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Animal Welfare Speaker Lays An Egg

A call to abandon the concept of the human-animal bond has the author shocked.

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In August we learned that well over 1,000 people had been sickened by salmonella because of tainted eggs.

The subsequent media coverage jangled our profession’s nerves as the poultry industry reeled from accusations of lax oversight and poor sanitation, offering critics easy jugular access on hot-button issues like crowded housing, battery caging and industry ethics.

The timing of the crisis, which prompted the largest egg recall in U.S. history, was propitious. I’d just attended an animal welfare symposium at the American Association of Avian Pathologist (AAAP) Conference, and let it suffice to say I was not impressed.

“Animal Welfare: Reality, Perception and Thinking Outside the Box” was the symposium’s title. On the basis of this verbiage alone I was prepared to attend a morning-long series of lectures, disagreeable and contentious though many of the concepts and comments might be to a fledgling small-flock consultant like me.

Yet it seemed obvious that an organization willing to undertake creative, “outside the box” thinking was interested in progressive approaches to the many welfare problems. Sign me up!

Abandon the Bond?

In anticipation, I dissected all the AVMA and AAAP position statements on poultry welfare. I devoured the referenced literature. I even kept a binder into which their printed copies had been lovingly organized by topic. (Though the media would have us all think otherwise, the almighty cage is not the only issue in poultry welfare.)

My hopes were instantly dashed by the keynote address. Here, the speaker gleefully described a vast cultural crisis between those who hold rural animal use-based values and those who would have us treat all agricultural species like cats and cockatoos (his examples).

He hammered home his points on the hypocrisies and double standards inherent to the PETAs, HSUSs and pet owners of this world, culminating on a shrill high note in which he urged us to tell the American Veterinary Medical Association to “abandon the concept of the human-animal bond.”

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I kid you not. That was his last PowerPoint slide. No human-animal bond. Because as he’d explained, to champion the bond is to play into radical hands by elevating the cultural conception of animal life disproportionate to its merits. All these “an-silly-ary services” (his word) that companion animal clients clamor for? They sound the death knell for food animal practice.

So there I am, sitting gob smacked in the aftermath of this fiery sermon, stupidly perched near the front of the room. Next, I hear myself seeking clarification on the AVMA statement and cautiously advancing the concept of a middle ground in the welfare debate. At which point I’m informed I have an “interesting opinion” but that I am “wrong!”

Note: The man suddenly bellowing at me in public is the keynote speaker at an “academic” symposium. And he’s just received an impressive round of applause from a large AAAP audience that seems to have forgotten its organization is constitutionally allied with the AVMA.

A mediocre communications Ph.D., a religious pastorship and an assistant professor status at a C-grade commuter institution apparently serve as perfectly acceptable credentials for a four-figure keynote speaking fee as far as the AAAP is concerned. I say the man would do better to make his money in talk radio.

No Wiggle Room

The “us vs. them” thing sells well. But in no way does it address “thinking outside the box” on animal welfare. Quite the opposite, really.

This lapse might have been excused as keynote folly; we’ve all heard an off note sounded in advance of an event. Plus, it wasn’t so insurmountable that it couldn’t easily have been offset by the scientific speakers who followed. That is, if most of them hadn’t coat-tailed it through a decidedly defensive take on animal welfare.

There I was, prepared to internalize the intricacies of foam-based depopulation methods and the fecal-related pros and cons of roosting opportunities. Instead, I got treated to:
• A lengthy cautionary tale describing a welfare prosecution against a poultry facility (and mostly, how to avoid one).
• A lecture on how to be proactive with social media tools to convey your organization’s good intentions and welfare compliance status.
• An explanation of why the “human-animal interface” is a much better term than the “human-animal bond.” (If industry’s choice of terminology could ever be used to prove it treats animals like widgets, this one might convince me.)
• An impressive assertion that routine poultry behaviors requiring only a few scant minutes a day (dust bathing, for example) should perhaps qualify as non-essential.
However, the majority of the morning was devoted to war-room tactics:
• Identification of undercover employees.
• Why HSUS attorneys can never be underestimated.
• Why you should hire an independent animal welfare auditor but definitely, absolutely should not be required to.
A lively discussion on the legal merits and pitfalls of in-house video monitoring at one point ensued. Wristwatches, I learned, should not be allowed in poultry facilities because duplicitous employees (read: radical animal welfare agents) may be obscuring video devices.

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Were it not for the respite offered by Cargill’s Dr. Mike Siemens, whose balanced perspectives from the beef industry’s more earnest approach to animal welfare served as a mid-session oasis, I might have thought I’d passed through the looking glass into another profession altogether.

Scholarly Absence

Then there was the AAAP-sponsored research to review in the adjacent room.

Of the 102 papers presented, exactly one addressed poultry welfare. Tellingly, this paper—incomprehensibly nestled amid scholarly work on enteric reoviruses and parasitic ventriculitis—was titled, “How to Please the Welfare Auditor (And Make Them Go Away).”

Titular grammatics aside, is this how our profession sees fit to address animal welfare in a scholarly capacity? If so, can we honestly blame those who find fault with our profession’s ability to protect the animals we’ve pledged to serve?

By the end of the symposium, I felt drained and demoralized. Where was the drive to alleviate animal suffering? To be sure—and to be fair—it was there. I have enough faith in the humanity of my colleagues to hold fast to that basic truth. Too bad it was too wrapped up in the crisis over the various warring definitions of animal suffering to manifest as a sincere attempt to reach better solutions to the pressing question of animal use in our society.

I had asked, Is there no middle ground? Does it have to be the abominable radicalism of  PETA versus the AAAP’s beleaguered entrenchment?

For me, one thing is plain: If there is a war afoot, the belief in irreconcilable differences is enemy No. 1. And the obscenely offensive charade propagated by professional organizations compelled to pay lip service to “thinking outside the box”? It’s a nasty symptom of the sickness this kind of toxic defensiveness engenders.

After all, if obfuscation, Facebook pages and barely-toe-the-line compliance is what passes for welfare science in our professional organizations, we deserve the kind of lashing dealt out by the likes of HSUS.

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Hence, why the fact of a half billion recalled eggs appears––by far––to be the least of our profession’s worries on the poultry front.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.

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