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Under the microscope

Good animal welfare is no longer assumed. Back in the day, we (veterinarians, farmers and ranchers) were taken at our word that we had the best interests of our livestock at heart as we raised them to produce meat, milk, eggs and wool.

Today, animal welfare, our stewardship and our way of life are being called into question every day by some activist group or an agenda-driven “journalist.” Consumers no longer accept the simple explanation that good stewardship is necessary for optimal production; they want to know more and they want to see that we care.

Is all this focus on animal stewardship a bad thing? Definitely not. We should take every opportunity to improve our stewardship. However, the organizations calling attention to us aren't interested in improving animal welfare per se; they're interested in ending animal agriculture by whatever means possible.

I recently attended an animal welfare symposium at Michigan State University, the focus of which was animal welfare in veterinary medical education and research. It included speakers from the U.S., Canada, European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Chile.

One of the opening-session comments that jumped out at me was that “veterinarians must reclaim their position as the experts in animal welfare.” Following this, a major thrust of the symposium was to point out that veterinary colleges in the U.S. offer very little formal training in animal welfare.

If we veterinarians were once considered the experts in animal welfare, it wasn't because we had specific animal welfare training. By virtue of the fact that we were trained in animal health, knowledge of animal welfare was assumed.

Since animal welfare and stewardship have attracted so much attention, especially in recent years, veterinary students are seeking specified training in animal welfare. Animal science programs have also begun to offer courses in animal welfare.

It's clear that animal welfare concerns will continue for many years to come, especially when groups whose goal is a vegetarian society use animal welfare as a guise to further their agenda. It's imperative that we offer opportunities in animal welfare education and research.

Several of the countries represented at this symposium have passed legislation in regard to animal welfare. Some even suggest that laws are the only option.

Nestor Tadich, a DVM from Chile, shared results of a survey that showed Chilean consumers weren't aware of any animal welfare issues and would not pay more for food raised in a “more humane” way. Since a high proportion of Chilean consumers are below poverty level, this survey supports the suggestion that affluence is a major driver to the animal rights industry.

In the U.S., there was very little to no animal welfare/animal rights activity from 1920 to 1950. As humans have achieved affluence, they have moved further away from agriculture, while animals have gained in status.

Abuse of animals isn't acceptable. As food producers we should clearly examine our practices and constantly work to improve the welfare of our livestock. Much of the interest in animal welfare has come as a result of the activity of the animal rights industry, but we seem to keep providing ammunition for them.

The science of animal welfare is developing and we all should take the time to improve our knowledge. Historically, veterinarians have been looked to as authorities on animal welfare, but the fact is that having the letters “DVM” behind your name isn't necessary to understand how to properly care for our livestock.

Consumers don't seem as willing today as they were previously to take the livestock production sector at its word, so the burden is on us to demonstrate good stewardship.

Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot consulting veterinarian at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. Contact him at 620/675-8180.