Thursday, February 11, 2010

Animal welfare initiative could divide Ohio veterinarians

February 11, 2010
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service

A war that waged between two factions of California’s veterinary profession in 2008 could repeat itself in the Buckeye State as the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) works to determine its stance on a proposed constitutional amendment designed to cement minimum housing requirements for pigs, veal calves and hens.

Veterinary insiders are calling the initiative Ballot X — a currently nameless proposition pushed by an activist consortium led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The immediate goal: to collect the 600,000-plus signatures needed to guarantee a spot for the “anti-cruelty measure” on the Nov. 2 ballot.

“If they don’t collect the signatures, this will all be a moot point,” says Jack Advent, OVMA executive director.

Yet Advent and others doubt that will be the case. If history is any guide, attracting supporters will be no problem for HSUS, a political powerhouse with an undefeated record in terms of pushing ballot measures across the country in the name of animal welfare.

Much like its cousin initiatives that have passed via citizen referendum in Florida, Arizona and California, Ballot X seeks to mandate that egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves live in quarters that allow them to extend their limbs and turn around, effectively banning traditional sow gestation stalls, veal crates and battery cages. It also requires that cows and pigs are slaughtered in manners deemed humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

If enacted, the law would give the state’s newly minted Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board — an entity proposed last year by the Ohio Farm Bureau and other agribusiness groups — six years to set the new humane requirements in a state that ranks second in egg production and ninth in swine production. The proposed mandate also requires the board to adopt minimum standards for euthanasia and downer animals. Violators would face misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum $1,000 fine and/or a yearlong jail sentence.

At face value, the push for greater welfare requirements is hard to object to. But it's not so simple for the OVMA, whose leadership remains uncertain about where the association ultimately will stand on Ballot X. Among veterinarians, animal welfare is a polarizing and politicized topic. Even as practitioners spend their lives promoting the well-being of animals, it is non-DVM activists who appear to be guiding American attitudes on welfare. Some veterinarians are sympathetic to public sentiments; others find the position overly simplistic.

Considering the controversial nature of Ballot X, the OVMA is determined to take it slow. Within the next few months, officials plan to poll the group’s membership, hold a welfare forum in Columbus and start traveling the state to take the pulse of veterinarians.

“We need time to discuss this and have an open exchange with our members,” says Jack Advent, OVMA executive director. “Obviously no one wants to go to the ballot; it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone. We’re going to look at animal housing, and there’s no rushing to judgment on this. These issues are too complex.”

What feeds the uncertainty? The answer boils down to politics, emotion and the push and pull between agriculture science and society’s ethics. For starters, there’s no consensus about whether veal crates, sow gestation stalls or battery cages are harmful or inhumane, even from the AVMA, which states that all housing systems carry pluses and minuses. As far as the nation’s largest veterinary membership body is concerned, science doesn’t point in any one direction when determining, for example, whether free-range housing is superior to battery cages. Case in point: While the public might suspect that tight quarters might be harmful to animals, free-range housing — a system favored by many activists — leaves livestock greatly exposed to communicable diseases, parasites and animal-on-animal aggression, the AVMA contends.
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