His warmth and kindness on Capitol Hill were legendary and should provide a lesson on model conduct for elected officials and any of the rest of us who deal with contentious issues on a regular basis.

Our condolences go to his wife Vicki, his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and the rest of the Kennedy family. His demise from brain cancer is a moment of profound loss for the country, to be sure. But his record of service is a testament to the ideals of tenacity, compassion, and grace, and in the work that he did, he provides inspiration to the living.

August 25, 2009

Anger Into Action

Weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, and the intense rescue of stranded or abandoned dogs, cats, and other animals had slowed, we at The HSUS turned some of our attention to reshaping the laws in the country with respect to animals in disasters—so that our nation would never be so unprepared to help animals in subsequent cataclysms. We helped pass the federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act and about 20 state laws to include animals in disaster planning.

After our investigation of the Hallmark slaughter plant, we focused on banning the slaughter of all downer cows—not just in California, but throughout the nation. We achieved a major marker in our campaign when President Obama himself announced the closure of the loophole.

HSUS Pit Bull Training Team participants in Chicago
Michelle Riley/The HSUS
HSUS Pit Bull Training Team participants.

And ever since the awful cruelties of the Michael Vick case came to the public’s attention, we’ve redoubled our efforts to change the landscape on animal fighting in this country—passing a raft of new state and federal laws, amping up raids and busts of illegal animal fighters, training more law enforcement agents, bolstering our rewards program and creating a national tip line, and also growing our community-based programs to reach at-risk kids and young men, particularly in urban communities.

Yesterday, I joined leaders of local humane organizations from southeastern Pennsylvania for a meeting with executives of the Philadelphia Eagles, including Joe Banner, the president of the organization. I was heartened to hear the Eagles say—now that they’ve hired Michael Vick—that the organization is going to invest in anti-cruelty and anti-fighting programs in the region. We are anxious to help them shape and implement these programs. My conclusion: By enlisting the Eagles organization our movement has added a new, powerful member to the cause—and the team’s help is desperately needed in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Some three-quarters of the region’s 8 million people are self-identified fans of the team, and the Eagles organization is already a powerful force for good in Philadelphia and surrounding communities.

We should be angry whenever animals are abused. But, at some point in the process, we’ve got to turn anger into constructive action. Just being angry about Michael Vick—now more than two years after his horrible crimes came to light—isn’t going to help one dog. But finding new allies like the Eagles, dedicating ourselves to the campaign to eradicate animal fighting, and fortifying these programs is the constructive pathway forward. It’s when passion and strategy are combined that we’ll see the greatest advances for animals.

That’s what we did with Katrina, with Hallmark, and all of the major animal problems that catch fire and penetrate the nation’s consciousness. We work to turn a bad situation into lasting change for animals.

August 24, 2009

Teamwork to the Rescue

In our campaigns against cruelty there's often no rest for the weary. Fresh off of rescuing more than 500 dogs from a puppy mill in Texas, HSUS staff were on the ground in Virginia this weekend, removing 100 dogs from another deplorable puppy mill. The operator of the facility had surrendered the dogs to Virginia's Augusta County Animal Control, which placed them with the Augusta Regional SPCA. The HSUS partnered with both organizations and the Virginia state veterinarian’s office to remove the dogs and provide emergency care for them in a temporary facility, and take evidence.

We then contacted partnering shelters and rescue groups to take in the dogs for further care and eventual placement in new homes, and we're grateful to the organizations who answered the call for help: the Norfolk SPCA and Richmond SPCA in Virginia (in addition to the Augusta Regional SPCA), Anne Arundel County SPCA in Maryland, and the Washington Animal Rescue League in D.C. 

Among the mastiffs, pugs, Boston terriers, Yorkies, poodles and other dogs rescued, an emaciated, pregnant Great Dane—now named Millie—especially caught the heart and attention of staffers. I've included a photo of her condition below, along with a few other images from the rescue.

