The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) is by far the largest professional organization for veterinarians in the US. It represents most veterinarians in this country, whether we practice on pets or swine or spend our days in a laboratory or board room. 

Veterinarian members don’t always agree with the AVMA’s position on any given issue, but we recognize that it’s the best way we’ve got to organize ourselves into a coalition to fight for issues we care about. 

On Dolittler, we’ve railed against the AVMA for its milquetoast stance on animal welfare, especially when it comes to agriculture reform. Truth is, however, the AVMA’s been making bigger strides in recent years than we’ve often given it credit for. Sure, we’ve got a long way to go...but the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division is finally stepping up its activities now that more vets are taking a stand on welfare reform within the AVMA’s ranks. 

Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD (pictured below) is a Dolittler reader (you might recognize her “Emily” screen-name) and an AVMA insider. Her work in the Animal Welfare Division is one of the sign of the times at the AVMA. So you might appreciate some of the happenings there and its relevance to our animals, here’s an interview with her...just for you. As always, feel free to pry by asking questions after your read.

You work for the Animal Welfare Division of the AVMA. What's your exact job title and how long have you been there?

I am the “Animal Welfare Scientist” in AVMA’s three person Animal Welfare Division directed by Dr Gail Golab.  I joined about a year and a half ago after having spent most of the last ten years as a researcher.  The division also has two open positions which will allow us to work more in depth and more proactively on issues that effect large numbers of animals.

How does someone come to work for the AVMA in this capacity? I mean, what kind of training can possibly prepare someone to take on the sheep and the wolves?

I don’t know that I can say I was fully prepared.  But after working in universities and research institutions in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States I developed a feeling that the biggest obstacles to actually improving the lives of animals were not at the research level.  

Sure, there are things we need to know, and empirical data is a great way to help everyone understand some aspects of a situation, but animal welfare problems seem to typically be about people, cultures, professions, institutions, industries, policies and laws—not simply a lack of reliable information.

So I think what prepared me for the job to some extent was two things.  One is my training in psychology (human and other animals) and my experiences in different countries and cultures.  And the other is just my general personality as an idealist with strong ethical beliefs, but a pragmatist when it comes to working towards them.  

How do you see the AVMA evolving since you came aboard? How do you see your department as changing within the framework of the AVMA, if at all?

When I saw the job advertised AVMA was not a ‘top of mind’ option for me.  But I had become increasingly aware of the veterinary profession as a sleeping giant in the animal welfare arena.  And events such as the formation of the animal welfare division under Gail Golab, and Dr Ron DeHaven coming on board as Chief Executive Officer made me think that the tide might be turning within the AVMA.  

Now, I am still aware that the AVMA is a large organization with a diverse membership to represent.  One of the reason AVMA policies are often influential is that they are a mainstream and relatively careful institution—so when they move on an issue like veal or ear cropping it does signal that times have changed and a new norm is being established for the entire veterinary profession.  These are not things that happen overnight but increasing they are happening.

So ultimately I chose between a tenure track position teaching animal welfare science within a veterinary school, or the position at the AVMA.  The AVMA position seemed to me to be a way to influence a greater number of animals, albeit requiring me to work in a very different way from my usual “loose canon” approach to research and teaching.  

So far I feel the commitment to advocating for the animals’ welfare is sincere and gathering momentum within the AVMA as a whole.  I am very impressed with the committees I work with where veterinarians donate their time to come in and develop the association’s policies and actions in the areas of animal welfare and the human-animal bond.  

I will also admit that I have learned an astounding amount about the stakeholder and players and the way animal welfare issues play out in the United States.  To make large scale changes you have to know how to work within these systems.

Do you believe that veterinarians are changing their attitudes with respect to animal welfare issues? If so, /how/ so? Do veterinary perspectives directly inform your work or provide a call to action--on either side of the welfare coin?

