Letters to the Editor

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Animal rights issues continue to generate discussion

In reading the most recent correspondence1,2 in the animal rights debate, I was struck by how much this argument truly does center around terminology. Everyone seems to agree that humans have certain responsibilities regarding the animals in their care. In normal parlance, the fact that humans have such obligations means that animals have rights to such care. However, rights is a word that is part of the jargon of at least three elements of society.

The first element is the part of society that wishes to distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights. While most people seem to consider the two terms synonymous, those who follow the animal rights debate use the term animal rights to distinguish the positions of those who believe that animals have rights beyond the typical animal welfare concerns, such as food, water, and shelter. The term animal rights has thus developed negative connotations because it is associated with groups that use violence to advance radical agendas, as well as the more moderate groups that suffer by association.

The second element is the legal profession, which uses rights to refer to legal rights that allow enforcement by legal action. Animals, however, cannot pursue legal action on their own, raising the question of who should sue on their behalf. This problem is not irresolvable since animals currently have legal rights under such laws as animal cruelty statutes, which are enforced by governmental agencies. These rights are minimal, however, and do not satisfy those in the animal rights movement.

The third element includes the ethicists, who use rights to refer to a particular ethics theory. As Dr. Baggot pointed out,2 such moral rights are inherent and all-or-none, and traditionally, they are extended only to humans because only humans can understand rights and obligations. The animal rights movement posits that such rights should also apply to animals, and again, the general public seems to agree that captive animals do have some moral rights.

Since everyone agrees that humans have obligations to their animals, perhaps it would be best to follow normal parlance and agree that animals have rights to those things that humans are obligated to provide. We can then avoid arguing over terminology and concentrate on defining the true differences in the various positions, that is, exactly what rights animals should have and under what conditions. We all agree they generally have a right to food, water, shelter, and (hopefully) veterinary care. Most people seem to agree that they do not always have a right to life or liberty. What about the pursuit of happiness? Do they have a right to be treated exactly as human beings are treated? Let's get down to the basics. Let's agree that animals do have some rights and get specific about which rights these should be.

V. Wensley Koch, DVM

Loveland, Colo

  • 1

    Bennett BT. Commentary on animal rights stirs more debate (lett). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:1080.

  • 2

    Baggot SM. Commentary on animal rights stirs more debate (resp). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:10801081.

As president of an organization of 14,000 members, a quarter of whom are veterinarians dedicated to promoting rights for nonhuman animals, I am pleased to see that there is some thoughtful debate in the JAVMA1,2 that reflects the notion that animals have interests beyond their utility to humans and that those interests should be given consideration.

Most individuals who support the proposition that nonhuman beings deserve rights would more simply state that all animals, human and nonhuman, inherently deserve equal consideration. If we as veterinarians respected nonhuman beings to this degree, we would not be involved in abusive practices such as amputating the tails and ear pinnae of puppies for human vanity's sake or the phalanges of cats to save a couch. Nor would we condone the intensive confinement of farmed animals to the degree that they cannot turn around or support force-feeding ducks and geese to make foie gras from their diseased livers.

Veterinarians are in a unique position to be leaders in the nonhuman animal advocacy movement. As a profession dedicated to animal well-being, we should stop catering to human interests at the expense of our patients' interests.

Paula Kislak, DVM

President, Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Santa Barbara, Calif

  • 1

    Bennett BT. Commentary on animal rights stirs more debate (lett). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:1080.

  • 2

    Baggot SM. Commentary on animal rights stirs more debate (resp). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:10801081.

If the owner of a dog, cat, bird, or horse were to close the animal up in a cage or crate only inches wider or longer than its body, which prevented it from turning around or moving only inches in any direction and which forced it to lie on a steel grate as a bed and urinate and defecate where it stood or lay, and kept it there for weeks, months, or years, that owner would surely be arrested and prosecuted for animal cruelty under the laws of most states. The prosecutor would not need to present blood assays to prove cruelty. And yet AVMA entities spend months debating and presenting reasons why this is not obviously cruel treatment.

If the owner of a puppy, kitten, or colt were to tether it in a crate slightly longer and wider than its body, unable to turn around or stretch its limbs, and feed it a deficient diet that kept it anemic and its muscles soft and weak, surely that owner would be charged with cruelty to animals. And still our entities debate.

If the owner of a dog, cat, or bird were to shove a steel tube down his or her animal's esophagus and stuff food down into its stomach until it fully distended and continued this for months, surely that person would be arrested and charged.

By continuing to deny that these and other practices are cruel and inhumane by all standards, our association is making a travesty of our oath that states in part that we will use our knowledge and skills for the relief of animal suffering. This oath does not exempt any species.

M. Gregory Carbone, DVM

Arlington, Va

Thoughts on shortage of food animal veterinarians

I have followed with interest the recent discussions regarding the current shortage of veterinary students choosing a career in food animal medicine and have been struck by the fact that the changes that have occurred in food production have not been a focus.

There is a vast difference between practicing as a veterinarian who visits a family farm and cares for an individual animal that may even have a name and practicing as a veterinarian who helps oversee the maintenance of thousands of food-producing units and whose client is a large corporation. For example, according to the USDA, the broiler industry “has evolved from millions of small backyard flocks…to less than 50 highly specialized, vertically integrated agribusiness firms.”1 This type of monolithic consolidation has occurred across the board, from feedlots to egg production.

It was fascinating recently to see the juxtaposition of discussions regarding the reasons why veterinary students are not attracted to food animal medicine with discussions of the feasibility of mass slaughter of chickens using firefighting foam. It's hard to imagine James Herriot, still the hero of many a potential veterinary student, working for a vertically integrated agribusiness firm or contemplating the use of firefighting foam for mass slaughter. Notwithstanding the reasons for these eventualities, they are not attractive concepts to your typical budding veterinarian.

The type of person who considers a career in veterinary medicine, likely one who has always enjoyed interacting with animals in some manner, is unlikely to be drawn to a branch of veterinary medicine that seems ever more industrial and progressively more defensive regarding its role in ensuring animal well-being. We need to face the fact that there is a growing disparity between the type of students who apply to veterinary school and the way food is produced in this country. A veterinary student concerned with animal welfare might imagine having a difficult time working within a system where proposed welfarebased changes in animal husbandry are quickly attacked on the grounds that they may decrease profits and where the veterinarian's responsibility to the animals seems archaic.

Let's face it—no matter where their personal beliefs lie on the welfare/rights spectrum, all veterinary students are concerned with animal well-being. To attract more prospective food animal veterinarians, we must ensure that a student's concern for animal welfare is not at odds with this career and we must find ways to reconcile this concern with the role of veterinarians within the industry. We are reluctant to take a stand on the current issues at hand in this arena, including those involving particularly unpalatable concepts such as food deprivation for forced molting or the foie gras controversy. What (or who) are we afraid of? Perhaps if the veterinarian's role as an advocate for the animals was more visible to students, such that they perceived that a career in food animal medicine was an opportunity to serve animals rather than further corporate profits, we might stand a chance.

Louise Murray, DVM, DACVIM

New York, NY


USDA. US broiler industry structure. National Agricultural Statistics Service. November 27, 2002. Available at: www.nass.usda.gov. Accessed Oct 10, 2006.

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