Great Dane rescued from Virginia puppy mill

Dog rescued from Virginia puppy mill is examined

Two dogs rescued from Virginia puppy mill

Yorkie rescued from Virginia puppy mill

Photos credit Kathleen Summers/The HSUS

August 21, 2009

Talk Back: Lawsuit Against Helmsley Trustees

Many of you expressed satisfaction at the news earlier this month that The HSUS, the ASPCA and Maddie's Fund jointly filed legal action against the trustees of Leona Helmsley's $5.3 billion estate. Helmsley had directed that her foundation place special emphasis on the care and welfare of dogs in its allocation of grants, but the trustees have decided to pursue their own agenda, allocating less than .1 percent of grants to dog welfare. Mrs. Helmsley's intentions as a donor and an animal lover were clear and that made it necessary for us to intervene in the trustees’ abuse of her trust and their misdirection of her funds.

We’ll keep you apprised of the progress of our lawsuit. In the meantime, here are some of your thoughts on the matter:

I am glad the animal welfare groups are going to court against the Helmsley trustees. Leona's wishes were not carried out by the trustees, whom she foolishly trusted to carry out her wishes. The animals deserve the money according to the mission statement she left. Leona also would be devastated by the fact that the judge took away money from her beloved Maltese Trouble. —Ann Alpert

Bravo, Wayne!!! When I learned what the trustees had done, I was livid! Since when is it okay to tamper with the deceased's wishes, especially when they were so explicitly written? I am very grateful that HSUS, ASPCA and Maddie's Fund have filed a lawsuit to overturn these unconscionable actions. The consequences of not challenging this outcome could be disastrous for people everywhere who care about animals and want to provide for them when they are gone. Thank you! Keep up the GREAT work! —Susan

I am so glad that the animal community is doing something about this...it absolutely infuriates me that they are going against her specific wishes! I read an article on it in the Philanthropy News Digest a couple months ago and have hoped that someone would step up. I am also a huge animal lover so that plays a part in my attention to this issue but it just seems wrong at a fundamental level—and illegal. Thanks so much for taking this on! —Tonya Formby

Just think if even 10 percent of this money was used for spay and neuter programs? —Tee

Continue reading "Talk Back: Lawsuit Against Helmsley Trustees" »

August 20, 2009

No Looking Back for 500 Puppy Mill Dogs

Last week I posted a video on a puppy mill raid in Texas where we rescued more than 500 dogs and about 15 cats in cooperation with the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office, the Humane Society of Cedar Creek Lake, and other animal welfare organizations. Today I wanted to give you the latest on the case.

Earlier this week, after hearing testimony and seeing evidence presented by Scotlund Haisley, our senior director of Emergency Services, the judge granted custody of all of the animals to The HSUS (our video team documented the hearing and I encourage you to watch their behind-the-scenes report). The dogs and cats have now been placed with several humane societies and rescue groups, headed on their way to new, loving homes, and the work at our temporary shelter has wrapped up.

Operations like this often begin long before the actual rescue of the animals—involving investigations and the gathering and presenting of evidence—and continue after the last cage is emptied. While it's an extremely tedious task and the operations are costly, the end results are not only necessary but also immensely rewarding. In this case, the judge has indicated he plans to pursue a criminal case against the property owners and these once-neglected animals now face new beginnings. Here are some of the images from the safer environs of our emergency shelter:

Dog rescued from Texas puppy mill sleeps at temporary shelter

Dog rescued from Texas puppy mill receives care at temporary shelter

Puppy rescued from Texas puppy mill receives food

Dog rescued from Texas puppy mill relaxes at temporary shelter

Photos credit Kathy Milani/The HSUS

August 19, 2009

AVMA Off Course From Veterinarian's Oath

The HSUS doesn’t shrink from its responsibility to take on industries that cause or defend animal abuse, including trophy hunting groups like the Safari Club or factory farming advocates like the United Egg Producers. But it’s startling when we have to call out groups that should stand in the forefront of animal protection but are part of the problem when it comes to the mistreatment of animals.

That is, sadly, the case with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). People rightly look to their individual veterinarians as experts on animal welfare. They take an oath to alleviate animal suffering and in their professional work or in their volunteer efforts, they nobly fulfill that oath on a daily basis. Yet it’s been our experience that AVMA policies are out of step with a large share of veterinarians and the organization typically takes unfriendly positions on many of the major animal welfare questions of the day.