My experience of the veterinary profession is that it largely reflects the range of opinions in the general public, albeit with a much higher level of understanding of many aspects of animal well-being.  Unlike many charitable organizations the AVMA cannot have a detailed agenda and if you agree, you sign on.  The AVMA needs to represent the members and provide the best information we can to them as they form their opinions.  

Of course all of the members are committed, via the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics, to relieve suffering in animals and sometimes that issues needs to be moved forward on the basis of good science and basic ethical principles. 

 Attitudes towards animals have evolved in the veterinary profession just as they have across the full breadth of society.  Any position the AVMA takes that has real substance will not be to everyone’s liking—but I hope that there is a growing acceptance that even with the best of intentions and most thorough of research we will go too far for some people, not far enough for others and in completely the wrong direction entirely according to at least a few.  (As my boss sometimes says: dogs don’t bark at parked cars--but we listen to every bark.)

How do you handle the contingent of veterinarians, those in animal agriculture come to mind, who believe that veterinary medicine is becoming too soft and suburban and that welfare issues are being dominated by veterinarians who never milked a cow, much less collected a bull?

I guess my role as a pragmatist is to acknowledge that change always brings with it the good and the bad.  The good includes a profession that is increasingly articulate about ethical issues, focused on the value of the human-animal bond, striving more than ever to achieve a work/life balance, decrease the chronic health issues and burn out, and giving the veterinarians a good quality of life so that they can provide the best possible care to animals and owners.  

And one down side is that there is an acute shortage of large animal and rural practice veterinarians.  And if we are going to assume, as a profession and an association, that we have the mandate to be involved in how livestock animals are kept and used—surely we should also be very concerned with providing veterinarians responsible for the day-to-day care of these animals?  After all, the practicing veterinarian who has a relationship with the animals and their caretakers is our best asset in improving the care of the animals on the ground.  

How do you and others in your department feel about PETA and HSUS? I imagine they're not too friendly to the AVMA, which they believe is overly dominated by industry veterinarians. Is there much tension between you? Or is there no contact?

We are certainly in very regular contact with PETA and HSUS, as well as ASPCA, WSPA, AHA and a lot of different animal rights, welfare and humane groups.  Sometimes we are on the same side of an issue and can work together, sometimes we are on opposite sides of an issue or at cross-purposes.  But I am genuinely impressed with my observation that the AVMA staff and representatives are not in the business of being friends or enemies with anyone.  

Sure, there can be transitory frustrations and communication issues, but at the end of the day all of these groups want to do the right thing when it comes to our treatment of animals.  Even when we disagree as to what this is or how to achieve it pays to keep in mind that all of the players have a sincere desire to do the right thing.  

This includes, of course, those in industry and other areas.  If you credit people with good intentions it makes it a hell of a lot easier to get along with them and seek out as much common ground and room for collaboration as possible.  And when you get groups across the whole spectrum agreeing on the something it becomes a lot easier to get action that will benefit the animals.  

It isn’t always possible but it is always our first hope to have a collaborative approach, and when it succeeds the issue often never even becomes public knowledge.  That is why most observers will be aware of areas of disagreement, but not so aware of the areas of successful collaboration.

How do you handle the contention that the AVMA is way weak on welfare due to the dilution of our animal stewardship role by direct industry pressures?

I guess I understand that I have my position on animal welfare issues, and the AVMA has theirs.  I came on board to be part of a shift within the AVMA that reflects and promotes a shift in the veterinary profession--to be a proactive part of advocating for better animal care in all areas.  This shift is beginning to occur and I feel good about being a part of it in the early stages (although others have been involves for decades before me).  

However I would note that the AVMA does represent veterinarians working in agriculture and their perspectives to some extent—as it should.  When I was researching swine I spent time with pig farmers and came to appreciate their very deep and sincerely held beliefs about being a “good shepherd”.  

I may not always agree with their conclusions, but I think if there was greater respect for the expertise and moral basis of alternative points of view we might break free from the “agribusiness” versus “humaniac” stuff and make better progress toward outcomes for animals.