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They Call Him Dr. Cruel

Leaving a government job for the private sector used to mean an end to pressure, accountability and visibility. But not for former Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) administrator, Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, the Department of Agriculture’s top veterinarian.

As head of the $1.9 billion, 8,300-employee agency responsible for administering the Animal Welfare Act, Dr. DeHaven’s three year tenure was rocked with charges of cruelty to downer cattle, inhumane transport of livestock and refusal to extend humane slaughter to birds and rabbits. Its “wildlife damage management activities”–poisoning of millions of blackbirds, starlings, foxes and coyotes–were said to be nothing more than free government service to private ranchers and farmers.

And as the new executive vice president of the 75,000 member American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Dr. DeHaven joins an organization that already supports animal research, confinement farming and pregnant mare urine collection and just refused to oppose foie gras for the fourth year in a row. He should fit in just fine.

Of course it isn’t easy for the world’s largest veterinary organization to take a stand against animal abuse because of the “what’s next” problem and where to draw the line.

A resolution against foie gras might appear like a no brainer but it would just lead to resolutions against veal calves and other “production agriculture” warned the AVMA New York delegate Dr. Walter K. McCarthy during 2005 deliberations. And end up cost the ag industry real money.

“We cannot condemn an accepted agricultural practice on…emotion,” said Dr. McCarthy adding that foie gras birds’ “mortality is much less than at most agricultural facilities.” Whew!

Vermont delegate Dr. Robert P. Gordon seconded the sentiment. “It is more distressing to take a rectal temperature in a cat,” than produce foie gras he said cautioning the House of Delegates against “anthropomorphism.”

And aside from the slippery slope–will vets be accused next of eating their patients?–there’s the difficulty of measuring stress and well-being.

Sure force feeding looks cruel. Blood flow and hepatocyte function in the liver are impaired enough to “cause death” and birds “fast for a period of 3 days or longer” if force feeding is stopped “indicating that ducks have been fed beyond the point of satiety” according to the AVMA’s own fact sheets. But maybe we are anthropomorphizing.

“The people who have actually seen these facilities are the ones you should listen to,” says Dr. McCarthy.

The same goes for sow crates.

Sure the sow can’t turn around or lie down without her udder protruding from the stall, her head touching the feeder or her hindquarters touching the back of the stall; sure the liquid manure system precludes straw though it would have dietary, thermoregulatory and recreational value” to the sow–the caretakers are the “experts” not us Dr. John Deen, an associate professor of swine production systems at the University of Minnesota told an AVMA Animal Welfare Forum. We’re just doctors!

Of course “experts” also let 20,000 Smithfield pigs drown in their pens during Hurricane Floyd,160,000 laying hens burn to death at Green Valley Poultry Farm in Abingdon, VA and put 15,000 spent hens live into a wood chipper at Ward Egg Ranch in San Diego County, CA but let’s not go there.

Finally there’s the PR of it. The AVMA doesn’t want to look pushed around and wishy washy.

“It’s time to take a proactive, definitive stand,” said Dr. Ned S. Schankman, a delegate from Connecticut, at AVMA hearings in July, and stop reacting to the demands of animal advocates. Dr. Schankman actually introduced a pro foie gras resolution–calling it “an acceptable agriculture practice” which the AVMA approves–that did not pass.

The AVMA has plenty of its own guidelines members say without capitulating to others, like its veal welfare position that addresses ventilation, temperature and humidity control while ignoring the fact that animals cannot turn around in their crates.

Still, some AVMA members are willing to break ranks and speak out.

“I have a problem, as a veterinarian, endorsing any practice that creates disease in an animal,” said Vermont delegate Dr. Thomas L. Munschauer about the proposed foie gras resolution in July.

Producing animal disease might be acceptable for research but to create it for a food delicacy “is not a good use of these animals,” Dr. Munschauer said.

Something to do with the vet’s oath about “relief of animal suffering”?

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org

 

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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