Chickens in battery cage
© Compassion Over Killing

We’ve known for a long time about the AVMA’s push to legalize the slaughter of horses for human consumption. This week, the AVMA issued a report attacking the prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which had expressed support for a variety of important reforms in the realm of industrial agriculture, including federal legislation to end the widespread, routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on factory farms. This misuse of antibiotics has been proven to increase the risk of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. It is estimated that 70 percent of all antimicrobials used are fed to animals on factory farms.

Funded by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pew Commission’s blue ribbon panel included a diverse set of experts, including a former Secretary of Agriculture, former Dean of the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the former governor of Kansas, two ranchers, a bioethicist, and the Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. They studied issues related to farm animal production for 2.5 years, and based on the science, reached several unanimous recommendations for improvement.

The Pew Commission endorsed legislation to phase out the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes on factory farms. The American Medical Association and dozens of other major public health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization support the legislation because they fear the consequences of agribusiness’s misuse of antibiotics to keep animals in overcrowded, inhumane, and often unsanitary conditions. But the AVMA is staunchly opposed to the bill.

At the AVMA, we’ve seen time and again how the livestock veterinarians, such as the swine and poultry veterinarians, control the thinking of the organization. These vets typically work for agribusiness and they embrace the mindset of the industry, including the view that animals are just production units. And unfortunately, it’s standard for the AVMA to stand in the way of sensible reforms in the realm of industrial agriculture.

We fought for years to ban the abuse of downer cows—those too sick or injured to stand or walk on their own—by the livestock industry, and the AVMA stood on the sidelines as we sought to advocate for humane handling of these animals and better food safety procedures. It took our investigation at the Westland/Hallmark slaughter plant to finally overcome the objections of agribusiness and to see a no-downer policy adopted.

Downer cow
© The HSUS

Just a few years ago, the AVMA supported the egg industry’s routine practice of starving egg-laying hens for days on end to extend the laying cycle of the birds. It wasn’t until a veterinary group aligned with the poultry industry, the American Association of Avian Pathologists, introduced a resolution in 2004 that the AVMA changed its position on the subject. 

Similarly, for years the AVMA supported confining calves in veal crates so narrow they couldn’t even turn around for months at a time. After the American Veal Association passed a resolution in 2007 urging the veal industry to stop using veal crates, only then did the AVMA change its policy. In both cases, the AVMA showed no leadership on animal welfare, but simply followed the lead of industry.

The AVMA also fought a 2002 Florida ballot measure to require that breeding pigs have enough room to turn around and extend their limbs. The measure overwhelmingly passed, and AVMA later changed its position on gestation crates to one of neutrality. Five other states have since passed laws banning gestation crates, yet the AVMA still doesn’t oppose the crates, despite an abundance of scientific evidence supporting our position.

There’s also overwhelming scientific evidence that force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras is detrimental to their welfare—and even the AVMA admits that such force-feeding causes lipidosis (illness in the liver). Yet the AVMA still refuses to oppose such animal cruelty and remains neutral on the topic.

In 2008, Californians overwhelmingly passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which phases out extreme forms of farm animal confinement. The California Veterinary Medical Association—to its credit—endorsed the measure, yet the AVMA refused to support it. This led CVMA’s then-president Dr. Jeff Smith to pen an op-ed about why CVMA voted to support the measure. Dr. Smith wisely wrote, “When one acknowledges that these positions are clearly not defensible from a welfare perspective, the profession needs to say so instead of being deemed irrelevant or taken kicking and screaming to the eventual proper ethical outcome.”

Vets should be in the forefront of animal protection, and they are at the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association and other more progressive veterinary associations. But at the AVMA, it’s too often essentially an echo chamber for industry on the major animal welfare questions of the day. If it’s an issue like animal fighting, where no vets work for the industry, the AVMA takes the right position. But if vets are in the employ of industry, the group then typically trots out the industry viewpoint.

We hope that the younger generation of vets usher in changes in this ossified organization. We’d like some day to stand shoulder to shoulder with the AVMA on matters relating to the defense of animals. But too often, we stand on opposite sides of the major policy debates for animal welfare in America.

