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When veterinarians can’t advocate for animals, everyone suffers
A Tyson Poultry truck backs up to its load dock at a processing plant February 25, 2004 in Carthage, Texas. East Texas Poultry Producers and Farmers are concerned that the newest Avian Flu strain, most recently found in a flock in Houston, might spread to other flocks within East Texas. The Poultry industry in Texas is a mult-million dollar business for the state and fears of further flock infections could cripple the industry. (Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images)
By Crystal Heath
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was recently detected in yet another Pennsylvania flock, creating many concerns that the spring migration could lead to a surge in new bird flu cases.
With avian influenza outbreaks in mink, seals, bears, and other mammals, experts now fear the next human pandemic is one step closer. Desperate to prepare, some vaccine makers are planning to produce an avian influenza vaccine for humans.
While transmission to humans is still extremely rare, we must not forget the real suffering experienced by the more than 58 million birds affected. Birds in large commercial facilities don’t simply pass away from the disease.
Once flu is detected at a facility, the birds are killed en masse to prevent the disease from proliferating—and the killing methods used are far from humane euthanasia. One method gaining prominence, known as ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+), involves sealing up barns while heat and steam are pumped in.
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As the temperatures rise, the animals inside die slowly from heat stroke. Imagine ending the life of a dog by locking her in a hot car. Worse still, the American Veterinary Medical Association condones this practice in “constrained circumstances” which has led to much criticism by the veterinary community, both in the United States and internationally.
Does it really matter what killing methods the AVMA approves? Absolutely. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which sets policy and indemnity payments related to infectious disease outbreaks refers to the AVMA Guidelines on Depopulation. And though over 1,500 veterinarians joined the Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown campaign, the AVMA has seemingly erected an immovable wall of merciless bureaucratic intransigence.
Letters, op-eds, and petitions have been drafted and collected by those seeking reform, but to no avail. Amid this year’s avian influenza outbreak, veterinarians once again asked the AVMA to reclassify mass killing via heat stroke as “not recommended,” but, this time, a vote wasn’t allowed. The AVMA even amended its House of Delegates manual to prevent such petitions from advancing in the future.
Strangely, the AVMA has now begun targeting its own members if they speak out against this cruel killing practice.
Recently, I, along with several of my colleagues, were denied admission to the AVMA Humane Endings Symposium where new life-ending research was to be discussed. Our reason for being disinvited? We are among the many veterinarians critical of the mass killing of animals via heatstroke.
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The symposium’s sponsor was Cargill, the largest agribusiness company in the world. As long as the AVMA refuses to reclassify death by heatstroke to “not recommended,” corporate animal agriculture can continue to quell public distress by claiming animals are exterminated via “veterinary approved” methods. Their business model that allows viruses with pandemic potential to flourish can then continue unabated, with the help of public funds and the USDA.
The AVMA said their reason for denying us admission was “so that attendees, including those who raise livestock (known as producers), could share their experiences using depopulation methods without fear of reprisal.” This statement ignores the very real reprisal and silencing faced by veterinarians who are not wealthy producers and who are merely advocating for much-needed change.
It’s important to note the facilities where the most brutal depopulation methods are used contain huge numbers of animals.
These powerful and profitable businesses simply cannot practice good stewardship over tens of thousands of lives packed into warehouse-sized buildings. Thus VSD+ is a method dispatched upon the animals owned by the wealthy and the powerful—those most determined to maintain the status quo.
It’s not a level playing field and the AVMA is portraying advocates for change as radicals and disruptors when, in reality, the AVMA is condoning a practice that the general public finds horrifying.
“When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power… you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead… If you think back on any major scandal fueled by cover-ups, you’ll see this same pattern,” author and researcher Brené Brown wrote. “And the restitution and resolution of cover-ups almost always happens in the wilderness—when one person steps outside their bunker and speaks their truth.”
Veterinarians pledge to use their expertise to alleviate animal suffering. But instead, our profession has abandoned our oath. Condoning macabre animal killing methods such as ventilation shutdown only encourages the industry to become evermore maniacal while setting the stage for the next global pandemic.
Advocating for reforms doesn’t come without risk. As a result of my advocacy, I’ve suffered from professional exclusion, ostracization, personal attacks, memes, backchannel shunning, and negative publicity. I’ve pondered if it’s even worth it. How can anyone possibly take on the most powerful and abusive industry on the planet? But each day, I am inspired by the growing movement of people who share my convictions. Change is possible, and our strength lies in our resilience, courage, and commitment to defending the interests of animals and public health. By protecting animals from suffering, we protect our own species too.
Dr. Cry Heath, DVM is a veterinarian from Berkeley, CA and the executive director of Our Honor, a 501c3 non-profit organization that supports students and animal professionals in advancing ethical policies. She’s also on the founding committee of Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown, an 11-year member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and a graduate of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
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