August 18, 2009

Coming Full Circle

The HSUS is all about getting results for animals, and a story in today’s New York Times demonstrates how the value of our work unfolds over time, and often with great force. Last year, The HSUS and other humane organizations—with a major boost from Gov. Ed Rendell—worked to enact legislation in Pennsylvania to crack down on puppy mills. Jon Hurdle of The Times reports that this legislation is already driving illegal puppy mills out of business. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture enlisted The HSUS on a raid of a notorious mill in Lehigh County, Pa., in June—ironically named Almost Heaven Kennels—and we rescued and then placed 200 dogs who had been living in squalid, overcrowded conditions in an unlicensed facility.

Stopping cruelty and delivering animals into safer environments is what we’re all about at The HSUS. That goes for puppy mills, as well as our work on dogfighting and other forms of staged fighting.

The HSUS is the only organization with a unit devoted exclusively to eradicating animal fighting—and our investments on this front are paying incredible dividends for animals. We have upgraded just about every law in the nation, and dogfighting is now a felony in all 50 states. There’s typically not a week that passes without our participating at some level in raiding illegal animal fighting operations and bringing these perpetrators to justice.

HSUS End Dogfighting training class participants
© The HSUS/Riley
End Dogfighting training class participants.

Michael Vick has become the personification of dogfighting and its cruelty. Oddly enough, after serving his sentence for illegal dogfighting activities, that’s one reason why we think that he can be a valuable messenger about what not to do with animals.

There’s anger about what Vick did. And that anger is understandable, given the severity of his crime. But if you step back and take stock of the entire drama, this is a textbook case of how you want such a case to play out. A person who committed an awful crime against animals is found out. Prosecutors take the case seriously, and the perpetrator eventually pleads guilty. The judge, given the sentencing guidelines, metes out a stern penalty, sentencing the defendant to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, as the case proceeds, there is an upswell of social disapproval about the illegal conduct. The HSUS then broadens the discussion to show how widespread the practice of dogfighting is. In response, there are new laws adopted throughout the country to combat the problem and law enforcement has a new commitment to enforcing these laws. And then after the perpetrator is released, he comes knocking on the door of the largest animal protection group and says he is a changed person and wants to do community service to help attack the larger social problem of animal cruelty.

In just the last two days, the fresh attention to our community-based End Dogfighting programs has prompted inquiries from citizens in more than 100 communities who want our help in reaching out to their at-risk youth—including a compelling commentary from Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County in Pennsylvania. This excitement and interest in new programs gives us 100 new pathways to attack the scourge of dogfighting.

It’s my hope that the Vick case also prompts soul-searching about the responsibilities each one of us has to animals. Both actor Alec Baldwin and philosopher Peter Singer are broadening the discussion, rightly noting that the well-justified righteous anger about Vick’s conduct should also apply to a wide range of other abuses, including factory farming, the fur trade, and other forms of exploitation of animals. We at The HSUS work on all of these problems, and we ask all responsible people to live by the principles of mercy and compassion toward all creatures.

We’ll also continue to zero in on the larger social problem of dogfighting. With more than 100,000 active dogfighters, and with the practice metastasizing in urban centers, our focus must be on halting people from abusing dogs, but also preventing them from recruiting others into their sordid hobby and business. Vick’s behavior was terribly cruel, but it was not isolated—with dogfighting not uncommon in some communities and tens of thousands of young men and boys getting sucked into the quicksand, we have to be creative to turn the situation around.

Vick is an unlikely ambassador for an anti-dogfighting campaign. And I can understand the skepticism about him and his “conversion” to an animal protection advocate. But turning away Vick’s offer to help won’t result in the saving of a single animal. By engaging with him, and putting him to work in a community service program (like many ex-convicts participate in), we may sway countless kids who would be involved in dogfighting, and that means dogs will be protected.  And, as I’ve said before, it’s always good to turn an adversary into an ally and advocate.

Sometimes, the change we seek comes down strange and never-traveled pathways. And sometimes, it comes through the unlikeliest of people. The crisis that animals face compels us to be open to all of these unlikely possibilities.